Maximizing Pleasure, Minimizing Negative Consequences

When approaching food from a weight loss perspective, there is always a nagging sense that you are heading into a battle. Nobody ever talks about dieting as fun. I have come to consider dieting to be necessarily bad. One of the big new buzzwords that nutrition gurus use is ‘lifestyle.’ What does that mean though? There is a massive gulf between the meaning of the terms diet and lifestyle, despite the synonymous usage. Diets are short-term runs, often focused on deprivation. You focus on a range of foods to exclude, and you try your very best to stay on track, all the while being tempted by every side by all the tantalizing, waist-enhancing foods we have come to love and simultaneously hate. Lifestyles are different. I now understand the term to mean a long-term positive relationship with food, a long-term relationship where you come to radically honest terms with what your eating habits are, how different foods make you feel, and what psychological need food meets for you.

This may seem hopelessly vague, but it was a huge epiphany for me after struggling with the yo-yo of dieting, losing a little, and gaining back even more for most of my life. Each dieting phase would inevitably result in a net gain over the long haul. As I write, I am coming off a three-month period where I slipped back into the dieting mindset, resulting in weight gain. It is an odd situation. I started looking at food as an enemy rather than a friend, which led to a cycle of deprivation, inevitably followed by overconsumption. It’s hard to tell if you are in the negative cycle sometimes. The best indicator is understanding how you feel when you are eating food. Do you feel regretful after eating? Chances are, you’re in a dieting mindset. Food should never elicit negative emotions; it keeps us alive and healthy. The trick is to identify foods that don’t make you feel good, and rather than vilify them, put them in the background while celebrating foods that do make you feel healthy, cultivating a wider understanding of flavors and celebrating them in abundance.

Throughout our history as a species, our entire existence has revolved around two things: food and procreation. Food is the more important of the two as there is no procreation without it. Most of our time had been spent on hunting, gathering, plowing, sowing, reaping, milling, cooking, preserving, and most importantly, eating food. In a world where there were far fewer forms of entertainment, food often filled that space as well. We are hard-wired to enjoy food. I cannot back it up with any sort of scientific proof, but I firmly believe that there is a psychological element to satiety, that is annihilated when you approach food as an enemy.

So, what does a healthy lifestyle look like in actuality? For this, I take some direction from history. Seasonal eating is essential. Why? Because that’s when foods taste best. How could we possibly expect fruits and vegetables to compete with other less healthy options when they are out of season. When our food systems were more localized, we ate seasonally because there was no other choice. There were no supermarkets. A huge portion of the population worked on farms and depended on their farms and the surrounding land for food. We were forced to find ways to prepare whatever was in season or go without. This led to many of the food traditions that we celebrate today. Bacon, for example, comes from a tradition of preserving meat by curing in salt and smoking. The family pig was slaughtered in the fall, preserved, and expected to last throughout the winter. Bacon became, along with ham and sausages, a flavoring agent and accent for a diet that consisted mostly of root vegetables, grains, and other preserved foodstuffs. In spring, early vegetables and fruits became the most sensible and desirable options. In the summertime, a whole host of new produce came into season. Same for the fall. And the cycle continues.

Many encounters we modern humans have with fresh fruits and vegetables are negative. The tomato is perhaps the finest example of this problem. The pithy bland characteristics of commercially grown tomatoes are nothing to celebrate. Garden fresh, seasonal tomatoes, are a reason to celebrate, quickly sending your eyes rolling back far in their sockets with rapt pleasure. We have tricked ourselves into thinking that fruits and vegetables are less desirable, and there is no reason to “enjoy” them in any substantive quantity. They are simply filler—an accoutrement for more tasty things, that happen to be highly processed, nutritionally deficient, and extremely dense, calorically speaking.

I am not making the argument that we should go back to the old times of feast or famine, but that we can use that knowledge to help us better understand how to take the fullest and healthiest advantage of the food system we have today. This takes a wider cultural dedication to good food. Luckily, we have the internet and a whole host of good resources, including local farmers, gardeners, and growers to help us strike this balance between the old and new food systems, and find ways to better our health.

You must start cooking and dedicating a good portion of your daily attention to the substance that provides life and health to create the lifestyle. This provides you with the ability to create food that is genuinely delicious and healthy. I always get a little offended at the notion that healthfulness requires a compromise in flavor. But the idea is so pervasive that I find myself falling victim to it, four years into the journey, as I stated earlier. There is an uphill battle to be fought in changing our understanding of food. It takes exposure to more good food to appreciate the wealth of pleasure to be had from healthful food. It takes innovation and dedication. Sadly, our modern lives and the cultural narratives we are exposed to don’t always accommodate that.

Because we have eaten commercially grown unseasonable food for most of our lives, those are the flavor experiences imprinted on our minds. We must work to exorcise those bad impressions, stumbling around blindly for a while before finding the vegetable experience that supersedes the bad (or often just lackluster) mental impression. Four years ago, I would eat a salad and pick nearly every vegetable out, because I found them to be unpalatable. A perfect example of this is the green bell pepper, which I found to be bitter and unpleasant. It took a considerable amount of time, trying them in different forms, before I came to understand their deliciousness. Rather than trying them in just salads, I branched out, adding them to different preparations. Ethnic food traditions are great for this because they can introduce cooking techniques and flavor combinations that are absolutely transformative. Try making any Cajun dish substituting red bell pepper for green bell pepper (a member of the “trinity” along with onion and celery), and you will quickly understand what I am talking about. There are many ways to approach those flavors, and some of those gradually lead to an appreciation of the ingredient in other forms. I distinctly remember the first time I really appreciated the raw flavor of a green bell pepper. It was picked from a local garden and served in a vegetable platter (of all things) something that I would never have even thought about trying previously, let alone with the expectation that it would be a pleasurable encounter. My mind was blown! With that flavor expectation cemented in my mind, even the common store varieties began to conform to this idealized version rather than my previous mental association. Flash forward to today when a chunky Greek salad, chock full of green bell peppers, which formerly would have been reprehensible to me, is one of the most splendid things in the world. A veritable blitzkrieg of flavors and textures that expand the mind as it fills the stomach.

The satisfaction I derive from this type of meal, although completely different than the satisfaction you would derive from, say, a burger and fries, is intense. It is also more multi-dimensional. I inevitably learned to savor a much wider range of flavors and textures, along with a sparkly clean feeling following eating.

The main point that I am trying to make here is that pleasure is an integral part of the eating experience. Eating is the action that sustains life; therefore, pleasure is something that is inherent to life. To deny oneself of pleasure in the consumption of food is to deny oneself of life. Dramatic maybe, but I have found it to be true. I find it to be especially true when I forget this lesson. Looking back on three months of struggling against pleasure from food, I find that all the while, I was still seeking pleasure, just the wrong kind. The need doesn’t go away. It builds up until the dam breaks and you are going after the wrong kinds of food. Instead of sourcing good seasonal fruits and vegetables, preparing them with care, and partaking in abundance, I bought into a lie. Reading a news article that decried the overconsumption of fruits is where I went wrong. They made the claim that their high sugar content was cause for restriction. I looked at the numbers, thought about it, and decided to limit my intake of those foods and eat more protein. But be wary, the article said, don’t eat too much protein. I stopped looking at food with respect and happiness and looked at it as simply a numbers game. I quickly realized that I was constantly ravenous. No matter how much I ate, it was never enough. In reflection, I realized that I was going to foods that, although delicious, had negative health consequences.

Too often we ascribe far too much importance to sacrificial actions. Starving ourselves and denying ourselves the pleasures of certain foods is perceived to be virtuous in our culture. This is where we go wrong. This is why dieting is wrong. Pleasure is the compass which guides us to good health. The problem is that our general understanding of pleasure, as it relates to food specifically, is myopic and perverse. Eating highly processed, carb-laden, fatty foods, may scintillate the taste buds, but when examined from a higher vantage point, we are exchanging a wide world of pleasurable culinary experiences for a narrow range of experiences that provide only short-term bursts of wild pleasure that give way to sickness and long-term ill health. A negative snowball effect that alienates us from the wider world of healthful pleasure that we are designed to inhabit. In devoting myself to a more hedonistic, and therefore natural, approach to food, I have been able to place “unhealthy foods” where they belong in my diet. Where might that be? On the fringes. They are no longer off limits. They remain among my many options, but with the understanding that there are negative outcomes that come with over-consumption. This eliminates the perception that we are “missing out” which plants the seed for failure.

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