Saturday, September 26, 2009

How To Fix It

Well, as Sky said, I left off the paragraph about how to fix it :-)

The problem is that we still, after all these years of bad guesses and bad science, don't really know what's wrong. It's hard to know how to fix it without knowing that. It's not even certain (though I think it overwhelmingly likely) that the modern diet is to blame. But we've also introduced an extraordinary number of drugs and toxins into our environment, without having a comprehensive understanding of their effects. And we don't really know how or when the damage is done: one recent study suggested that some of it is done in utero.

Still there are some prime suspects. At the top of my list are refined sugar, white flour and salt in the diet. Kessler's recent book is good, although, like almost all modern popular nonfiction, it's actually a short essay intolerably bloated with anecdote and repetition. He notes that some people's brain chemistry responds differently to sweet and salty foods: that the dopamine spikes in all of us, but in some of us it doesn't drop again right away, unless we stop eating. Few people will stop eating, under the influence of that.

The vilified Atkins had some ideas that didn't stand up to scrutiny, but his basic idea -- that refined carbs cause blood chemistry changes that make some people unnaturally hungry -- has stood up quite well. I'm quite sure that's one piece of it.

There have a been so many red herrings. Among things I think have nothing to do with it are: dietary fat. Cholesterol intake. Meat. Eating too fast. (Remember that what we're looking for is something that is not characteristic of pre-industrial diets.)

The solution I'm currently investigating is: making my food boring. When I was Atkins-ing, I noticed most of my bingeing behaviors went away. (You just don't binge on meat and fat, not without carbs. You slather butter on a potato and wolf it down, sure. Take away the potato? No. No one simply sits down with a dish of melted butter.) But one thing I could and did still binge on, though it was on a smaller scale: the salt meats. Sausage, salami, that sort of thing.

When I read Kessler on brain chemistry responses to salt and sugar, I realized this was one of the major players. And I felt the panic I have always felt when people suggested I do with less salt. No, says some primitive part of me, anything but the salt!

It's one of those shying-aways, those wincings, that you learn to pay particular attention to in meditation. It's often the thing that seems absolutely impossible, absolutely non-negotiable, that is at the center of a knot. That's the thing that needs to be softened before the knot can be worked.

I asked myself the question: what if there was no refined sugar and no salt in the world? What would my relationship with food look like?

And there was no answer. A blank. I could not even imagine such a thing. Things with no sugar and no salt don't count in my mental world as food at all. (This in itself is fascinating.) So what if I stopped eating either one, without restricting my food intake in any other way?

Well, for one thing, I'd have to pack my lunch. There is no such thing as restaurant food without lots of salt and sugar.

But for another, if I could do it, I think my relationship with food might come to be based on hunger, rather than on seeking stimulation. I don't know, because I can't really imagine it. Just speculation. But what if, rather than constantly seeking more and more intensity and piquancy, I deliberately sought plainness?

My relationship with food has always been Ahrimanic. I used to filch beef bullion cubes, when I was a boy, and suck them, rasping away with my tongue until it was quite raw. I loved cookies and cake and such too, of course, but not with same intensity. I was quite capable of eating an entire batch of brownies at a sitting, if they happened to be there, but that wasn't what captured my imagination. I wouldn't get dressed in the middle of the night and go out to find brownies. No, what I'd do that for was potato chips. Barbecue potato chips. I would eat them until the insides of my cheeks were tender and corners of my mouth cracked. That pain was not a disincentive: it was, on the contrary, part of the attraction. I was seeking a kind of oblivion in stimulation, the same sort of trance you sometimes see people go into with video games.

I don't often eat potato chips any more. A couple times a year, maybe, if I'm especially upset or wretched. And yet, my whole response to food is essentially that same one, on a small scale: a quest to be stimulated, stimulated possibly to the point of pain. And the diet books and articles all play up to it: your food can still be delicious and various! They all say that. Don't worry, you can still eat for stimulation!

So. I just finished eating three eggs, with no salt, here at Tosi's, instead of my heavily salted eggs and bacon. Just as an experiment. Because I've never deliberately eaten a non-salty breakfast before. They tasted better than I thought they would. But it is strange -- the dietary equivalent of meditation, of sitting still and doing nothing.

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