Eating Less

Like very many people in this 21st century world of ours, I have a complicated relationship with food.  This is just a convoluted way of saying that – give the chance – I will eat too much.

There are many ways to think of this, some involving moral judgements. Thinking of it as an addiction is useful because it gives you a starting point.  Gillian Riley’s book Eating Less explores the implications of this idea and gives you practical ways of dealing with it.   You can blame our 20th century lifestyles.  We did not evolve with unlimited access to an effectively infinite supply of fatty, sugary, salty foods.  Au contraire, we evolved in an environment where calories were hard to come by and quick to burn.  If you want to know more about how our need for food shrank while the choices available to us increased and sugar, fat and salt became staples rather than luxuries, then listen to the programmme Eating through American History from the History Channel.  It describes a typical day’s food for Americans in the 1750s, the 1850s the 1950s and today and it’s fascinating.

I recently spent a weekend on a course run by Gillian Riley which looks at ways of tackling over-eating.  I went on the course because I wasn’t actually applying what I had learned from her sensible and thought-provoking book.  Let me thoroughly recommend both her book and her course.  She is a remarkably sane woman with a practical and effective approach to over-eating. I won’t go into the details of her approach here – buy her book for that.

Now I am indeed now eating less, and I want to jot down some of the things that I’m noting about it.  (This is not intended to evangelise or persuade – it is an entirely personal set of notes about my experiences as I have them).

  • It is surprising how little food, by volume, one actually needs.
    The stomach is naturally about the size of one’s clenched right fist, or the size of a smallish bowl or a pile of food on a side-plate.   A substantial starter should in fact be enough.  I’m concentrating on eating physically smaller portions, eating them more slowly, and not having seconds.   The only word for how I feel is ‘lighter’: I feel less clagged up, less bloated perhaps. Maybe less drugged by the food I’ve eaten.  Certainly it’s been a while since I felt stuffed after a meal, and that’s good.
  • Hunger pangs go away if you ignore them.
    Who’d have thought?  They are just acute physical cravings.  I never knew that.  I thought they just got worse and Worse and WORSE and were ultimately quite painful and you were just a mad thing wrapped around an aching void.  I’ve discovered that if I explain quietly and nicely to my hunger pangs that I’ll eat something lovely in an hour’s time (or whenever it will be) then they disappear.  As a result I no longer feel slightly panicky when I feel hungry.  Riley believes that our so-called “natural hunger” is not to be trusted.  I suspect that this is true for many of us but don’t particularly want to debate it here.
  • I’m not sure if I’m complying or if I’m taking control.
    I’m a natural rebel, and I would often eat unnecessary or sweet or fatty food in a state of sulky rebellion: “I can have a bacon sarnie if I want to” I would say to myself just like a teenager, with the grease dripping down my chin.  But of course a polarised response doesn’t show freedom, it just shows rebellion.  The rebel is just as tied to the instructions as is the person who complies with them.  Right now I don’t know if I am complying with some internal instructions to eat less which I will inevitably rebel against, or if I’ve moved beyond compliance and rebellion into a space where I’m making truly free choices.
  • The moment when I choose what to eat is where the rubber hits the road.
    The key thing is to make those choices consciously, and without lying to myself about the effects of what I am doing and why I am choosing to do it.  So often one – er that should be I – so often I make food choices absent-mindedly, but it is in that moment of habit or absent-minded choice that my addiction and self-deception slip in, like a bad fairy from an European fairy-tale quietly stealing the baby or taking over the christening.  Consciousness is the key.
  • Knowing that I can eat anything I want at any time I can get hold of it takes a lot of the stress away.
    This isn’t my only chance to eat jaffa-cakes ever in the whole of my future life.  There are more than I could eat just down the road in Tescos.  So do I really want that jaffa cake, given that they are in fact abundant?  Well, actually, no.  I guess this is a very good example of how our minds have not evolved as rapidly as our Western economy, industry and agriculture have.

I may add more bullet points to this as I think of them.  As I said, this is more a set of musings than it is anything else.  It is certainly not intended to evangelise or persuade.

6 responses to “Eating Less

  1. Very interesting Aphra, particularly as I am researching low-carb eating at the moment (okay, and experimenting with it). Your first two bullet points really resonate with me as I’m learning to eat whole foods, and not messed-about processed ones filled with junk.

    Would be very happy to read more as you think of them.

  2. The trouble with relying on ‘hunger pangs’ as a guide to how much one needs to eat is that they’re partly controlled by how much and how often one usually eats.

    It’s easy to slide into eating more than one needs over time.

    The one big thing I think you’ve missed out here though that affects a lot of people in our society is that when people are undersleeping, they tend to eat more to compensate. For short periods, you can use food to cope with lack of sleep. If you sleep less than you really need habitually, then you are more likely to eat more than you need, also habitually. And eating makes it harder to go to sleep for an hour or so (unless you’re massively overdoing the portion).

    We stay up too late at night and compensate by eating too much.

  3. The other sided of the equation than energy intake is of course energy usage.

    Ultimately, if one takes the evolutionary view (and what other view is there?), what nature fits us to do is be hungry quite a lot of the time and do far, far more exercise than most of us are even capable of, let alone inclined to do.

    The only people I know who really are at or somewhere near their ideal weight do so much exercise ordinary mortals like me might consider them obsessive. The only times in my life I’ve been anything like the “right” weight I’ve been doing the equivalent of running three miles EVERY DAY. Who has the time for that? But if you think about it, we’re not far removed, evolutionarily, from people who HAD to do that level of exercise, or starve. Civilisation really is a two edged sword…

  4. …and increasing age… the basic metabolism gets lower with appr. 1% per year after 30.

    Unfortunately we don’t get less hungry.

    Once I lived about thirty mins walk from w*rk. That hour walking per day helped me to at least reduce my weight gain, and – from time to time – even keep my weight. Now approaching the big 5-0, with a work that keeps me sitting on my bum most of the day and less than 20 mins walking to and from work I’ve even taken on excercise.

    I’ve put on weight since I started to visit the Sport’s Center on a regular basis… *sigh*

  5. Charlotte – Gillian Riley’s very keen on Glycemic Load and not eating a whole variety of crap, but her main points are about addictive behaviour and how we handle it. I’d be interested to know how you get on with the low-carb stuff. I’ve added some new thoughts on and experiences of Eating Less here:

    Very very interesting about sleeping, Maire. I also find that I will eat when I’m thirsty rather than eating when I’m hungry. We really do mess ourselves over, don’t we.

    SoRB, one of the considerably higher-ups at work is going fell-running in Wales soon. He is proposing running 61 miles up and down hill in a single day. Aparently the up-hill bits are the equivalent of Everest. Nutter. Just: nutter. Nut-nut-nuttery nutter. Different species. Nuts.

    Dragonqueen, have you put on volume, or merely weight? I don’t need to tell you that muscle is denser than fat. It could well be a Good Thing rather than a Bad Thing.

    Thanks all for reading and commenting.


  6. Hi, I have been reading “Eating Less” for the last 12 months and my copy is covered with notes and stars and ticks and yes yes yes’s….but I am only just beginning to really take on board the shift in thinking from weight loss and appearance to improvement in self esteem and health. I am 48 and my earliest memory is sneaking food from the kitchen. I have attended slimming clubs, counselling, was addicted to speed in the form of prescribed slimming pills in the 70’s, and have ended up with a hatred for a mis-shapen body.
    Gillians approach is the only valid one I have encountered, it makes total sense and the gains in terms of improved self esteem are tangible. We have become seduced by quick fixes, but I keep telling myself that “Rome was not built in a day” and I am now practicing daily the habits that will I know through common sense will eventually lead to health and vitality. The habit of reaching for food in response to all emotions, all situations can be replaced by the habit of facing the desire to eat, facing the underlying motivation, and chosing mindfully what will serve me best.
    This seems like the hardest work I have ever had to do, it is private work and we are encouraged not to share it ( oh the hours I have spent talking about diets and weight loss) so I am thankful to share my thoughts with all you others who dont know me from Adam!
    It has taken me a year to fully understand the books teachings, this coming year I aim to practice the new habits and I hope that the year after I will begin living in a new relationship with food and with a new vitality and health I had thought was out of my reach….

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