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DSCN7921.jpgIt seems like we’re getting into a topic that Shotts indicated he wanted to explore in an earlier post. So rather than add a comment to The Switch is On, Or The Coming of Autumn I’m starting a new post.

Instead of congratulating our food instincts for being so smart those of us who live in a culture of unlimited food must question them at every turn. We have seemingly limitless cravings for fat and sugar in a world where all instincts are exploited by commerce. In this culture our many of our beliefs about food are as confused and harmful as our beliefs about that other instinct (we’ll save that for another post).

I’ve spent a lot of time over the year thinking about and fiddling with my diet. I think I have a much better diet now than I did ten years ago. As a culture, we no longer have to spend most of our time trying to find or produce food as our ancestors did but we continue to spend a lot of time thinking about food. Biological cravings are inseparable from cultural cravings (and taboos). Our ideas about food carry as much emotional weight as the experience of eating. Unfamiliar food ways can seem like a threat so when someone questions your diet they are questioning your means of survival. Therefore, it should be no surprise how emotional people can become about food.

I spent most of my twenties wishing I could be a vegetarian. I felt guilty eating meat. I didn’t judge my diet by how healthy it was but by how righteous it was. However, as I stumble through my thirties I’ve become more aware of how food affects me, though as I mentioned, my ideas about food may often influence my physical sensitivity.

I have come to realize after years of eating of soy products that they either make me feel bad or put me to sleep and that meat and other animal protein in moderation gives me energy that I never knew I had. I feel healthier and more alive now than I did in those vegetarian wannabe days. It took a long time for me to overcome my ideas of good food and begin to understand how my diet was really affecting my health.

Certainly, other people may have the opposite experience and marvel at all those years they spent eating meat and failing to thrive.

My life changed when I started eating two eggs every morning for breakfast. When I eat eggs I start the day more alert and with a higher level of energy that continues through the day. The eggs led me to eat more animal protein in the rest of my diet which continues to make me feel more alert and energetic. My challenge now is to find the most moral forms of meat possible. Luckily, we have a pretty good natural food store in Elgin which provides grass finished beef and real free range eggs. Of course, fruits and vegetables and grains continue to be an important part of my diet too.

What are your ideas of a healthy diet? How have they changed? Or perhaps we should answer the larger question: What is the definition of “healthy?” Peters has touched on this in I am somewhere that I don’t know where I am.

7 Comments

  1. Thanks for posting this up about food and diet and the idea of health, J. E. Yes, it seems like you all have already been answering some of those questions I posed at the end of my posting about time and schedule. I’m glad this is such an interesting topic.

    I think J. E. poses several interesting things here. I’ll respond to two of them, for now.

    First, the issue of emotions and eating. This is a huge thing on my mind, as I attempt to eat “healthier”–which for me means trying to eat less, first, and second, trying to eat more nutritious kinds of foods and cutting down on things like fat, sugar, alcohol, caffeine. But my emotions make this difficult. I get down and come up and go back down, sometimes deeply. When I’m in a valley, I do crave pizza and tacos and desserts–“comfort” foods, which rarely comfort but instead contribute to me feeling badly about myself. It’s a hard cycle sometimes. Also much of this associated with home and my parents, because I think I associate feeling popular and good with my dad–ever popular–bringing home pizza and burgers and tacos and subs for dinners. I notice this when I go home and my family sometimes reverts to this state–though lately, that’s improved significantly. But my moods significantly affect my intake and what I intake.

    Second, the issue of vegetarianism. I am not vegetarian, but I live with one–in fact, Jen just crossed her tenth anniversary of being a vegetarian. As I mentioned in an earlier post, I am currently on day four of a two week stint of strict vegetarianism, and it’s going well. Unlike Ned in Eau Claire, I find it fairly available here to be vegetarian: most grocery stores now carry at least some soy and tofu products, and frozen vegetarian foods from Morning Star and Boca, and there are multiple food co-ops. (Minneapolis/Saing Paul, admittedly, is a food co-op haven, and a larger city, with seveal options, including quite a few vegetarian restaurants.) After spending time in India, where roughly 600-700 million people are Hindu vegetarians, it seems something quite doable, should one choose to.

    It’s interesting about what J. E. says about eggs here. Jen and I often have two eggs each in the morning as well (though I have lately been eating flax cereal instead), and Jen in particular finds that she likes it as a protein boost in the morning. As far as protein content, however, my flax cereal is actually almost as full of protein as the eggs. And as for meat, comparable soy products–fake bacon or veggie sausage patties, or chik patties, etc.–have more protein than a comparable size of meat, less fat, far less cholestorol, and usually fewer calories. Believe me, I sometimes miss the “real” deal, but as far as a protein boost in the morning or any other time, soy protein products are tough to beat.

    So, if that’s the case, I do wonder why it is that J. E. feels more invigorated by eating meat. I suspect it might have more to do with taste and emotions, in some way, though of course only J. E. can gauge how he feels after eating certain foods. But the difference is not about actual protein content. I don’t doubt that there are additional things in meat that might make one feel more energized, but I have ceased to feel that difference, really. In fact, after coming back to Minnesota from Ireland, for instance, where I ate more meat than I probably have in my life, I felt more overweight, full, and sluggish.

    Don’t get me wrong. I can’t call myself vegetarian. I still plan to eat turkey on Thanksgiving, for example, and I will probably keep fish occasionally in my diet. Some meat, by most accounts, is healthy. But as J. E. said, our culture provides us with endless choices. Vegetarianism does seem to me a good one, a political one, even a noble one, and often a spiritual one.

    At the same time, we must be who we are. Beyond that, we must try to be who we wish we could be.

    –Shotts

  2. Jeff,
    I have often felt that being a vegetarian is a noble or moral decision; so I hope this doesn’t seem like a confrontational question, but I’d like to ask you what you feel is political, spiritual, or noble about it. I’d certainly like to hear Jen’s comments on this as well, if she has the time.
    Ned

  3. Ned–

    Not confrontational at all. None of this is meant to be so. No worries.

    Sounds like you have thought that vegetarianism is noble or moral, so maybe I don’t need to belabor it. I responded to some of this already in my recent comment on your own post.

    I think it’s political to put your money where your morals are and to make a deliberate choice, against the mainstream, to act on those morals. That’s true for anything, not just choosing to be a vegetarian. To be a vegetarian is to choose not to be part of a huge industry that contributes to serious environmental degradation. I write about this in my comment to your own post, so won’t repeat here, but wanted to mention it.

    I guess I find that political choice and personal commitment noble. Mostly because I myself am not vegetarian, and I know it can be a difficult choice in American culture but haven’t made that kind of commitment myself.

    I find it a spiritual choice, largely, as I mentioned because I’ve seen it as part of religious practice in India–for Hindu, Jain, and Buddhist peoples. For some, it is part of a commitment not to kill and to hold all life as sacred. For some, it is a commitment to self-denial of something that we don’t really need for survival.

    I don’t want to align myself a the big defender of vegetarianism here, please know.

    As for Jen, this choice has been very personal, and she doesn’t talk about it usually in such overt ways. Plus, I’m kind of keeping her from this web site, since it’s my place with you all. Though of course, I talk about the posts with her quite a bit…

    Thanks,

    Shotts

  4. Ah, yes, food. another part of the feel good equation. I believe there is much to be said about diet. For me, I have always felt at my best under certain conditions. One is simplicity. When my diet has been at it’s most basic, I have felt my fittest. Interestingly, I also would crave meat once a week or so, but my primary source of protein came from dairy and eggs, particularly yogurt. Simplicity was on the primitive man’s diet too, i would assume, and a lot of energy would have been spent in food aquisition. Probably easier to aquire fruits, grains, etc. than meat. So I would suppose that man’s use of meat would have been a random type of event, as migrating herds of food would have been unpredictable and preservation methods would have been, well, primitive at best. The other thing in common with the caveman diet is the consumption of water. think about it, our body is 70 percent or more water and it is an essential element for good digestion, elimination, cell metabolism, plasma levels, and overall organ functioning. I can tell you that as a person who would obsess about weight and body fat percentage and someone who would frequently drop as much as 4 pounds despite taking on three pounds of water, that dehydration effects the brain’s functioning, drastically. I try to drink water now, but not like i know i should. Fried food and nitrites. I never feel good physically when I eat anything fried. I always feel sick to a degree, no matter how much i enjoy the food. funnel cakes are a prime example. My body just says, “What the?!?!” when I eat these bad boys. Also not on homo habilis’ diet. I recognize that a steady diet of bagels, oatmeal, eggs, yogurt, and water may not all be 100 % natural, it is a lot closer than I am now. I know that when I eat restraunt food for more than 2 times a week, i feel lousy. I believe it does impact mental health to a degree also. As for the sweets: science tells me that well-timed sweets can be a boost. For example, well timed after a serious workout can jump start a hormonal release of testosterone by the drop and surge in glucose and subsequently in insuline. There is a narrow window in this, about 3 hours after the workout. so you can eat your cake. just something to chew on.

  5. For homo habilis grain is more likely to have been a rare occurrence. Homo sapiens couldn’t have much grain until about 12K years ago either. Grain made civilization possible.

    Though funnel cakes were certainly not on the cave man diet you can bet they ate the fattiest parts of their kill first. Our species didn’t drive the Giant Sloths and Mammoths to extinction because we got pissed off at them for eating all our granola. They are extinct because they were a high energy food source for a very opportunistic and clever species.

    We don’t want the cave man diet. Leave the cave man diet with the cave man. Our diets must be adapted for a culture that is scarcely active and temperature controlled. Our diets must also be adapted to our personal needs but perhaps this is just the egocentric, unlimited grocery-choice American talking.

    Peters, could you write more on your thoughts about mental health and diet?

    Have any of the HM fasted? Why? I’ve dabbled with fasting but I’m sure what drove me to it. Similar to the vegetarian motives no doubt.

    There’s so much more I’d like to write but it will have to wait. Good night.

  6. This is all great conversation. I agree with J. E.–we can’t go back in time to the diet of prehistoric peoples, and beyond that, we shouldn’t. At the same time, I understand Peters’ motivation to try to “get back to basics.” But we can’t really have the diet of people even a few hundred years ago–when most people, peasants, in Europe, ate bread and drank two liters of beer daily. (I remember reading this in The Peasants of Languedoc.) But again, they were toiling the fields for most of their days, unlike what most of us are doing with our time…

    I have fasted in little spurts. The time I most remember is when I lived at the Hebrew House at Macalester, and as a community we decided to fast for the week leading up to Yom Kippur. This meant not eating in the daylight, and then eating matzah bread in the evening. It was hard, especially sitting through classes that week with an empty stomach. It was a good exercise. After a coupe of days, I felt cleaned out, emptied–and I suppose there was a spiritual component of that, though I was just at that time learning about Judaism. It was made clear to us by the rabbai that our fasting was meant to suggest the suffering of the Jewish people.

    That’s the only regimented time I recall deliberately fasting. I know many of the monks at Saint John’s fast around Holy Week before Easter, but I have not been around the monastery around that time. I have given up certain things for Lent–most memorably, alcohol–more than once, but that seems isolated compared to true fasting.

    If you are interested in a terrific book and an excellent and also disturbing picture of what it meant to fast in Jesus’s time, I urge you all to read QUARANTINE by Jim Crace, which imagines the forty days and forty nights in the desert. It’s a tremendous read.

    I too would be interested in more of Peters’s comments on mental health and diet and exercise.

    –Shotts

  7. No, I am not actually proposing a caveman diet is best, nor even a diet out of the past. What I am suggesting is what you already know. A diet as stripped down and void of additives and preservitives as possible, and even as simple as possible. I think it is time to come down off the farm. The portion sizes we use and the “fuels” we ingest are great for eight hours of back-breaking labor, but not for sitting in our cubicle. As for mental health, this is all very timely. I sat through a CE session on friday talking about PTSD and Comapassion fatigue. The things they recommend to manage stress are the same basic things we recommend to our clients as sort of first line types of interventions. Think about it, if you are stressed, you simply do not function as well. This includes your brain, an organ and a part of your system. The most important things are rest, exercise, and diet to give you the best shot at coping with a stressful situation, or even to handle or work through depression and anxiety types of disorders. As for diet effects, one example- if you are say, suffering from Major Depression, you might go for the comfort foods for their medicating effects. the result of the high-carb, high fat diet is a trip to slumberland, isolation, additional feelings of guilt, lack of efficacy, weight gain, etc. In other words, it might not cause major depression, how ever if you are more at risk due to genetic predisposition, it is easier to get into a tail spin. As for genetic predisposition, Ned, I don’t know if my email got sent last time, so I will try to sum up your question about the biological component of Depression. Depression is not inhereted. The particular vulnerbility is, however. Like alcoholism. One does not inherit alcoholism, but might inherit a vulnerbility to it. If the environmental factors lend themselves to it, a perfect storm is created which may cause a stir in the brain chemicals, seratonin, cortisol, etc, that “imbalance” we all hear about. Food intake and diet, sleep and exercise may all also have an effect on these levels. Mood can be affected by a number of other variables working on the same bodily systems. Intake of sunlight, hormonal imbalances such as post-partum. There are also the cognitions we use inside our own heads that may poison our thinking. Automatic negative responses played over and over in your head will eventually bring one down. A glance at one’s life from an ecological perspective may reveal other stressors that may effect the body, or migh be better coped with depending on the body’s maintainance and the person’s own individual resiliance factor. The ecological perspective would be an exercise that would survey a person’s life for all the positive and negative things in it. What do we like to do, what gives us good engery vs what taxes us or gives us negative energy. One should have far more psotive things than negative. This is obviously more compex than what I want to sit and type about for hours on end, but if there are specific questions, I am happy to oblige as well as I can. It is good practice for me to be able to continually challenge myself on how to deliver information to clients. Maybe next week I will share a bit about positive psychology. that is pretty cool stuff. hope this is what you were looking for. let me know if you guys would like more thorough explanations of things. cheers.

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