T is for Thinking (That’s Good Enough for Me)

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?

Encre L. Marquet Ad by Eugène Grasset

Encre L. Marquet Ad by Eugène Grasset

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).

columboSo 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.

talking to yourself like a crazy person | MindBodyPlateAnd guys, I’m literally only 10% done with this book. Hopefully, there will be some more MBP-worthy gems to share in the future. Yay!

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I don’t believe in portion control

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.

throw away your food scales - MindBodyPlate

Abandoned food scales.

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?”

Hunger Fullness Scale - MindBodyPlateAnd 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.

 

When Full Means Fat and Fat Means Bad

Bowl of Almonds

When full means fat and fat means bad,
nourishing your body is a treacherous task.

When full means fat and fat means bad,
an extra helping can make you feel like your own worst enemy.

When full means fat and fat means bad,
Thanksgiving dinner is like navigating a minefield.

When full means fat and fat means bad,
you’d rather miss your best friend’s birthday party than feel bloated in public.

When full means fat and fat means bad,
you can never truly appreciate a shared meal with loved ones.

When full means fat and fat means bad,
the world is a dark, scary place, and recovery seems nearly impossible.

But full is not fat. And fat is not bad.

Full is a signal: my body has had enough. How grateful I am for that satiety cue! How miraculous that I can communicate with my own body in this way, with the trillions of cells which comprise its form. Full can be uncomfortable, but full goes away. So I sit with it. I give it time. I say, “Thank you for the message; I hear you loud and clear.”

Fat is a macronutrient essential to my body’s functioning. It helps me digest and absorb many important vitamins and delivers essential fatty acids that my body can’t make by itself. It helps my cells do their various jobs, promotes healthy skin and hair, maintains my body temperature, allows my neurons to communicate, protects my organs, and helps combat disease.

My body also creates fat as a form of emergency energy storage. What a blessing that my body knows how to care for itself in this way! Sometimes, my body may go a little overboard, but I will never remedy this by depriving myself. Instead, I will help my body feel nourished and balanced. Only then will my body stop preparing for the worst case scenario. So I accept it for what it is. I say, “Thank you for protecting me in this way; there’s no emergency here.”

Sometimes I need to be reminded that being full isn’t the same as being fat, and that “fat” is a term which has been demonized beyond recognition. After all, these are ideas that I learned a long time ago, and those kinds of ideas can be the hardest to change. But if I’ve proven anything to myself it’s that I am capable of remarkable change. So thank you, Fullness. Thank you, Fat. I hear you loud and clear, but there’s no emergency here.

SKF at Window