Friday, October 14, 2011

Mimicking the Ebb and Flow of Nature

The more I read and think about the paleo food movement, the more it seems less of a strictly dietary thing and more about living consciously, in a biologically appropriate manner. After all, there's more to health than food. There's exercise, sleep, stress management, light exposure, posture, relationships (both human and non-human), outside time, quiet time, pleasure and recreation - all these things have an effect on how we feel and how our brains and bodies work.

I can't shut the lights off in our house when the sun goes down, much as I might like to sometimes. After all, I live with two other people and while I have influence over matters pertaining to their health, I'm not a dictator - nor do I think that forcing someone to do things that are healthy WILL actually result in better health. (More so with adults than children, who look to adults for guidance anyway.) I can't carve out an extra few hours of every day for leisure, but I can take pleasure in some of my daily work (paid or otherwise) - I can appreciate it when I have time to do my more-favouritest chores like cooking and ironing, or when I'm not restricted to a 5-minute shower and can take time to use my orange-aniseed scented tub scrub after my shower. I try not to stress little things, I try not to want too much (although there's this pair of boot I think I really neeeeeed...) and I have a dog to whom I am very grateful because she takes me for long walks every day and we live in a beautiful area with lots of trees and ocean and beach and meadows... so unlike a lot of people, I feel like I'm pretty good with the non-diet stuff - at least as good as I can be without going all hippy and living in a shack in the woods with no electricity.

But this is a food blog, so you had to know it was coming back to diet. I think that even though I eat pretty healthily, I still have issues with the diet.

I think one of my big problems with food is there's no "down time". There's seasonality, because of how I shop, but it's all a variation on feast, with no famine. Even eating well, there's always an abundance of food - quantity, quality and variation. And I'm becoming more and more convinced that's not, overall, a good thing. For kids - perhaps. Always having enough is probably ideal for growing bodies. But for full-grown humans? I dunno.

The problem is that actual starvation and deprivation tend to trigger relapses once the immediate need for restriction is gone, and I definitely found this when I eased up on the full-bore paleo (which I did for about a month last spring). My sensible self thinks it's not a great idea to be constantly restrictive. Even though I think the food climate of modern Canada is unsustainable and unhealthy, I also think it's not healthy for individuals to set themselves too far apart from the rest of society in terms of their food choices except in cases of acute allergy or hypersensitivity - neither of which I suffer from. It's hard, and I think most people have problems with this - the way you feel you OUGHT to eat is hampered by a desire to fit in with the way everyone DOES eat.

But there's nothing wrong with just taking a step back from things for a while. I've been thinking recently of traditions like Lent and Ramadan - an observed period of partial fasting, of meeting needs but not desires. And I've been thinking about how that fits in with Stephan Guyenet's food reward theories of body fat regulation (where appetite and food intake is regulated by the food reward factors in the diet), and how our Stone Age ancestors must have had a period every year where it was time to live on stored food or scrawnier game, when there were no juicy berries, no mushrooms, no eggs - just dried meat, stored nuts and tubers. And I'm thinking, I could probably do with a bit of that. I've put on a few pounds of those I worked so hard to lose a year ago, I've had an overwhelming few months of paralyzing indecision at farm stands (OMG TOO MUCH GOOD STUFF!!!) and I feel like a break from FOOD would be a good idea. Thank the gods berry season is over. (Sometimes I wish I was a bear - come October, bloated on salmon and berries, I could stumble into a cave and sleep it off for a few months.)

So I'm going to do an experiment in - well, I don't really know what to call it. Yum-avoidance? I'm going to take two months (basically, Thanksgiving to Christmas) and eat only completely nutritious and totally bland food. Because I also want a bit of a break from thinking about food (I don't think it would shock anyone if I said I was a wee bit obsessive about it) I'm going to just make big batches of boring soup and reheat a bowl at a time when I'm hungry. It'll be nutritionally balanced soup - just a hunk of meat with bones, simmered for a day or so in the crock pot, with potatoes/turnip/sunchoke/other tuber or root veg, some blenderized liver, and chopped kale or other mild green veg. For breakfast I can eat a couple plain hardboiled eggs if I want, or not. (I'm not usually hungry before 10 or 11 anyway.) That should provide me with all the nutrition I need, but I'm not putting ANY seasoning in whatsoever (nope, not even salt - but I'll run the numbers through the USDA database and just make sure I'm getting enough sodium - might toss some kelp in too.)

If Dr. Guyenet's food reward theories hold true, this bland diet should cause my appetite to decrease as my body gets the signal that the food environment's not all that great right now and it's a good time to use up the internal stores. (The more the evolutionary psychologist in me mulls this theory, the more it makes sense. When food variety and palatability are low, it probably coincides with an extended period of stored-food use. It makes sense, in a small-group situation, if those with a bit of excess fat are able to reduce their food intake without becoming grumpypants so that those who don't have any excess can eat enough. Chubbies who kept eating their normal amount and burned through the nuts at the back of the cave were probably at higher risk of encountering violence from other, less subcutaneously-endowed folk when the nuts ran out. As a parent, I can totally see me whacking some strapping burly guy who was scarfing the nuts and dried auroch that my growing kid needed more. Non-conscious appetite regulation during food scarcity would have been an excellent survival trait, I think.)

In fact, Guyenet goes over several experiments that have shown exactly this - with a very bland diet, appetite decreases as a function of obesity. Very obese people tend to eat next to nothing, whereas already-thin people eat a normal amount. When you remove the reward component of a diet, humans (and other animals) take in only what they need - and when they have a substantial amount of body fat, they need very little on a daily basis to keep going, and the rest of the energy can come from fat stores. You don't have to restrict food, just yum - your brain will do the rest. In theory.

BUT that's all under experimental conditions. My "experiment" is a little more real-world. I don't have just myself to feed - I have two other people who are not going to be happy with meat-and-veg soup for the next few months and they will still get damned fine food, prepared by me. The big question is, as far as appetite and body fat regulation goes, is the food environment defined ONLY by what I eat, or is it defined by the food I see and smell, as well? My will power is pretty good, I think avoiding munching on the husband and kid's food won't be a problem, but I don't know if my appetite will actually reduce all that much. I will keep track of how much I actually eat by calculating the total number of calories in each batch of soup I make, and how long it takes me to go through it. I am NOT going to TRY to eat less.

I'm also going to keep track of how this makes me feel. Never having been religious, I've never had a reason to observe a period of fasting or intentional deprivation (and let's face it, even when I was losing weight eating starch-and-sugar-free, I'm still a pretty good cook and it's not like it was real deprivation, even though the "food reward" factors were lessened.) I freely admit to using food as comfort, motivation, treats, and entertainment. How will my psychological health be affected by removing those? (Or will I just attempt to get as much pleasure out of sitting down with a good book and a bowl of unseasoned meat-and-veg as I did with a good book and fabulous salami, brie, crunchy carrots and a bowl of babaganoush to dip them in?)

So, it all starts tomorrow. I have a chunk of moose I found in the bottom of my freezer (labeled "boiling meat leg" - thanks Chuck!) because I figure it's appropriate to kick off a stone-age-style seasonal yum-avoidance with some wild game (I won't be able to keep that up unless certain friends - hello, David? Are you reading this? - give me some wild geese or something). I've got potatoes and sunchokes, gobs of kale, lots of liver (thanks to my beef lady, who now just gives it to me because I'm the only one of her customers who wants it), and eggs for breakfast. I may have a half cup of raw milk kefir, plain, every couple of days to keep the intestinal flora happy, too. I'm all set, and I'll keep everyone posted.

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Blogger Anna said...

Interesting idea. From having gone all soup-crazy a few years back (though nowhere near as crazee as you are about to get) I think that soup itself is a self regulating food - you just can't eat that much of it, like you can other stuff. I think the liquid regulates you to only eat enough, not to excess. bon chance!

8:32 PM  

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