Responses to the government’s recently-released recommendations for healthy eating, while varied, are circling around what observers see as a remarkable message. For the first time the report’s writers, withstanding the immense pressure of the food industry, actually recommend that Americans eat less. Why? The report begins with statistics chronicling the heavy toll of diet-related chronic illnesses, primarily those associated with obesity.
Is this difference remarkable? The difference can be deceiving. What might seem like a radical move is couched in a familiar philosophy. The writers assume that a human body is an input-output device, a simple machine, for which “we” as minds can and should make good, meaning “healthy,” choices.
On this mind-over-body understanding of the human self, the report stages its primary recommendation: balance calories to manage weight. It bears repeating. According to this report, the goal of eating is weight management. And the means to that goal: information for the mind given by the report in pie charts, bar graphs, and tables.
In this way the report is typical of our cultural responses to the obesity epidemic: it reinforces a way of thinking about a human self that is itself a contributing factor to the problems it purports to address.
Bodies are not machines. Food is not fuel. Eating is not about energy intake. Physical exercise is not just about energy expenditure. When we act as if they are, we systematically override the cues that our own bodily selves are giving us about what and when and how to eat.
Our relation to food is a matter of desire. This desire for food arises as a movement in our bodily selves that impels us towards what we believe will grant us the pleasure we seek. And that pleasure is not a function of calories or quantity or even quality. Rather, what we move towards is the experience of being nourished, the experience of being nurtured, and as we mature, the experience of nourishing and nurturing ourselves.
Of course, as the report implies, our desire for food is a problem. It is a force that “we” must control.
Yet, what the government and many of us have learned to forget is that our desire for the pleasure of being nourished is actually the most subtle and sophisticated ally we have for determining what eating patterns will benefit our health. This desire is our very own in-built instrument of discernment, guiding our thinking selves to work with our environmental options to secure what we need to thrive.
In order to liberate this ally, however, we do have some work to do. We need to dislodge the mind-over-body habits that cause us to ignore and even malign our bodily selves, and learn to discern, trust, and move with the wisdom in our desire for food.
In short, to make a really remarkable move, we need to ask a question that the report does not dare: how can we get more pleasure from what we are eating?
If we want to feel more pleasure, then we have to be willing to feel. If we want to feel, we have to breathe. In order to breathe, we need to move—move our bodily selves—not for exercise, not to expend calories, but to bring to life a sensory awareness of what it is we really want from food.
For what do we hunger?
2. Look for the signs.
When we open to feel what we are feeling, then we are bound to learn what we don’t want to admit. What we are eating is not giving us the pleasure we want.
Our food selections, while initially pleasing to the eye and even the mouth, too often produce unwanted effects in our bodily selves. Yet, we ignore the signs and keep eating. We take a pill to deal with the “side” effects. We distract our attention, or simply eat more to prove to ourselves that we can. We want so much the pleasure we know can come from eating that we override our sensations of displeasure in pursuit of it.
Yet these sensations of discomfort are allies and friends, guiding us to move in ways that will not recreate those sensations, just as the pain of touching the stove tells us to move our hand higher up the handle.
Every twinge of discomfort is a sign of a potential pleasure we have yet to discover.
3. Open to the arc.
Once we allow ourselves to feel our desires and our displeasures, then our sensory understanding of eating expands. We find that there are multiple pleasures waiting to be enjoyed in every moment of our lives, along an endless, oscillating arc of anticipation and fulfillment.
There is potential pleasure in the imagining, growing, gathering, and preparation of food. There is potential pleasure in the act of welcoming food into our bodily selves. There is immense pleasure as well in arriving at that sweet moment when you know you have had enough.
At every point along this arc, we have some sensory relearning to do, for we have so privileged the moment of sticking something in our mouths over all the other moments of our eating arc that we don’t even notice what we are missing.
Our sense of enough has been particularly hammered. The idea that we can and should manage our calorie intake or go on a diet operates by the same logic that impels us to eat more than our bodily selves are telling us we want. Ignore your own sense of enough. Distrust it. It has nothing to teach you about what is best for you.
The opposite is true.
It is not enough to practice mindfulness of what and how and when we eat. It is not enough either to welcome displeasures or know that our pleasure has an arc. We must also play with different food combinations. We need to try new things, learn as much as we can about what works for us, and experiment with eating patterns and habits and traditions and recipes to discover which ones allow us to feel and find that arc of our desire.
It is to this end that the guidelines like those offered by the government are helpful—as fuel for our imaginations. The report offers us ideas and information that can help us experiment with a range of possibilities, and find the freedom to sense and respond to the movements of our own desiring, discerning selves.
While the eating patterns of Americans are not etched in stone, neither are they easily malleable at the level of rational choice.
If we are to eat less, we must want to eat less. And the only way we are going to want to eat less--as every marketer of a diet plan knows--is to know that we are getting more of the pleasure we desire from the act of eating.
Sure, there is pleasure to be gained from feeling healthy and lean, but when under pressure, pummeled by advertisements, and surrounded by colorfully-packaged delivery mechanisms for sugar and salt, we will inevitably and understandably move with our much more fundamental desire for an experience of being nourished and nurtured. It is this desire, then, that we must free from our mind-over-body control, and cultivate as the best resource we have along the path of health and well-being.
The goal of weight management will not fire our imaginations, free us from our self-destructing habits, or galvanize our desire in new directions. What we need is a vision of a greater pleasure whose side effect happens to be greater health and well being. And we need to trust in the wisdom of our bodily selves and desires as our best guides to it.