On my own in L.A., I can get a bit tightly wound. So, while I was visiting my friends I really made an effort to let it all go and just chill. No strict self-imposed rules.
Emotionally, that was very healthy for me. Physically, not so much. I actually think that as far as food is concerned I took the whole "chill out" thing a bit too far. I ate, frankly, whatever the fuck I wanted at all times for three whole days. I was with different groups of people for different meals, so there wasn't even a twinge of embarrassment about eating too much two meals in a row. I feel like my food consumption can be summed up in 3 B's: Burritos, Brownies, Beer.
Needless to say, I now feel like shit. Mondays are always hard after a long weekend away, but this Monday was exceptionally difficult in a very physical way. I didn't have trouble focusing or working. My mind was there. But my body was really out of wack.
It was extremely difficult to eat only my usual serving of 1/2 cup of oatmeal for breakfast today. I just wanted more food. Clearly, my stomach had enlarged after 3 days of huge portions. The enormous salad I ate at lunch was followed by an office birthday celebration. Good thing, too, because that salad just didn't feel like enough either. The potentially harmless little "singing and cake break" completely did me in.
There was box of gourmet cupcakes. Each was different and beautiful, in that newly-trendy and expensive cupcakes kind of way. I had the great idea of splitting the cupcakes into quarters so that everyone could try some of each type. Who can choose between red velvet and chocolate peanut butter cup, or vanilla cinnamon and a berry topped masterpiece?
Everyone seemed pleased at my suggestion. One co-worker even joked "Great idea! You know, 1/4 cupcakes have no calories. It is only whole cupcakes that have calories." Everyone laughed. Her joking comment on eating psychology was spot on, at least in my case. In 1/4 cupcake increments, I probably ate 2 whole cupcakes. (Wow. I am seriously embarrassed to admit this, but I think it might be true. At least 1 and 1/2 cupcakes.)
Had I eaten the cupcakes whole, I never would have eaten 2. Eating them in small pieces really let me off the hook for a few reasons:
- I was eating in a "picking" or "grazing" fashion, rather than sitting down with one concrete portion in front of me. When you are grazing over a plate of tiny desserts in a room with a lot of people, it is easy to just keep eating.
- Each 1/4 piece was a totally new burst of flavors and sugary combinations, so though the cupcakes were incredibly sweet and rich I never had the chance to tire of the intense flavors. I just switched from one new intense flavor to the next.
- I felt like no one was able to keep tabs on how many 1/4 pieces I ate so I didn't feel that anyone would judge me for overeating. Everyone else seemed to go back for more. I did too. I only stopped once I was literally sick from all the sugar and everyone else had stopped going up to the table to get more 1/4 pieces of cupcake.
I suggested cutting the dessert in such a way that made it easy for everyone to eat too much. Worse, I also personally overate and thus sent out a social clue to my co-workers that it was very ok for them to eat too much also. This would have been a great opportunity to lead by example and try to control my own portions in a hope that my behavior would influence others to do so also. Instead, I totally cut loose and sent out a horrible message to anyone who observed and took any clues from me.
What a winning streak, eh? Four days of unabashed horrible eating.
What interests me is that I really, really feel it. I can totally tell that my body is different after that bender. Last Thursday night I was at the apex of health and was feeling incredibly good. I had been on a healthy streak for about two weeks. I felt really strong and flexible during my workouts, and it wasn't hard to eat small healthy portions. I was on a roll. I actually felt better than I'd felt in months.
Coming from such a place, I found that my body's reaction to big portions, too much booze, and lots of sweets was pretty noticeable. By Saturday afternoon in San Francisco, I actually wondered if I might be coming down with something. I was exhausted and wired at the same time; I felt sluggish and mildly nauseated. I was flushed and wondered if I might have a small fever. By Sunday afternoon I did not notice how crappy I felt as much as I had the day before, and I could barely control my cravings for sweets. In the span of 3 hours I ate half of an incredibly rich brownie, a very ripe peach, and an ice cream cone. I had totally fallen off the wagon and was not only getting used to eating crap, but craving it.
The window in which I felt myself decline due to a poor diet was small, and the signals were subtle. Still, I noticed the changes and thought that they likely had something to do with my declining diet. This feedback from my body reminded me of a passage from the book I am reading right now. It is called Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth, and Happiness. Authors Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein explore the many factors which influence how people make choices throughout their life in an effort to develop some suggestions as to how governments and institutions might help people help themselves make better choices (and thus improve their health, wealth, and happiness).
In the Fourth chapter the authors look at why certain types of decisions are particularly hard for people. They offer explanations about why, on a psychological level, people might engage in harmful behaviors (such as eating too much or consuming an overall poor diet). One category relates to Feedback. The authors write that people have lot of trouble breaking bad choice cycles when the feedback on their decisions is unclear or slow.
So if, for example, you immediately put on 10 pounds after you ate 2 cupcakes, you would probably be less likely to eat 2 whole cupcakes. Unfortunately, feedback about bad food choices is very subtle and very slow. We don't immediately gain weight when we eat too much dessert. Alarms don't go off. Kittens don't explode.
In fact, the opposite happens. We have very clear and positive sensations in the taste department when we eat dessert. And, we typically eat more to keep those positive sensations coming. The association between the yummy taste and the cupcake in our mouth is indisputable. The slower consequences - feeling sluggish after crashing from a sugar rush, feeling gross all day, gaining weight, getting diabetes... those are all much slower feedback signals. They are also quite subtle, and are thus not so clearly related in our minds to the cupcake we ate after lunch. We might blame our afternoon sluggishness on lack of sleep the night before rather than our recent sugar frenzy, unless we are really paying attention.
This weekend I felt the slow and subtle feedback from my body about a bad diet like never before, but I really had to listen. As I said, the window of time in which I noticed it was small and the signals were subtle. Still, they where there. I have found that being more in tune with my body has allowed me to tap into what it is trying to tell me much more effectively.
If you are trying to eat a sustainable, healthy, and affordable diet, I suggest you work at paying more attention to exactly how different foods make you feel. This is a holistic process that involves getting enough sleep, exercising, and establishing an overall tendency towards good eating. It isn't easy, but it is possible and probably worth it. My body gave me some feedback this weekend, and it has really motivated me to clean up my act.
Today marks the first day of the Diabetic Food Stamps Challenge. I just ate some broccoli and less than half a cup of brown rice for dinner tonight. So, ok. Here we go again.