So…telling people what to eat seems to be quite the thing to do, no?
And telling people to eat whatever they want is…well, it’s incredibly controversial.
It’s just not done.
You know why I think it’s controversial? Not just because we live in a culture that’s messed-up, food-wise, but because we, as a culture, seem to take the worst possible view of human nature.
Let me explain.
It should come as no surprise to anyone reading here that our culture views food as a moral issue. A potentially dangerous moral issue. And, setting aside the very-interesting-but-not-to-be-had-right-now discussion of ethical and religious foodways, food just…isn’t.
Food isn’t moral. It’s not immoral, either. It’s morally neutral.
But, sadly, we live in a time and a place where it seems Twinkies = Eternal Damnation. (Notice, here, how the supposed moral value of food pretty snugly overlaps its supposed nutritional value. This is not a coincidence.) And we tend to take the most pessimistic view of human nature.
So, when I say “Adult human beings are allowed to eat whatever, and however much they want,” what people actually hear is: “GO OUT AND CRAM YOUR FACE WITH BAD, BAD TWINKIES!!!!!!”
I’m here to plead with you on this: first of all, people aren’t stupid. Please stop thinking that — it’s unkind and incorrect. Also, Twinkies aren’t bad. Even if they were, they couldn’t make you bad by association.
You know what else? This may come as a huge surprise, but if you’re willing to let go of those negative assumptions about human nature for one second, you might realize that pretty much no one wants to eat that way, anyhow.* Or not for long.
We’re animals, which means we’re pretty highly motivated to stay alive. We want to stay alive, okay? Which means means:
We want to be healthy.
We want to eat food that’s good for us.
Those desires, being tied to the ultimate desire — to survive — are pretty damn strong.
But you know what we want more than either of these? To be free. To not be told what to do. To not be bossed around as though we are perennially six years old. To not be manipulated, coerced, or condescended to.
Being un-free is a fate worse than death to an animal. It means either you will be killed, or you will be tortured and then killed, or your entire life and all of your efforts will be used exclusively in the service of someone else’s desires. And that service is probably going to be pretty unpleasant and continue indefinitely, until you die (see: tortured and then killed.)
Ever wonder why animals are willing to gnaw their legs off to get out of a trap? Why prisoners are willing to risk death in order to escape?
We’re all sensitive to threats to our freedom, even if, practically speaking, those threats don’t seem as bad as being trapped or imprisoned. We’re able to detect the merest whiff of a threat to our freedom, and we respond appropriately. To a strong and imminent threat, we’ll fight to the death. To a threat that’s just a whisper of a shadow of a threat, we’ll dig in our heels a little bit. Stop listening. Roll our eyes and take a step backward. Procrastinate.
In the case of rewards and punishments used to induce certain behaviours, there’s a distinct manipulation at work. Freedom is taken by force or given up willingly in exchange for some savoury reward. But, either way, it is lost, whether you gave it, or it was taken from you.
We don’t like this. Even if we think we do at the time. Even if we go along with it.
I won’t go off on my whole long tangent about intrinsic motivation again, except to say: there is a body of research showing that humans acting under the threat of punishment or the promise of reward do sub-par work.
Whether that work is solving puzzles or learning information or exercising and eating well, the fact that an external, overriding consequence is actually the driving force behind the behaviour — rather than one’s own intrinsic desire — means that that behaviour is not actually free. It is coerced and manipulated and induced.
And going through the motions in order to reach the carrot or escape the stick actually takes something away from the benefit of those motions.
Exercising to lose weight makes fitness not as fun or useful.
Eating to lose weight makes nutrition not as fun or useful.
And, when things are not fun (meaning, intrinsically rewarding), it’s pretty much guaranteed that you will stop doing them, rendering your time “on the wagon” pretty much a loss. Because you’ll lose whatever long-term, intrinsic benefits might have come from doing those things voluntarily.
Besides which, who wants to ride a crap wagon that keeps throwing you off? You’re better off on foot. (Maybe rollerskates.)
So, when I say “Eat food. Stuff you like. As much as you want,” I don’t believe you’ll dive into a vat of Twinkies. Or, if you do, it’s only going to be to see what it would be like to dive into a vat of Twinkies.
I trust that you’ll climb your way out again.**
The bottom line is — freedom is important. In fact, it’s necessary. Without it, you can’t sustain anything that’s supposed to be good for you. Therefore, freedom is good for you.
And because I believe humans are reasonable beings who care about their own health and survival, I trust you to decide what you eat.
What if you’re not reasonable, and don’t care about your own well-being? Well then, my friends, not only is it still not my place to tell you what to do — telling you what to do wouldn’t work in the first place.
Readers have been clamouring a bit for me to just tell them how to eat already. And while, yes, I have a very specific training and a very specific set of beliefs about how to approach food, my first job is to clear the slate, set aside all the rules we’ve been handed about food, and establish a foundation of trust — trust that I am not going to take away your freedom, or your food, even when I have suggestions about what might be a good thing to try.
Trust that, ultimately, you’re the one who must decide what to do.
So, in the service of that, I offer you this:
Far from being irresponsible, this is, in fact, the only unsolicited advice anyone has any business to offer another person.
And until you’ve accepted it as your irrevocable right as a human being, my opinions on nutrition don’t really matter much.
*Barring some kind of underlying medical condition or eating disorder, in which case a weight-loss diet is the last thing you need, anyhow.
**Perhaps with some assistance — which wouldn’t come in the form of a diet.