Friday, December 02, 2011

clarifications and going forward

Well, thanks to Stephan Guyenet describing my experiences and linking to my posts on my experiment with a low-food-reward diet, my blog was read by a relatively vast number of people over the last week (about a quarter of the total views ever happened in that span) and while most left comments on his blog, not mine, there seems to be enough misunderstanding about a few things that I figured a summing-up post was in order.

Some commenters seemed to be concerned that I was sliding into some sort of orthorexia by doing this - that was definitely not the case! I'm not temperamentally suited to that sort of thing.  Because this was my first time doing something of this nature, I wanted to do it RIGHT.  My rigid adherence to the diet plan I'd devised was no more orthorexia than it would be obsessive-compulsive for, say, a novice knitter to adhere exactly to a pattern.  You just don't know enough about the process and how it works to diddle with it.  Now, I know what to expect, and my next foray into low-reward eating will be less extreme (and likely less documented).

Other posters missed the point and argued that I just lost weight due to calorie restriction.  Um, YES, I lost weight because of calorie-restriction.  But it was largely spontaneous calorie restriction.  I didn't WANT to eat any more. I could have maybe eaten more on some days, and I did feel hungry sometimes - but it was because I was choosing to and because I had better things to do than eat, and because I wanted to lose as much weight as possible in the span I spent doing it.  The point was, this wasn't hard like it was on prior low-cal stints consisting of lettuce and egg whites.  I was pretty comfortable doing it and overall it was a really non-stressful experience.

And no, calorie-restriction will not work long-term if prior eating habits are resumed.  Part of the low-reward eating is to retrain myself to eat fewer (ideally no) industrial and/or high-reward foods that trigger overeating.  The end goal of this is for me to get down to a healthy weight, to understand where my limits are in terms of foods I can eat without overeating, and to develop a readily-available toolkit of "fixits" for when things start spiraling out of control.  Because I've lost a substantial amount of weight and regained it several times since hitting adulthood - I know it happens.  It's foolish to think it's not going to happen again.  But I know the root cause - I get too relaxed and complacent, I think "oh, yeah, I don't have an eating problem anymore, I can just go out for burgers/make some ice cream/have some chips and I'll be fine tomorrow" and, well, three weeks later, I'm having waffles for breakfast, my jeans are too tight and I feel gross, and I put it down to that-time-of-the-month bloating and having the clothes dryer too hot.  Six weeks later, I'm not even wearing that pair jeans anymore and I'm soothing my wounded pride with a DQ Blizzard - while still firmly believing that it's not even food.  I acknowledge that I'm fallible, and that food and near-food especially is powerful.  But knowing that all I have to do is throw some stuff in the crock pot and just eat it - and nothing else for a while - to reset my susceptible little brain... well, that's useful,  I think.  One thing worth noting is that even after six weeks of it, I wouldn't consider the bland food a punishment.  It's not like I would look at a chocolate eclair and think "Don't do it, or it's the crockpot of bleh for you for a week".  I'm not the sort of person who is good at self-flagellation like that.  If it became a punishment, I probably wouldn't do it.  It's more of a respite - and it's one that I will probably eagerly welcome come January. 

And while this may land me firmly in the "dysfunctional" camp (and so be it) - I think I DO find the modern food environment stressful.  Enjoyable, yes - I mean, you only have to look back on the - what, 7 years? of posts on this blog to know that I'm passionate about food.  Food itself, food politics, food policy, nutrition - the whole bit.  It excites me.  I love cooking.  I love creating deliciousness.  I love planning food, I love eating it, I love talking about it - but I think it's ok to admit that it exhausts me sometimes, and it's even more ok to do something about that.  A break now and then is entirely healthy.  And anyone who suggests moderation - pbbbbbtttthhhhhhh - a big fat raspberry to you.  You just don't get it, do you? 

This experiment is not over.  It's not all about the weight loss - that's certainly a part of it, but it's more than that.  It's about acknowledging that my brain and body, without intervention, in a modern food environment, is not going to thrive - it's going to keep going back to a state of about 50 lbs over a healthy weight.  It's going to take a lot of effort for me to stay at a healthy weight, and I think the best way for me to do that is to figure out exactly how much food reward I can handle without tipping into consistent (and fairly rapid) weight gain.  So I'm going to alternate between low-reward months and "normal eating" months.  Seeing how my body reacts to the "normal" months will help me refine what "normal" should be, for me, and I will always have the "safety" of a low-reward period to recover from potential dietary messes.  Maybe I can handle bits of chocolate here and there.  Maybe some seaweed-rice crackers are ok.  Maybe ice cream once in a while is ok, or those really awesome Liberty flavoured greek yogurts.  And then again, maybe not.  If I mess up one month, I'll know better for the next phase.  And every time I finish a low-reward month (or two weeks, or whatever) I'll have another opportunity to PRACTICE eating right - for me.

I don't think it's possible to lose weight quickly, painlessly, or effortlessly for most people.  It's bloody hard work, and I'm not trying to sugar-coat anything here. I apologize to Dr. Guyenet if people found the first part of this experiment distasteful and are using that to try to argue against the whole food-reward theory of obesity.  I think my experience shows pretty clearly that dropping the reward factors from food down-regulates appetite and makes it easy to eat less.

Personally - and no bashing Dr.Guyenet for this! - I think that people who are dismissive of the idea that the brain's response to high-reward food is causative in obesity either have not ever had a problem with overeating and thus cannot understand it in those who have, or they are currently overweight, addicted to high-reward foods, and terrified of giving them up.  (There may also be a few folks on various paleo/low-carb bandwagons who for some reason don't want to have to change the rationale for why their ways of eating have worked to reduce their body fat and change their relationships with food.  Especially paleo, which has so much going for it in terms of overall nutrition...why wouldn't acknowledging that it's relatively low in food reward compared to most modern diets just add to the already numerous reasons to adopt it???  Is it because people try to sell it as "so tasty, you won't miss the industrial crap"?  That's crazy.  It's only a small tweak to say "After a short time you'll like it just as much, but it won't screw with your brain like the industrial crap.")

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Blogger Vuokko said...

Thank you for your great posts on food reward and on your own experiences with it!!!

I especially LOVED this comment:
That's crazy. It's only a small tweak to say "After a short time you'll like it just as much, but it won't screw with your brain like the industrial crap.


-fellow food addict and reader of Stephan Guyenet's blog, but happy to run into yours since you explain the food reward theory so greatly with common language!

12:27 PM  
Blogger Sarah Barracuda said...

Thanks for the clarification, Sarah! I was one of those who perceived some red flags, but the plan of action you've outlined sounds intelligently proactive rather than orthorexic, so no more worries :) You should keep us readers at WHS updated on how these intermittent low-reward experiments go!

2:27 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi Sarah,
I found your story very interesting. As a long time Paleo eater and also a somewhat decent cook, I've been having trouble breaking through a weight-loss plateau. I've decided to implement my own food vacation and I hope I can replicate your results. I stole your idea for a basic meat, liver and veggie soup to start with too.
I'm giving it 5 weeks, which will take me up to my holiday in Malaysia, hopefully I'll be packing a little less baggage!

10:27 PM  
Blogger Alex said...

If you liked the low reward diet just as much, you would not have stopped it after 6 weeks or whatever.

6:25 AM  
Blogger Exceptionally Brash said...

thank you for the clarification

3:41 PM  
Blogger Dana Seilhan said...

I don't even know what that "reward" thing *means*. If I keep carbs low enough in my diet I can eat food that tastes good (is that what he means?) and still lose the weight and yeah, it's pretty much effortless except for the fact that I have to cook and, if I am being very careful about exact carb amounts, I have to measure somewhat.

I don't get this meme that you can't be at a normal weight unless you suffer. I wasn't suffering when I was slender, not in any obvious way. Though I could make a pretty convincing argument that all that pasta I was eating was wrecking my mental health--and I should have gotten pregnant two or three times more than I did with the way I was acting, yet I've had two kids 8.5 years apart.

Guyenet's little thing about food reward is just a repackaging of the idea that a person likes food too much and then gets fat. Taubes's point was that if you are growing, you want to eat more food. That's true if you're growing taller; it's also true if you're growing wider. Adding tissue takes raw material, no matter which way it's being added.

And the extra hunger can also be attributed to insulin spikes and drops. I certainly saw this in action in my high-carb days. It wasn't steak or bacon I was craving; it was pasta or sushi (with the rice--otherwise it's sashimi) or potato chips.

The stuff he talks about that's added for extra reward is to make carb foods taste more like meat foods. MSG adds umami which you typically find in roasted meat; vegetable fat gets added to chips because it makes them taste more like meat fat. Skip the chips and eat fatty meat instead. Bingo. No more trouble.

7:48 PM  
Blogger Daniel said...

I really enjoyed your posts on your 'food vacation'. You're a good writer!

I would like to try this as well (food vacation that is, not writing a blog :-)). How long did it take before you noticed the dramatic reduction in appetite?

6:21 AM  

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