Tuesday, May 10, 2011

I don't want to want what I want

A very good HAES (health at every size) blogger recently said that we should give ourselves permission to eat whatever we want in the quantity we want to eat it in. This blogger is a nutritionist, and definitely knows more about the science of food than the likes of me. That being said, I'm pretty sure that I know more about the psychology of it than the likes of her.

Strange as it may sound, considering that I'm practicing restriction of my intake in order to lose weight, I agree with her. Only by eating whatever we want in the quantity we want can we place food in its proper and healthy place in our lives. By denying ourselves anything, we enhance its value and become more preoccupied with it. Humans tend to ruminate more on what is missing and at the heart of their desires than those things that they can have any time and in abundance.

My approach, which has seen me nibbling chocolate almost every single day, has always been to not place anything out of bounds for the aforementioned reason. Though this point is not addressed by this truly excellent blogger, I would guess that the place at which we might disagree is where we accept our "wants" as being ones that are conducive to our own happiness and well-being. The problem isn't eating as much as you want of whatever you want, it's "the wants" themselves that need to be dealt with.

All of my life, there have been things I have wanted which I could not have. One of those things was a guy I was in love with for over a decade who did not return my affections. Another was a lot of money. Yet another was a certain type of job. In the first case, had I gotten the guy I wanted, I would not have been happy, in retrospect, our characters would have been like gasoline and fire. I didn't know that I would want the type of man I got, but when he came along, I found that I not only wanted him, but needed him.

In regards to the type of job that I "wanted", I eventually got it. I wanted an office job which allowed me to work quietly and spend a lot of time in the peace of my own mind rather than the type of work which required me to be constantly engaged with other people in face-to-face situations. I found the latter exhausting and just wanted to escape that sort of job. I was so relieved when I got my "dream job", but it turned out that that work lead me down a path which ended in severe depression, loneliness, and substantial weight gain.

My point is that what we want isn't always what we need, nor is it necessarily what makes us happy. At one time, I wanted nothing more than to eat and eat and eat tasty food without having to pay a price in weight gain. I wanted to be one of those magical people who never gains weight despite eating all sorts of high calorie foods. I can't say what my life would be like is I were one of those people, but it's not something I can acquire anyway.

The thing that needs adjusting isn't the amount or type of food that we eat. The shape of the "want" is what needs to be changed. It's no problem now eating whatever I want in whatever quantity I want because I've psychologically changed such that the quantity I want is a bite or two of chocolate once or twice a day. I really don't want more than that, but I used to. Oh, how I used to want so much more!

My approach all along has been working on the shape of the "want" such that my desire scaled back to match what was within boundaries which were conducive to my health, both mental and physical. This was very hard, both physically and psychologically, because both my body and my mind were distorted by years of abuse of food. And, make no mistake, if your eating habits are making you sick (again, either mentally or physically), then you are abusing food. However, if you can work with your wants such that they are molded to promote a happy, healthy, and constructive life, you will be much more satisfied than if you simply accept your desires as they are.

One of the things I have come to realize is that, as Americans, we embrace and even celebrate our out-size desires. We applaud people who are capable of lives of excess without consequence, and gleefully trot out our schaudenfreude when they do so to their detriment. We wish to be them in the first case, and are happy at their downfall because we know it would be ours as well if we catered to our excessive appetites.

The answer to our problems with food does not lie in cramming our lifestyle into slots, holes, pegs, and routines which have a "healthy living" stamp of approval. It's not about eating vegetables, lean meat, and exercising or giving up all of the food which judgmental people have decided are "bad". The solution comes from addressing what we want, because we want too much, too often, and too badly. After dealing with the desires, the rest will sort itself out.

There are all sorts of books telling you what a specific group of people do in order to remain trim. They're full of details which you're supposed to be guided by which will then lead you to some magical state of satisfaction, health and beauty. The problem with those bits of advice is that they aren't what you want. They are what the people who the book is about desire. You can't follow in their footsteps because you want something else.

These differences in "want" are why the French and Japanese aren't fat. They aren't nibbling on a tiny cookie and wishing they could eat the whole bag. They aren't eating a chocolate croissant for breakfast and wishing they could chase it with a big pizza lunch. They're not fighting their desires because they don't have giant outsize desires and conflicted feelings about eating a damn piece of chocolate. Their desires are just different.

The solution is not to follow their specific actions, but to adjust your big, American desires. Stop beating yourself up about what you want and work on wanting differently. That doesn't mean living an ascetic life or never having an ice cream cone again. It does mean finding a good balance between pleasure and nutrition such that you get both in the right amounts for your particular physiology. And, no, it's not easy, because this is about psychology and changing your head is never simple. It is, however, a way to eat whatever you want, whenever you want in whatever quantity you want and still be at peace with your choices.