Today I was listening to a friend describe the difficulties he is having with sticking to his healthy eating plan. He is trying to eat better and improve his diet, but he admitted, “I’m ‘Lovin’ It’ a lot more than I should be.” He is frustrated with all the measuring and counting that comes with his eating plan. He described his frustration with the numbing details of food plans in general, where you’re trying to go for so many grams of this, and achieve some perfect ideal percentage of calories from that. He cried out in exasperation, “I don’t want to do math, I just want to eat a sandwich!”
Maybe you can relate. I can.
I totally get it. Asking you to follow a diet plan based on measuring and counting can be very far away from the reality where you are living.
When I heard my friend express his frustration, I really heard a yearning for an easier way to manage healthy eating. He’s not failing to manage his diet– his diet is failing to meet him where he is. The root of the frustration is: What can you do when your eating plan is not meeting you where you are?
My friend’s frustration is completely understandable. Following any diet seems to be making our lives more complicated. Eating is an activity that comes to us naturally and easy… I mean, come on, even babies can do it! But then we want to eat healthier, and here comes this crazy diet that’s adding all kinds of complexity to our lives. Our lives are complicated enough already. Your lunch break at work might be the only time during the day when you can relax and feel good.
What can you do when all you want to do is eat a sandwich? I’d like to address this frustration on two levels. Is it really about how I don’t want to do math? Or is it really about how I want to just enjoy food and be happy?
I don’t want to do math
This is a relatively easy issue to address. If the core of the frustration really is about how I don’t want to do math, there are plenty of ways we can remove calculations from eating a balanced diet. We can rely on estimates and tools to do the math for us.
If your eating plan asks you to eat a target percentage of your calories from certain macronutrient groups, a food log can do the math for you. All of the best food log mobile apps allow users to scan in a bar code on the food you are eating and put in the portion size- and you’re done! The percentage of calories from carbs, protein, and fat are calculated for you. No math, I promise.
To use a food log effectively, you do need to know something about portion sizes. Some people start feel like they need to carry around a set of measuring cups to use a food log. Relax. You don’t have to whip out your baggie of portable measuring spoons to meter out a precise portion of ketchup for your burger. You can use you hands to estimate portion sizes. You always have your hands with you, right? Here’s a chart that compares common portion sizes to your hand. No measuring devices, no fractions, and no math needed.
I want enjoy food and be happy
We usually follow an eating plan because we want to eat healthier, and we have the best of intentions. But those good intentions can sometimes have unintentional side effects. One unintentional side effect of nutrient tracking is that we can reduce food into data. Food gets turned into bits of information called calories and nutrients, and stops being a nurturing substance that has taste, texture, and aroma, and gives us satisfaction. When an eating plan reduces food to data, we can eat food but fail to be nourished by it.
For a moment, think about the difference between yourself and a dog. If you feed your dog dry kibble, the dog is probably going to happily wolf down the same kibble day after day. You could buy an enormous industrial bulk size bag of kibble from Costco, and your dog will eat the same food for months without complaint. Dogs, like most animals, feed.
Humans operate differently. We don’t feed, we eat. Food doesn’t just fill our bellies, it nourishes us. We seek a feeling of satisfaction, a feeling of “ahhh, that hit the spot.” The satisfaction that we gain from eating is only partly based on the food’s nutrient profile. Our feelings of satisfaction are related to number of other factors, including the color, texture, and aroma of the food, the environment where we eat the food, the people we are eating with, and the emotional state we’re in while we are eating. Science has begun to prove that the satisfaction we get from a food can be enhanced by other factors far beyond its nutrient content.
For us to experience of nourishment from food, it’s vitally important to not reduce food into data. When we’re focused on counting nutrients, or when we eat in a hurry, we can eat food but completely miss the nourishing experience of food. We can eat an entire meal, finishing all the healthy food on our plate, but get up from the table and wander around looking for some other food to give us the satisfaction that we missed. Our eating plan can be locked in for optimal percentages of macronutrients and chock-full of vitamins, but our approach to eating may be starving us of nourishment.
If you want to eat a sandwich, make sure you are really eating it, and not cheating yourself out of the nourishment experience. Can you devote the time and attention to really eating your sandwich, to getting the most satisfaction out of your sandwich as possible? Can you allow more time for your meal so that you can savor your sandwich? Can you pause and allow a moment to inhale the aroma of the sandwich before taking your first bite? Can you enjoy the coolness of the lettuce, the tart crunch of the pickle? If you can eat your sandwich with a focus its nourishing qualities, you’ll actually require less food in order to be satisfied. You’ll probably start to choose healthier foods because they lead to greater nourishment.
About fast food…
Most restaurant chains have hired food scientists to develop recipes that deliver a scientifically researched blend of carbs, fat, and salt, because they know that people are genetically programmed to prefer these tastes. Fast food restaurants, in particular, take advantage of these preferences, giving us large quantities of low quality carbs and fat, delivered cheaply and quickly, giving us just enough quick satisfaction to keep us coming back for another hit. Restaurants also manipulate other factors that affect satisfaction, including the color scheme and ambiance of the restaurant, the music playing in the background, and the amount of time you feel is appropriate to complete your meal.
When a fast food chain makes you feel like you’re “Lovin’ It,” there’s a whole invisible industry working to give you a quick buzz: they want you to have a high level of satisfaction, for the lowest possible cost, for the briefest amount of time. “Lovin’ It” is not real food love, it’s a drive-by. It’s like drug addiction– we keep coming back for an intense hit of pleasure, but the pleasure is always temporary. The pleasure is designed to be fleeting because they need you to keep coming back for more.
Most of the time when we are eating fast food, we’re not really paying attention to what we are eating and how it affects our nourishment. Have you ever eaten an entire fast food value meal and felt like you haven’t eaten anything at all? Don’t let the fast food industry manipulate you into thinking you are loving food that’s not satisfying you.
If you think you’re really “Lovin’ It,” try the same technique I described with the sandwich. Instead of inhaling your drive-thru meal while you are driving to work, can you take some time to really connect with the food? Could you strive to be conscious and enjoy the heck out of your burger and fries? Could you sit down at a table, relax, and devote some time to eating this meal slowly, with the intent to savor every bite? If you’re going to eat it anyway, why not get the most enjoyment out of it as possible?
There might be day when you want to eat some fast food and just zone out. If you choose to zone out and be unconscious while eating fast food, at least let that be a choice that you make. Don’t allow the fast food industry to make that choice for you.