Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Neuroticism and Food

The paleo way of eating seems like a relatively simple framework. Eat nourishing foods-- meat, fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, and tubers. Avoid grains and legumes; avoid dairy if it causes you issues. Eat the macronutrient ratios that work for you. Simple, right?

And yet, there are so many ways to make it complex. Are you eating too many nuts? Too few? How are your omega 3-to-6 ratios? Are you eating too much fruit? Are you eating too much fat? Is caffeine a "toxin"? Should you eliminate nightshades? Your pork was pasture-raised, but may have been supplemented with grain--is it poison? Is your fish contaminated with mercury? Is there toxic mold in your ground pepper? Should you intermittently fast? Should you count calories?

I'm not suggesting that asking about the questions above is a necessarily negative thing; because the answers can be interesting. I'm just suggesting that the stress and exhaustion caused by lying awake worrying about the exact diet fed to the pig that became your bacon may interfere with your ability to fully enjoy that bacon the next morning.

Different approaches work for different people.  I think that adjusting and tinkering with diet is great. Changing things up makes sense, particularly if one is dealing with hormonal or autoimmune issues, or if one wants to perform a certain way in the gym, or any number of issues. It's a beautiful thing to adjust within that simple framework to find a particular path that works for you as an individual.

What boggles my mind is the effort that people put into the minutia of hypothetical issues. I wonder what the cost-benefit ratio of it is. Spend a week on the internet researching whether the 1/2 teaspoon of sweetener you put on your sweet potato twice a week ought to be maple syrup, honey, or molasses; then figure out where you should source it from (and the various health risks for each option). Has it improved your quality of life, lowered your stress, made you happier? And what did you trade off with that time--spending time with friends or family, cooking, hiking, or reading? For some people, it probably is enjoyable. My experience has been the opposite, though. Paleo has been a path away from the minutia, the obsessing, the neurotic fixation on nutrition and food.

For me, the paleo way of eating was a relief, and came with a shift in the way that I thought about food. The message in our culture is that food is either "sinfully delicious"--chocolate cake, or "healthy"--a veggie burger on whole-wheat bread. With paleo, I began to think about food in terms of nourishing myself, rather than "good" and "bad," where "good" was the fiber-packed, whole-grain, low-calorie food--and "good" boiled down to the size of a person's waistline, rather than how they felt physically, emotionally, or mentally.

Good food became that which was delicious, filling, and made me feel good. I stopped worrying about butter and coconut oil; I stopped worrying about meat. I stopped worrying about food, because I knew that whether I was eating spinach or steak, beets or bison, coconut or chicken, it was fine. When I eat vegetables now, it's because that's what I want to eat, because they taste good, and because I choose to. When I eat steak now, it's because that's what I want to eat, because it tastes good, and because I choose to.

It seems to me that people can--and choose to--complicate something that can be elegant in its simplicity, but perhaps there's a beauty in that complexity as well.

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