Sensible Eating

Sensible Eating is a three-part course in which students inquire into all the habits they employ in becoming nourished, including the kinds and amounts of food they eat, the way they schedule meals during the day, even including the way they chew and digest their food.

 

      • There are likely as many styles of eating as there are people on earth.  Nonetheless, there are ways you may measure the full range of each element in an eating lifestyle so you can determine whether you believe problems exist that should be corrected.
      • Good physical health—as opposed to good mental or spiritual health—boils down to good food choices.  So how do you know what choices to make from the plethora of foods available in our stores, restaurants, refrigerators and pantries?
      • Here are two basic choices: eat mostly refined and processed foods and you’ll get sick and die before your time; but eat a wide variety of whole foods that you enjoy, and you’ll live a long and healthy life.  The connection between food and health is palpable.

Substitutions, Portions, and the New-Look You.

Habit 1.  Substitute a bad food (or drink) for a good food.  Select a bad food you eat regularly (at least several times a week).  Replace it with another food that is not only good for you, but that you also enjoy eating, otherwise you won’t eat it.  The new regimen has to be sustainable.

    • A food is bad because you worry about eating it.  You’ve heard about its harmful effects.  But you can also feel the way it affects your body: a drop in energy, added weight, heartburn, rashes, or other side-effects that you suspect are related to eating it. 
    • Make a conscious choice to substitute a bad food with one that’s health-promoting and tasty.  It may not be as satisfying as the bad food (nothing substitutes for ice cream!), but it might adequately ameliorate your sweet-tooth.  Enjoyment will be its own reward.  
    • The habit is your new eating regimen, not the act of substituting one food for another.  Substituting means replacing: not having the bad food around at all.  Don’t buy it, store it, or order it at a restaurant.  Having formed a habit, substitute another worrisome food.

    Habit 2.  Standardize your portions.  A “portion” is the amount of a specific food you serve yourself using a certain utensil (ladle) or container into which food goes (bowl).  The habit is to become aware of the standard amounts of each food you serve yourself at every meal.  

      • Let’s say your favorite breakfast consists of two slices of toast and a medium-size bowl of fruit.  The two slices and the one bowl are portions.  The standard is to serve yourself those portions every time you have that particular breakfast, not more or less.
      • You might have any number of reasons for those portion standards: more energy, less lethargy, or weight management.  So you have to think initially about your rationale for portioning all the foods you eat on a regular basis, and become aware of standards, too. 
      • A standard is only a statement about satisfactory performance.  It isn’t a hard-fast rule.  You can always serve yourself more or less food, depending, say, on your appetite.  But the goal is to regularize your portions so you don’t mindlessly over-eat certain foods.

      Habit 3.  Control your portions.  Self-control is a tricky aspect of this habit, which is to exercise conscious and deliberate control over certain problematic foods.  The trick is in dealing with foods over which you have little or no control.  Let’s measure portion control this way: 

      1. Can’t stop eating until all of a certain food is consumed at a single sitting.
      2. Can limit oneself to multiple portions of a certain food, stopping only when sated.  
      3. Can limit self to one portion at every meal/snack, every day, until it’s gone.
      4. Can limit self to one portion at occasional meals, but regularly.
      5. Can have certain foods around without “having” to eat them.
          • At which of these levels will you declare your self-control standard?  That’s the level above which you will not have the food around, say, ice cream because you would otherwise eat it at every meal.  Thus, you have to control your habitual way of dealing with certain problem foods.
          • Unfortunately, certain foods can have an addictive effect: usually the salty, sweet, or fatty foods we love eating and the food industry loves selling.  The problem arises with bad foods to which we’ve become emotionally attached because they comfort us in some way.
          • You might not be ready to place limits on “your” foods.  But you can pay attention to which foods are bad and how you control them.  Ultimately, you must decide about substituting foods, beginning with the highest priorities or the ones over which you have a modicum of control.

        Habit 4.  If your weight or figure is an issue for you, choose the measureable aspect of your size or weight you most want to change in the direction of your ideal—not the Madison Avenue ideal.  Develop a new habit that moves you towards your ideal by one percent in a month.  

            • Think in terms of changing the size and frequency of your meals.  Measure your belly just before and just after every meal.  Can you approach your ideal by changing your belly size?  Or measure your appetite just before and just after every meal: sated, full, satisfied, hungry, or starved.
            • How about a habit of eating-in more often than eating-out?  Or a habit of usually taking left-over restaurant food home to eat as a warmed-up meal the next day—stopping a meal the moment you realize that you would enjoy the warmed-up food more later than you are now.
            • Once you achieve your ideal, develop a habit of reviewing your sensible eating habits.  Notice where you’ve back-slid and renew your commitment to each important sensible eating habit, especially the most elemental.  Work towards eating a variety of whole foods that you enjoy.

Filling, Chewing, Digesting, and Defecating.

This section deals with habits pertaining to the period of time when the food you eat is within your mouth and gut.  We won’t tell you how it should get there, but we can describe the levels of four pertinent health-related factors: filling your mouth, chewing, digesting, and defecating.

  • There’s debate among nutritionists about the value of different habits where filling, chewing, digesting, and defecating are concerned.  We prefer that you decide how to act based on experiments you conduct privately on your V.I.P subject of one.  
  • We will, however, suggest ways to become more aware of your current habits within a range of five levels.  Having situated your eating behavior within a certain range, think about its possible effect on the way you feel each day, as well as your long-term health.  
  • Then think about whatever rationale you may have adopted to support your behavior, including parental admonitions that could be driving behaviors that have long lost any usefulness as guides for a fit and healthy lifestyle.  How well does it all hang together?

Habit 1.  Filling refers to the activity of using your hands or a utensil (fork, spoon, etc.) to put food in your mouth, including the amount of food placed in your mouth and the spaces between your cheeks and teeth before chewing begins.  Are you aware of the filling process?

  • Utensil Size.  Unless you’re biting off chunks (of sandwich), the portion of food you place in your mouth is determined by the capacity of your utensil (say, fork or spoon): very-large, large, medium, small, very-small.  Large for greens, small for cake, right?
  • Amount.  How much food do you put in your mouth before you start chewing?  Here’s a scale: full and bulging cheeks; cheeks three-quarters full; cheeks half-full; cheeks quarter-full; cheeks empty, with a small amount of food in the main mouth cavity. 
  • Again, the initial practice is to become aware of your habits.  How would you describe the capacity of the utensils you use to feed yourself the various food dishes in your diet?  It might take a while to focus your attention enough to do a complete rating inventory. 

Habit 2.  Chewing refers to your chewing tempo (slow-fast) and to the consistency of food and saliva during the act of swallowing (big hunks-fine mush).  Filling and chewing are your main eating variables; they affect the rest of the digestive process, which is passive by comparison.  

  • Chewing tempo can be very-fast (fast-as-possible); fast, quick; slow; very-slow, (say, once a second or so).  Pay attention to how tempo varies with time between meals and your body’s corresponding readiness to eat: starved, hungry, satisfied, full, or stuffed.
  • Consistency of food before swallowing (here’s a scale): 
    1. Food is not broken down at all, but merely positioned for swallowing; 
    2. Broken into large chunks with some saliva; 
    3. Broken into small chunks and mixed generously with saliva; 
    4. Broken into very small chunks with good absorption of saliva, 
    5. Broken into a fine mush and mixed thoroughly with saliva.
  • It makes sense that your body has to work harder to break down large chunks chemically instead of letting you assist digestive processes by habitually chewing your food mechanically.  Chewing starts digestion and lubricates the down-the-hatch process.
  • Chewing enables you to prolong the enjoyment of tasty food.  More importantly, it limits the amount of food you swallow before you feel satisfied.  Are you aware of how your body signals starvation, hunger, satisfaction, fullness, and satiation? 

Habit 3.  The Digestive Process occurs during the time from swallowing to defecation, encompassing physical sensations, belly distention and contraction, and the regularity/irregularity, hardness/softness, and ease/difficulty of one’s bowel movements.  

  • Digestive time, from swallowing to defecation (here’s a scale): 
  1. Very-short (less than 24 hours).
  2. Short (24-to-36 hours). 
  3. Medium (36-to-48 hours).
  4. Long (48-to-60 hours).
  5. Very-long (60 hours or more).  
  • The longer digestion takes, the greater your risk of eventually contracting colon cancer.  So it makes sense to think about the sorts of foods you associate with longer digestive periods: comparatively more meat and less mashed potatoes, right?  
  • Comfort/discomfort, within the gut (here’s a scale): 
  1. Very-comfortable, very little or no pain, usually. 
  2. Comfortable, infrequent minor discomfort. 
  3. Moderate discomfort (on occasions).
  4. Sharp discomfort (occasionally-to-regularly). 
  5. Acute, burning discomfort/nausea (regular-to-frequent basis).  
  • Your body is a separate entity from your thinking ego-mind.  It communicates with your mind through sensations, which often clamor for conscious attention—with escalating pain, until you have to listen—sometimes too late to avoid needless suffering.
  • Belly size.  Here’s a scale for measuring changes in the size of your belly from your bird’s-eye perspective: 
  1. Little or no noticeable change. 
  2. Minor but noticeable distension. 
  3. Obvious distension (looking down you can see it). 
  4. Major distension (requiring loosening of belt or garment). 
  5. Major distension that makes bending over difficult and/or uncomfortable.  
  • The belly, with soft tissue in the front, is built to expand as food occupies the abdominal space.  The best rationale for doing crunches is to develop the core strength to hold one’s belly in even when it is relatively full of food.  Otherwise, it can expand indefinitely.

Habit 4.  Defecation.  My apologies for raising this culturally taboo topic.  But the quality of the poop in your life has a close correspondence with the quality of your health.  It’s one of those most intimate subjects that’s hardly every discussed in genteel circles, much less measured.  

Regularity.  How does the time between your bowel movements (BM) vary, both in terms of the amount of time between them (see habit 3 above) and its regularity (sometimes long and sometimes short)?  Here’s a regularity scale: 

  1. Very-regular (usually the same amount of time). 
  2. Regular.
  3. Variable. 
  4. Irregular. 
  5. Very-irregular (i.e., time between BMs varies greatly).
  • Regular or irregular, it’s fair to wonder whether the foods you eat affect regularity.  Or are there other variables?  The consensus leans towards minimizing time between poops.  But which level do you suppose is optimal and how would you know?  
  • Ease of Movement.  In general, how easy/difficult are your bowel movements?  Here’s a scale: 
  1. Very-easy (quick build up followed by strong urge to defecate).
  2. Easy.
  3. Moderate or variable (sometimes easy and sometimes difficult).
  4. Difficult.
  5. Very-difficult (severe constipation).
  • Severe constipation is not fun.  So it makes sense to avoid it, if at all possible.  Wouldn’t be nice to know its exact antecedents?  Instead of resorting to expedients like enemas or suppositories?  Suppose it had to do with the food in your diet.  
  • Stool Consistency.  How would you describe the usual consistency of your stools?  Here’s a scale: 
  1. Very-hard and compact.
  2. Hard compact.
  3. Lumpy (w/hard and soft mixed).
  4. Soft/smooth (easy to pass).
  5. Very-soft/smooth, boarder-line difficult to hold in.

Which one of these levels is most closely related with our friend “severe constipation?”  Remember, your body is doing the best it can with the food you give it and the way you eat it.  These factors are within your purview.  You can make yourself healthier.

Craving and Objects of Desire.

Craving can be normal or abnormal.  Normal craving is built into human physiology to tell you how much your body needs a particular nutrient.  Abnormal craving originates with objects of desire, which are charged with an affective “pull” that can lead to dependency or addiction.

      • Affects are emotions, moods, or feelings that become attached to specific eating, drinking, or using experiences.  Affects can be weak or strong, positive or negative, conscious or unconscious, and they can vary in all these ways over time.
      • An affective problem arises when we identify with a craving attached to an experience, say, eating “my” ice cream.  We assume the craving is ours to control when the eating decision, though apparently rational, is feeling-driven and beyond disciplined control.
      • Yet every time we recognize, investigate, and accept the craving without giving into it, we reduce its affective pull.  Thus, mindfulness meditation becomes a tool for addressing the identification problem and replacing the urge with an alternate that offers liberation.

The affective-pull scale.  The following scale is analogous to the portion-control scale introduced earlier to measure your ability to control consumption.  Here the focus is on the strength of feeling that attaches to food and urges you to consume “your” personally problematic foods.

      • Independence.  Non-attachment or freedom from abnormal affective pull.  You can have the food around without compulsively “having” to consume it until it’s gone.
      • Object of desire.  Moderate affective pull temporarily satisfied by habitual consumption, often triggered by circumstances: e.g., a meal triggers the need for a sweet dessert. 
      • Abnormal craving.  A strong pathological yearning or hankering that doesn’t necessarily satisfy a beneficial physiological need, but can be harmful to your well-being.
      • Dependency.  Very strong affective pull that’s aimed at satisfying a felt need.  One “has to have” the object in order to perform, enjoy, or deal with certain circumstances.  
      • Addiction.  An uncontrollable, obsessive urge to consume something in spite of resultant physical, mental, emotional harm, including accelerating interpersonal dysfunction.

Agency.  An agent is the responsible or causal person, influence, or impulse that results in action, decision, or habitual behavior.  For our purposes, agency is relevant to issues such as buying food, preparing food, and serving food, and it can seem to be external or internal to you.

      • External agents, such as other people, can affect you fully or not at all (see table below).  Similarly, an internal agent is never solely the responsibility of only one part of yourself, as there can be several components competing for control and acquiescence.

Personal Responsibility (Agency)
for Buying, Preparing, and Serving Food.

Full Partial Mixed Little None
Internal 100% 75% 50% 25% 0%
External 0% 25% 50% 75% 100%
None Little Mixed Partial Full
      • To what extent are you or someone else the responsible agent where eating is concerned?  Who is responsible for the way your eating decisions are made: whether an external agent (such as a spouse or advertising) or deliberately and intentionally by you? 
      • And suppose there is no central controlling agent within you, but several competing agents—each with a distinct rationale for eating certain foods, or not.  Which has agency where eating is concerned?  And how do feelings determine which wins the conflict?

Emotional Eating is a cycle of compulsive and harmful overeating, which leads to feeling stuffed, bloated, and sick.  It can be triggered by a variety of internal and external circumstances (see seven triggers, below), including overly charged affects that you consider inescapable.

Seven Emotional Eating Triggers:

      • An overly busy lifestyle with self-inflicted pressures that lead to chronic overload.
      • Too much stress and not enough rest, relaxation, and exercise, leading to weariness, resignation, and burnout.
      • The background mood of resentment that comes with being unable to realize expectations, which we blame on others for thwarting.
      • People with whom one acts out dramatic ego-driven scripts that lead to uncontrolled emotional outbursts.
      • Striving for unrealistic, unquestioned dreams and goals that seem increasingly and perpetually out of reach.
      • A sense of powerlessness and anxiety in the face of social, political, and economic circumstances.
      • The sense that life is essentially precarious, that you are not in control of your own story and that bad things might happen at any moment, including death.

Human beings are fundamentally aware of the inevitability of their own demise.  We deal with the fear of death in positive and negative ways.  But the irony of our abhorrence of death is the way we hasten it by disregarding the effects of our harmful habits.

      • You must nurture your internal observer faculty before you can control habitual, automatic, and destructive behavior.  The observer sees your behavior and its antecedent affects.  With patient mindfulness, it also sees a way out of the conundrum.  
      • At the level of being, we are our current commitments.  When you resolve to create a new habit, you must remember your resolve and constantly follow through on your commitment in the moment of decision, until the new habit is formed and you find release.  

Habit.  Dealing mindfully with objects of desire is your best hope of being liberated from their destructive influence.  Liberation is not a matter of self-discipline, as the urge to eat, drink, or use is usually too great to be fought with anything but at least an equally powerful desire.

      • Your only hope is to reflect on the way your behavior affects your body and its ability to live a long and fruitful life for your sake.  Remember, you aren’t immortal.  Ultimately, your self-developed habits determine the length and quality of your life.
      • Moreover, the amount of control you exercise is feeling driven.  In the final analysis, every lifestyle decision is determined by the most powerful set of feeling urges.  Thus, the decision to, say, eat or not depends on mindfully selected habits.
      • Which urges are driving your behavior?  Whenever you feel the urge to eat, drink, or use, see about sitting quietly for at least five minutes.  Relax and attend mindfully to the feelings that arise as you consider the following eight liberating queries.
    • Where does the urge originate in your body?
    • What does the urge feel like?
    • What are your reasons for satisfying the urge?
    • What feelings arise at the prospect of satisfying the urge?
    • What would it feel like to be free of the urge?
    • What would it take to free yourself of the urge?
    • What liberating habits or conditions are necessary?
    • What rewards would accrue to you with liberation?

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