Eating, Diets and Self-Regulation

It seems to me that in a complex situation, we have little alternative but to be self-regulating. To find a diet that is viable we need to take account of factors like what is available, our individual preferences and culture, and our budget.

In my household (my partner, a friend and me) the topic of the moment is diets, dieting and eating, and how this all relates to health.

It is remarkable how complex the discussion can become. After all, we all eat: we’ve been doing it all our lives. How can it get so complex?

Firstly, there is all the competing advice. From what I see in the bookshops and on Amazon, it looks like you could try out a different diet every week and it would take years to get through all the different ones. Many of them claim scientific backing. Just about all of them claim to be backed by the author’s own success (and often the success of others who have also followed this diet). What’s more, the advice is conflicting. At the moment the big argument seems to be about whether sugar or fat is the culprit in causing obesity. Then there is the question of whether being overweight is bad, and if so how much overweight.

Secondly, and more interestingly to me, our eating isn’t only physiological. It is affected by our emotions, for some people it is affected by their spirituality as well, and it is usually cultural too (we are brought up to eat particular things, or in a particular way); many of us don’t change much about how we eat.

This means that not only are there lots of ways of eating, there are also lots of issues connected with how we eat, and changing what and how we eat also becomes very complex.

First there are the reasons for changing. We may believe we are ill-disciplined or gluttonous; we may believe that we should look differently to how we do; we may believe our eating is irresponsible in light of its ecological impact; we may want to feel healthier.

Then there are various options to change. Will reducing fat or sugar lead to weight reduction (if this is what we desire)? If we are concerned about the ecological impact of our food choices, how do we evaluate food miles vs. organic?

Then there are the various ways to change. Eat what you like (but isn’t that what got me into trouble in the first place?) vs. you need to stick to a healthy diet (but shouldn’t eating be enjoyable?). There is a more cerebral approach to change (change how you think about your food), a more emotional one (some foods, especially from childhood, have feelings attached to them), or a more sensate one (which foods feel good to your body?).

So eating — and changing what we eat — can be a pretty complex business.

The aspect I want to focus on in this post is self-regulation. It is usually we who decide what we eat (unless we are in a quite restrictive institution of some kind perhaps). It seems to me that in a complex situation, we have little alternative but to be self-regulating. To find a diet that is viable we need to take account of food available, individual preferences (and perhaps allergies), perhaps the culture we are part of, as well as our budget. It seems quite difficult to devise one diet that could possibly take in all these factors.

It seems that all we can say is something like: Try stuff and see what works for you. This, to those who are unhappy with how they eat and its consequences, seems very close no advice at all. While I do think that this is the best advice, I do think it is possible to come up with more concrete guidance — not by recommending a diet devised by someone else, but by giving a process for finding your own.

The simplest process for finding the diet that works for you is to keep a food diary. This is a book that records what you eat (that means everything: every sip of water, incidental nibble, everything) and how you are feeling (healthy, up and down, a bit blah, whatever). It is necessary to keep it for a reasonable time (say, three months) to get a sense of what we do eat (it can be surprising) and how it affects us.

Keeping a food diary usually means that we become much more aware of what and how we eat. It means that we keep it in mind. This sometimes leads to our starting to make changes (e.g., realising that we fill in time waiting for people by having a snack or a coffee).

Keeping a food diary usually means that we become aware of the complexity of our eating — all the feelings and attitudes that go with what and how we eat. The ‘magic foods’ of childhood (I still like Vegemite on toast when getting over a cold — yes, I’m Australian), my beliefs about what I should eat that I don’t like, or what I shouldn’t eat that I do like (chocolate, caramel?). This can be the beginning of a very exciting journey — finding what it is that I genuinely like (rather than what I believe I should eat). It can be quite difficult, strangely enough, to find out what I really like.

Surprisingly, I have found that I don’t really want to eat caramel all day. I actually quite like some vegetables (my favourite is potato).

Through awareness (whether by keeping a food diary or in some other way, such as joining a club or talking to friends) it is possible to find our own diet; to become self-regulating in what we eat. Through awareness we can get past the ‘just eat what you like’ advice that can sound so useless.

In complex areas like these, I think self-regulation is desirable (and often the only option). But it is possible to give useful advice about how to find what works for us by having ways to direct our awareness.

I realise that diet is quite a minefield, and I welcome discussion about it. I’d love to hear your experience of what has worked for you and others you know. I look forward to your comments.

One final note: a guide I found useful to finding my way through the various ‘food wars’ is Michael Pollan’s In Defence of Food. I have also found the books by Geneen Roth to be useful guides to finding a diet to suit each individual.

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