"I'm good during the week but bad at the weekend, when there’s just too much temptation around.”
This rueful confession didn’t come from some petty wrongdoer looking to reform, but from a perfectly sensible friend in answer to my asking whether she had succeeded in maintaining her weight loss — 23 kilos over an extended period of attending Weight Watchers meetings and adhering to its program.
She had, she said, gained back several kilos and was determined to lose them. Nothing wrong with that; it was those words “good” and “bad” that set the red lights flashing in front of my eyes.
Because if there’s one thing I firmly believe is antithetical to maintaining a healthy and desirable weight over the long haul, it’s that judgmental mindset according to which some foods are “virtuous” and others “sinful” — and therefore, by extension, you yourself are virtuous if you stick with the first category and sinful if you stray.
This is the mindset that sees a piece of chocolate cake and switches on a seductive inner voice that murmurs, “Go on, you know you want it,” while an array of little devils armed with pitchforks goes on the attack, screeching, “Eat it, and suffer later!” Civil war inside one’s psyche!
Given the overwhelming variety of foods we in the fortunate West are presented with on a daily basis, is it any wonder that this ongoing struggle between “good” and “bad” makes it difficult to actually enjoy one’s food? Eating is one of life’s simplest yet greatest pleasures, and yet so many of us, swinging between feelings of deprivation and guilt, get precious little fun out of it.
Weight Watchers, which has been ranked as one of the best weight loss programs around, operates a system in which dieters are allowed a certain number of points per day based on their gender, weight, height and age. High-calorie, low-nutrition foods score high, healthful choices low. Nothing is actually out of bounds.
The organization is successful in part because it has grasped a fundamental aspect of human nature: forced deprivation leads to a longing for the thing you can’t have, maybe not so much because you genuinely want it, more because you can’t have it.
Legitimize access to a formerly forbidden food and it inevitably loses some of its allure — so much so that you might choose to put off eating it till later... and then, when later comes, maybe even do without. After all, there’s no urgency.
You can always indulge if you wish.
In an experiment done with babies who were already able to sit in a high chair, researchers spread out bits of different foods on their trays, and watched. They observed that the babies didn’t just go for the sweet, simple foods, but interspersed them with healthier choices, such as vegetables. The infants, who obviously had no preconceived ideas or prejudices, seemed to exhibit a natural sense of balance and proportion.
Which, once the mental shackles are removed, is what most dieters can hope gradually to develop in place of their former desperate cravings.
I've already written about my own anti-deprivation technique at functions and in hotels: When time comes for dessert, I walk around the display and take very tiny pieces of anything that takes my fancy. I try them and usually find only one or two offerings that are really to my taste. These I polish off. (If it’s chocolate mousse, I might take a little more.) The point is that I’ve tried everything, enjoyed what I considered worth having, and don’t feel I’ve missed out on anything.
It has been pointed out that the real “high” of a calorific food such as cake or ice cream lies in the first one or two bites. After that, we tend to finish it because it’s there – and sometimes we don’t feel so well afterwards. So why not limit ourselves to the equivalent of the first two bites? Another trick is to take a little of a tempting dessert and wait to eat it until everyone else is finished. Don’t ask me why that works; it just does.
(Full disclosure: Many years ago, I went through a six-month sugar-free period — no cake, cookies, chocolate, etc. That seemed to break any addiction I had to the stuff, and from then on I could control my sugar intake.)
I’VE BEEN hearing quite a lot lately about eating mindfully, which basically means being as aware as possible of the actual process of eating, and of the food itself — its color, shape, aroma, even its arrangement on your plate.
What made me sit up was something I had never heard before: that according to scientific experts, 30 to 40 percent of digestion takes place in the brain — that is, before you even open your mouth.
Apparently, digestion quite literally begins in the head as receptors on the tongue and in our oral and nasal cavities are stimulated by our noticing food, smelling it, tasting it and chewing it. Enthusiastic awareness of a meal initiates the secretion of saliva, gastric acid and a whole range of other things that play an important role in the digestive process. In addition, blood rushes to the digestive organs, causing the stomach and intestines to prepare for the incoming food.
All this before you’ve swallowed your first mouthful! So if you rush your meal and don’t pay attention to it – think of modern man who eats while he works, drives, watches TV or is en route to his next appointment – your head won’t be telling your body: “Time for lunch — all systems go!” You won’t be getting anything like the benefit you should be getting from your food and, over time, might even be damaging your health.
Of course no one can eat mindfully, with pauses for appreciation and slow, thoughtful chewing, all the time. The demands of modern life simply don’t allow it. But advocates of mindful eating urge us to eat in this way at least once a day, focusing on what we’re doing and allowing our bodies to function fully in the intricate and glorious way they were created to do.
Modern men — and especially modern women — can be forgiven for being thoroughly confused when it comes to the potent package made up of food, health, beauty and body image. Simultaneously we are bombarded with tempting ads for fattening and lownutrition junk food and the quasi-religious message that thin, as portrayed in the glossy ads, is the only acceptable standard of beauty.
That this portrayal, likely photoshopped, is ultimately unattainable by most people doesn’t stop the standard looming large in the modern mind, creating guilt and anxiety and leading to eating and other disorders from early adolescence far into maturity.
It’s a sad thing to have a love-hate relationship with food — to love it because we are all basically programmed to desire food and enjoy it; but also to regard it as the enemy because we feel out of control around food and are afraid that if we eat normally we will get fat, and then nobody will love us. Parents and educators need to be on the lookout for this kind of mindset, even among pre-teens, to stop it becoming entrenched.
I bug a weight-conscious friend who habitually scarfs down his food in a very non-mindful way by offering my own spirited version of the Simon & Garfunkel song “Feeling Groovy”: “Slow down, you eat too fast / You’ve got to make the morsel last....”
I’ve finally got him to admit that his food would last longer if he took longer over it, and that it might even help him forgo a second helping. He’s chewing the matter over.
By Judy Montagu
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