Some more notes about Eating Less.
- I’m less averse to exercise than I was, and will voluntarily walk a mile or so instead of taking a bus. So far it’s always been the bus I’ve skipped in favour of walking and not the car, and it is summer. Even so, this physical habit is based on a an attitudinal change; the first time I did this recently I was attending Gillian Riley’s Eating Less course when I walked two miles on the evening of the first day. Riley doesn’t talk much about exercise, so I wasn’t doing it at her explicit behest.
- I found myself planning a smaller portion of breakfast because a smaller portion would feel better than a larger one. That is a first. Up until now limiting portion size has been a rational matter of self-awareness and self-control. This was the first time I spontaneously associated a smaller portion with a better experience.
- I weighed myself the other day. This is not necessarily a good thing because the whole emphasis of Eating Less is on dealing with one’s addiction to food – which is a life-long challenge – not on losing weight which is by definition a temporary one. Gillian Riley reports that she’s lost count of her clients who did well until they weighed themselves, but my trousers are baggier and I really wanted to know how I’m doing. It’s difficult to tell, though, because I hadn’t weighed myself for a couple of months before I went on the course. I’m nervous that I’ll lose my way, having succumbed to thinking in terms of weight lost rather than in terms of eating less.
- It’s harder when you do something for the first time since the last time. I’m wedging the tip of the chisel into the gap between the stimulus and the pavlovian or habitual response. I had a habit of eating a packet of crisps at 4:00pm, so when it was 4:00pm I’d crave a packet of crisps. The wonderful thing about pavlovian responses is that if you ignore them or sit them out, they fade. The things you did daily fade away the fastest because you get a chance to build new neural pathways every day. But if you don’t do a particular thing for a while – like eat out in a restaurant or visit your auntie – then the pavlovian responses associated with that particular activity are sitting there waiting to pounce. I knew that intellectually, but I spent the weekend doing things I hadn’t done for a while, and suddenly it was harder all over again.
- It’s possible to not order food at lunchtime in a pub if other people are eating but there’s nothing you fancy on the menu. No-one else really cares. Who’d have thought!
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.