The Dangers of “Healthy Eating,” Part IX

In this context, the supposedly simple task of making "healthy" food choices several times daily is impossible. The basic nutrition facts advocated by government agencies, nutritionists and doctors are valid for the public as a whole but don't reflect the human body's variable metabolic needs. The expert advice only works under the false assumption that we are machines: input the right ingredients and achieve the best result, without regard for the individual. The human body is a living, changing organism honed over years of evolution. It adapts to the current situation day by day, even hour by hour. It's much too complex for a handful of a simple rules. Acting as if each meal exists in a vacuum, as if it's an opportunity to start anew and make a "good" decision, leaves out basic biology.

Our body continually makes internal, automatic decisions about what we need that lie completely out of conscious awareness, whether we like it or not. The interplay between biological imperatives and psychological constraints is complex. Our conscious food choices do matter, but only if they are congruent with what our body needs. When willpower and "healthy" food rules are paramount, no approach to eating will work because body function will always prevail. We all need to take into account that we are animals, not machines, and that survival is predicated on internal signals created by evolution. The goal is to ensure our conscious decisions don't counteract our automatic drives. Heeding the ages is the first step to avoid the cycle of failure of another failed approach to food.
There is the chance that, after absorbing a more complete understanding of eating in today's world, anyone would be demoralized. The state of powerlessness created by the abundance of available food, drive for thinness and inadequate solutions is demoralizing. Amazingly, the practical, applicable information about eating is widely available, and alternate approaches to food are also easy to find. What's so difficult is both to acknowledge these paths and to learn how to apply them. The media-fueled message of "healthy eating" clouds our vision.
There are certain facts about our bodies that, if we respect them, can be very helpful to tame the draw to "healthy eating." A reasonable goal is to create a life in which eating is important but not all-consuming, even in the age of plentiful food. These facts are simple to understand and self-evident. Their application to each meal every day might be challenging but is also well within our grasp.
First, humans are omnivores with a limited ability for long-term storage, as opposed to, for instance, animals that hibernate. This fact leads to a few nutrition truths. We need a variety of foods to provide essentials our bodies cannot produce: ever-changing meals trump monotony. We also need to eat ample, regular meals through the day because long stretches without eating triggers a quick transition to starvation metabolism, i.e. living off our own bodies, a process that fuels the endless focus on food and weight. Variety and regular eating are most easily accomplished when hunger is your friend--a helpful, visceral clue alerting you to eat--rather than the enemy continually forcing you to stray from your diet.
Second, respecting and enjoying food while heeding the reality of the food supply has long been a uniquely human struggle. Yes, the current food climate is self-induced, and the issue is abundance, as opposed to the historical norm of scarcity, but the same principles remain true. Tradition, passed on through family, culture and religion, reinforces important ways to approach food. The expression of gratefulness through moments of pause automatically aids in helping us heed our internal signals. The built-in process of slowing down our thoughts before a meal shifts our attention from daily activities to the meal at hand, and that shifts conscious thought to our automatic reactions: hunger, fullness, taste and pleasure. Similarly, the connection of food to relationships and emotions, an important link between tradition and meals, imbues food with a deeper meaning and encourages us not to take our good fortune for granted but to show respect. Shifting our emotional state during a meal to respect of the food, the cook or actual place of eating automatically forces us to stay present, another critical part of heeding our innate biology. In the same vein, eating is something one should do actively and consciously, not mindlessly or on the run. Last, the act of eating in a communal way, with family, friends or children, allows the tradition of respect and attention to be passed on through generations as well. As it turns out, tradition has already codified the act of eating in concert with our biology. The path is well-worn. It has just been ignored for many years.
The combination of regular eating, attention to hunger and fullness and respect for meals already lays a very different groundwork than "healthy eating." This approach eliminates willpower and the illusion of control from how we eat. There is no room for success, accomplishment and identity in eating and food. Although confidence and self-image are essential for well-being, food and weight aren't the best way to achieve them. Let them move into other, hopefully more productive parts of our lives where we can prosper and struggle. Let food just be food.
At its core, this transformation is about adhering to a new philosophy of food. The cultural messages all stay within the same paradigm. While logically we can all jump on the "healthy eating" bandwagon, biology and evolution dictate our internal response to the world of plentiful food. No matter how hard we try, the recommended approach to all this food is a colossal failure. The nutrition guidelines, more reasonable diets and food plate guidelines are all inherently reasonable, but following reason that doesn't work has only created a population of maddeningly obsessed chain-dieters. The guidelines all ignore the underlying truths about humans and food: we evolved to survive famines; we need to eat varied, regular meals; and, when faced with dire situations, our backup mechanisms insist we become fully consumed with thoughts of food.
And that's what our society has become. A culture obsessed with food and weight is a culture of waste. The prevailing, modern philosophy condones the emptiness of chasing the perfect meal plan and the perfect body while media universalizes these goals. Changing these attitudes involves a new philosophy that respects the unchangeable realities of humans and food and, by doing so, living and eating in a way that frees us from "healthy eating" and perhaps allows us to focus on other aspects of life once again.

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