Which one is harder for you to accept?
Do you ever think about how you think?
This is the topic explored by Nobel Prize winner Daniel Kahneman in his New York Times Bestseller Thinking Fast and Slow. In it, Kahneman illustrates that we have two distinct systems responsible for the way we think: System 1 is quick, intuitive, and often emotional; System 2 moves more slowly – it requires deliberate effort and is more logical.
When a drug addled homeless guy bum rushes you out of nowhere with hands outstretched towards your boobs and in a split second you somehow dart out of the way just in time without getting hit by a yellow cab – that’s System 1 in action. When I ask you to multiply 137 and 14 right now in your head – that’s System 2. Got it?
The answer’s 1,918, if you’re interested.
So it turns out that when the deliberative System 2 is busy, the impulsive System 1 has more of an influence on behavior than it might otherwise. In fact, a slew of psychological studies illustrate that when people are preoccupied with a “demanding cognitive task” they become more susceptible to temptation. Kahneman explains,
“Imagine that you are asked to retain a list of seven digits for a minute or two. You are told that remembering the digits is your top priority. While your attention is focused on the digits, you are offered a choice between two desserts: a sinful chocolate cake and a virtuous fruit salad. The evidence suggests that you would be more likely to select the tempting chocolate cake when your mind is loaded with digits. System 1 has more influence on behavior when System 2 is busy, and it has a sweet tooth.”
So why is this important?
Because it illustrates precisely why we tend to make poor food choices when we’re overtaxed and why relaxed mindfulness can help us make better choices in order to maintain a healthy weight.
Making positive choices for your body and mind requires mental effort, and those efforts can be easily thwarted when your brain is preoccupied with other demanding cognitive tasks. One of the ways we can override that tendency is by pausing to take stock of our present reality. When we do, we make sure that our impulsive System 1 doesn’t run off to the races (with an entire cookie jar).
So how about a real life scenario: here I am sitting at my desk trying to finish this blog post. I’m struggling a bit, because now I’m at the part in the blog where I have to make a cogent point and wrap it up nicely. I can tell that it’s asking a lot of my System 2, the part of my brain that requires deliberate effort. Not coincidentally, I can’t stop thinking about the Kale Oatmeal Raisin Cookie in my purse across the room (you guys, it’s actually sinfully good). See, while System 2 is preoccupied with this damn post, my instinctual lizard-brain (System 1) is like, “I’m sooooo tired and annoyed at all of this thinking. I need some quick energy. Yeah, something sweet would be just purrrfect. K thx.” And I’m not gonna lie: that voice is making a TON of sense right now.
But if I push back from the computer screen for a moment, if I set up my meditation bench and come back to myself, if I just breathe and take stock of my present reality and needs… I may give my System 2 a chance to speak up and offer its two cents. And it may say something like this:
“Hey SKF, I know that cookie sounds really good right now, but you just finished a big lunch of red quinoa, braised purple cabbage, garlic roasted tomatoes, hard boiled egg, and pumpkin seeds. It was such a delicious meal, and it was really filling! Actually, you don’t feel all that hungry right now. But you probably will in 3 hours or so! And won’t that be a lovely time to enjoy your cookie?”
OMG you’re totally right, System 2! I’m not even that hungry, not really. But I was getting kind of overstimulated finishing that blog. I’m so glad I took some time to relax and recharge!
What a paradox that mental health involves so much talking to yourself like a crazy person.
The takeaway, I think, is that this ‘two systems’ knowledge can help us identify why we’re having certain cravings at certain times. And the more we understand our cravings, the more agency we wield in our food choices.
That’s right – I don’t believe in portion control.
Now hold on a second, don’t go running to the Cheesecake Factory just yet. I’m certainly not saying we should consume volumes of food irrespective of our dietary needs, it’s just that I’ve got a bone to pick with the concept.
It’s the phrase that gets under my skin, more than anything: portion… control.
To suggest that a person practice portion control infers that they are inherently out of control and in need of some external constraint. As if, left to their own devices, they would inevitably gorge themselves to death. As if they would be foolish to trust themselves.
The irony is, the more stringent we are with imposing these external constraints, these portion controls, the more likely we are to binge uncontrollably. It’s as if the approach itself has some sort of sinister boomerang effect. The more you think you need portion control, and the more you try to wield it, the more likely you are to need it.
Why is this? A big part of it, I believe, is that forced restriction separates us even further from the possibility of intuitive eating in a culture where we are already so desensitized to our hunger and satiety cues.
Now for those suffering from food addiction, it may be the case that externally imposed restrictions serve as helpful training wheels, for a time. But sooner or later, if you really wanna feel the wind in your hair, you gotta take off those training wheels and trust that you’re not going to fall. I’m not saying this will be easy, by any means. Cultivating a relationship with your intuitive appetite is just like any new relationship: exhilarating, frightening, confusing, and requiring time, attention, and serious commitment.
But it’s easy enough to begin. Start with making a habit of checking in with yourself every few minutes before, during, and after you eat. That’s all – just check in. And once you’ve become accustomed to making that kind of space, you can start to ask yourself more specific questions.
For instance, “How hungry am I on a scale of 0-10, with zero being not hungry at all and ten being starving?” You might even practice getting curious about what kind of hunger you are experiencing (Physical? Emotional?) or what it is specifically that you’re hungry for ( Lasagna? A hug?).
And while hunger and fullness seem to be on opposite sides of the same spectrum, they most certainly are not. Though their interplay suggests otherwise, they exist on two different spectrums entirely. You can be physically full but still hungry for more, not very full but lacking in appetite. And therefore, you must also ask yourself, “How full am I on a scale of 0-10, with zero being not full at all and 10 being uncomfortably full?”
And you must keep checking in with these questions, not just before you chow down, but also after the first few bites, and again after the next few, and again and again. What seems tedious at first will, over time, become more second nature as you build a bridge toward intuitive eating.
“That’s a lot of work,” you may be thinking, and you’re absolutely right. I’ll probably continue to work on it for the rest of my life. But if you can learn to tap in to the inherent wisdom of your body, to its highly tuned sense of exactly what and how much it needs to stay in balance, you’ll never have to diet, restrict, or use “portion control” ever again. And that seems well worth the effort.
We hear again and again about the benefits of essential fatty acids in the diet, particularly omega-3s. But what’s the difference between omega-3 and omega-6? If you prefer visual learning like me, you’ll love this explanatory info-graphic, which I based on an article by Andrew Weil, M.D. with complimentary research from The Center for Genetics, Nutrition and Health in Washington, DC. Check out the two pie charts at the bottom: the left is what our Omega 6/Omega 3 ratio should look like (1/1), and the right shows a fairly generous average ratio for a Western diet (15/1). Yikes! We’re pretty far off, and yet it’s so important that we strive to lower that ratio. In their academic article, The importance of the ratio of omega-6/omega-3 essential fatty acids, Simopoulos explains that a lower omega-6/omega-3 ratio is effective in “reducing the risk of many of the chronic diseases of high prevalence in Western societies, as well as in the developing countries, that are being exported to the rest of the world.” In particular:
- “In the secondary prevention of cardiovascular disease, a ratio of 4/1 was associated with a 70% decrease in total mortality.”
- “A ratio of 2.5/1 reduced rectal cell proliferation in patients with colorectal cancer.”
- “The lower omega-6/omega-3 ratio in women with breast cancer was associated with decreased risk.”
- “A ratio of 2-3/1 suppressed inflammation in patients with rheumatoid arthritis.”
- “A ratio of 5/1 had a beneficial effect on patients with asthma.”
The clinical benefits of increased omega-3 can also be seen in:
- Heart Disease
- Attention Deficit Disorder
- Multiple Sclerosis
- Brain Trauma
- Chronic Pain
- Skin Disorders
- Fat Loss
Because the western diet is overflowing with omega-6 fatty acids, your mission, should you choose to accept it, is simple: just eat more omega-3s. Eat more salmon, sardines, herring, mackerel, black cod, and bluefish. Or buy a high-quality fish or krill oil (mine is a liquid that is extra purified for safety and tastes like lemon). Vegetarian sources such as flax seeds and walnuts are wonderful too, just remember the body has to go through the extra step of converting them to EPA and DHA (the two critical kinds of omega-3s). How much is enough? Well, in a lecture I attended by Dr. Barry Sears, he gave the following guidelines:
- Everyone would benefit from: 2-2.5 g (2,000-2,500 mg) per day
- For those suffering from obesity, diabetes, coronary heart disease: 5 g (5,000 mg) per day
- For those battling cancer and chronic pain: 7.5 g (7,500 mg) per day
- For those with neurological disease: >10 g (at least 10,000 mg) per day
Ideally, one would consume a fish oil or omega-3 supplement in conjunction with anti-inflammatory meals, moderate exercise, and stress reduction techniques. As always, remember that I am not a medical professional nor a registered dietitian. Please consult your physician before making any abrupt changes to your diet. References: Simopoulos, AP (2002). The importance of the ratio of omega-6/omega-3 essential fatty acids. Biomed Pharmacother. 56(8), 365-79. Retrieved from http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/12442909
I find myself talking about pendulums pretty frequently. Why pendulums? That Foucault could use one to demonstrate the earth’s rotation is pretty cool, but I usually reference them because they serve as the perfect metaphor for so much of what I talk about with my clients. “For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction.” Newton was talking about the physical laws of motion, but I find it interesting to view our mental, behavioral, and even physical shifts through this same lens.
The universe is always seeking balance, often in ways beyond our control and outside our periphery.
When you pull a pendulum really far in one direction and let go, what happens? You can bet that it will swing really far back in the other direction. A big shift begets another big shift. And we can find this rule of balance playing out in our day to day (or month-to-month, as it were)…
A Tale of Two Months
February was an extremely stressful, obligation-filled month for me, jam-packed with intense emotional growth and periods of distressing uncertainty.
In 28 short days, I turned 30, celebrated my partner’s birthday, celebrated our fourth wedding anniversary, juggled multiple jobs alongside 20 hours a week of yoga teacher training, hosted my parents during their visit from California, became a certified yoga teacher, braved the New York City rental market to find us a dream apartment (after our first one fell through), packed up our lives in boxes, moved to a whole new borough, and then unpacked those very same boxes, all amid freezing weather and one winter storm after another.
Needless to say, by the time March rolled around, I felt tired. In fact, I found myself struggling to stay motivated. Midway through the month, I even started to get a little down on myself. What was happening to me? Why did I feel so lazy? Then it hit me:
Of course I feel like I’m swimming upstream against a current of relentless lethargy. Of course it’s all I can do to go through the motions and cover the essentials. Of course all I want to do is eat and drink and enjoy the casual company of good friends. Of course my immune system is compromised. Of course I watched all three seasons of The Borgias in two weeks.
This is my body’s way of creating balance, of carving out a period of rest and recovery. This is my body’s response to February. This is the pendulum effect in action.
Macrobiotics* and the Yin-Yang of Food
Have you ever had too many salty foods in a short period of time and found yourself wrestling with intense cravings for sugar not long thereafter? This is your body seeking balance through appetite, and it’s a pretty obvious example of that pendulum swing.
Turns out, there’s an entire dietary approach that concerns itself with balancing the energies of food. The Macrobiotic diet pulls from ancient Chinese philosophy, asserting that every food item falls somewhere on a spectrum of energy, from yin to yang.
Different foods may be more yin (as in sugar) or yang (as in salt). Some foods exist near the extremities of this spectrum, containing high amounts of one kind of energy (red meat, for example, is strongly yang), while other foods fall towards the center and have a more balanced composition (leafy greens, for example, are faintly yin, and root veggies contain just a hint of yang).
Someone who follows a Macrobiotic diet seeks to balance out the yin and yang energies on their plate. The best way to do it? Not to swing the pendulum too far in either direction; in other words, to eschew the foods with extreme yin or yang energies, choosing instead those items which are relatively balanced: fruit, sea vegetables, leafy greens, round veggies, root veggies, beans, legumes, grains, and white-meat fish.
I don’t follow a strictly Macrobiotic Diet, but I do dig the idea of seeking harmony on my plate, and I definitely know what it’s like to experience a balance-seeking backlash in my relationship with food.
The Inevitable Backlash of Deprivation
According to researchers at UCLA, the average person who diets for six months will lose five to ten percent of their starting weight. Great! Except that’s not the whole story. Within five years, one-third to two-thirds of those who lost weight on a diet will regain more weight than they lost. There’s that pesky pendulum effect again.
Your body is a finely tuned, highly functioning machine, but it’s not always in cahoots with your intellect. For instance, when you decide to try that fashionable juice cleanse, your brain consciously acknowledges that you’ll be dramatically reducing your caloric intake for a short time. You’re fully aware that you’ll probably get a little hangry or euphoric, but that it’ll all be over in a matter of days. Everything will be fine! It’ll be more than fine – you’ll be glowing by the time you’re through!
But the thing is, your body doesn’t necessarily get the memo. As far as your body is concerned, you were going along fine, enjoying your abundant 21st century menu, when – all of a sudden – your caloric intake was cut in half, there’s no fiber coming in, what happened to the healthy fats, and ohmygod, this can only mean one thing: FAMINE!
Do you know how the human body responds to famine? To semi-starvation? It shuts down any nonessential activity to conserve energy. Immune function? Forget it. Reproductive capacity? As if – we can’t make a baby when there’s hardly enough fuel for one! Moreover, when your body is faced with semi-starvation your metabolic rate drops. It slows. And when you begin eating regularly again, it doesn’t necessarily speed back up. The pendulum has already swung to the other side.
Keep in mind that this juice cleanse example is a bit of an exaggeration. The effects of caloric deprivation take a few days at least to register in the body as an emergency situation. In fact, some research suggests that intermittent fasting may benefit overall health. But for chronic dieters or those suffering from eating disorders, this is no exaggeration.
I suffered from anorexia nervosa for a period of time around the age of 12, then began binging and purging a handful of years later. I had pulled the pendulum of deprivation to such an extreme, that by the time I was in college I felt helpless in the face of my compulsive urge to consume everything around me.
My particular brand of deprivation, so indicative of the “fat phobic 1990s”, was that I denied myself any form of the macro-nutrient fat. Many years later, a nutritional counselor asked me what type of food I binged on the most during my struggle with bulimia. “I don’t think there was one type,” I answered, “I feel like I binged on everything: ice cream, cheese, creamy pasta, doughnuts, pesto crepes, and peanut butter.” She stopped me. “Don’t you see? Those foods do have something in common: fat.” She was right. They were all foods high in fat. How’s that for a pendulum swing?
Not Quite Equilibrium
So how do we mitigate the destructive arc of the pendulum effect? How do we find balance in the areas of appetite, energy, and mood?
Well, let’s look to the metaphor for answers: a pendulum is never completely still. Even at rest, it is always moving, ever shifting, oscillating back and forth, but imperceptibly so. Just like the pendulum, we never seek to make our lives static, to be happy all the time, or relaxed all the time, or militantly controlling of our diets so they never stray from “perfect” equilibrium. We welcome these shifts, because they a part of being alive in a human body.
And yet, we wish to minimize the extreme swinging back and forth. Which is why we turn to mindfulness. The more in-tune we can become with the subtleties of our moods, patterns, and habits, the more likely we’ll be to notice a swing before it gets too extreme. And we can take a further cue from the Macrobiotic camp: if we aim to steer clear of extremes altogether, we automatically limit the extent to which those appetite, energy, and mood swings can get out of hand.
So let’s take another look at the way my February and March went down: what’s clear is that I have a tendency to push myself too hard until I reach a breaking point, at which time I go through a period of lethargic withdrawal. If I can integrate more mindfulness moving forward, perhaps by scheduling a 10 minute meditation break in the middle of every single work day (no matter how much there is to do), I’m less likely to burn out by the end of the week. And if I can limit my overall obligations and be more realistic about what I can get done in, say, a 28-day period, I’ll be even less likely to crash.
Basically, it’s about being kinder to myself and becoming more successful in the process. After all, two months of working at approximately 78% productivity is better than one month at 98% and the next at 2%. I’m not looking to eliminate my natural ebb and flow, I just want to keep the massive swings to a minimum.
In what ways do you experience the pendulum effect in your own life? Have you noticed it in others? How often do you stop to notice your dominant tendencies, and what would it mean to consciously cultivate a little bit of the opposite? Let’s take a cue from the universe and strive in the general direction of balance, whatever that means for us. After all, the other shoe is going to drop eventually.
*Mine is a crude representation of the rich and wonderful world of Macrobiotics. For more information, check out The Hip Chick’s Guide to Macrobiotics by Jessica Porter.