Estimated reading time 7 mins.
Please see my article, “Don’t listen to me (or even experts): My blanket disclaimer” for a brief discussion of my goal in sharing ideas on health.
A key excerpt: “We all have different bodies, lifestyles, means, likes/dislikes, goals, and many other factors which make up the context in which we are making health decisions. So my attitude is always intended to be not, “This is the right way to eat/work out” or “You should try this.” But rather: “This is what is working for me in this way. How might it apply to you in achieving your goals?””
“I eat whatever I want.” Something to this effect is what I say in a nonchalant way when trying to impress upon people that my diet doesn’t involve the giving up of things I love to eat. Its aloof but matter-of-fact delivery is intended to shock the person while at the same time encouraging them to hope for a moment before I attempt to qualify what I mean. Because of course, I don’t mean that I just eat whatever I want whenever I want.
But on some level in my own mind, that is what I do mean.
I do feel free to eat whatever I want. If there’s something that arises involving ice cream and cookies, it is true that I wouldn’t have had them otherwise, but I am no less okay to go with it. At a new coffee shop which seems to have a particularly good cake or delectable treat? That wasn’t on the agenda, but no need to hold back because of any diet restrictions. Go for it! Planning on an evening of something “kosher,” or perhaps no eating at all, and then some friends call in with dinner and drinking plans? We’re in! And with no disruption whatsoever to any delicate diet program I had on the go.
In a recent article, I refer to “those guys” who seem to “stay in top shape while genuinely happy in their state of eating healthy foods and rarely enjoying anything indulgent” and who I suspect might be “moral or genetic freaks.” Later in the article, though, I am excited to report that no longer do I “struggle with diet, constantly living on the edge of satisfaction and denial. I’m one of those guys!” I describe my current state of health and living further:
Within the last half year or so in particular, I’ve enjoyed an elevated experience of health and good living, the integrated state I’d been certain was attainable and that everyone may earn but which had been elusive for so long. That next-level state is characterized by when I finally was able to maintain my body shape and fitness while not being overly conscious of my diet.
Other quotes from the article include: “But with the proper framework of obesity I now have, I have been freed, empowered to work out just how I can properly integrate these foods I love back into my life,” and, “The point is that I’m not scrutinizing over my diet. Have a bun. Eat a pizza. It’s negligible to me, given the proper context and understanding, and it’s very liberating.” (italics added)
So I’m “not overly conscious of” or “scrutinizing over” my diet. I’ve been “freed” and “liberated” in regard to how I eat. Yet I know that I’m at the same time quite restrained in that I don’t in fact just eat whatever I want whenever I want. Seeing these terms and knowing that I’m sincere when I say them has given me to think: What do I mean by “freedom” when I say that I feel free to eat whatever I want?
Well, the above quotes also contain clues which reveal the answer. Observe that my statements are qualified with phrases such as “with the proper framework” and “given the proper context and understanding.” It is the framework or context–that is, the limits–set for myself within which I may act freely and without much conscious regard. These limits have been set through conscious and meticulous deliberation, but I experience only the freedom in my day-to-day existence. Hence my genuineness when I tell people that I feel like I eat whatever I want and that I don’t experience any appreciable stress in relation to my diet.
In thinking on this issue, I immediately saw a parallel in regard to the “free-range” versus “helicopter” parenting debate. The caricature often made of “free-range” parents is that they just “let their kids do whatever” with the added implication, “Who cares if they get run over, injured, killed? That’ll learn ’em!” Of course, though, to give one’s kids freedom doesn’t mean that. Rather, it means setting strict limits and then letting kids free to operate within those limits, continuously expanding them as appropriate. The kids are gravely aware of the limits set, but because they are understood and accepted as reasonable, they may now be pushed to the periphery of their awareness, and they just explore independently and live happily without experiencing any sense of repression.
One story concerning a school’s outdoor recess is very illustrative of this idea. There was a busy road at the edge of a school’s playgrounds, so heavy supervision was required and kids were not allowed to go near the edge of the road. Instead, they were held back within a narrow area closer to the school, and the vigilant and anxious supervising teachers would understandably hover over the kids’ every move. However, once a fence was built along the edge of the grounds and the road, little supervision was required while the kids were free to roam wherever they liked. With strict boundaries in place, the space they had to play in was actually expanded, as was their autonomy.
The seeming paradox of constraints leading to increased leeway applies to diet as well. For me, informed by the hormonal theory of obesity, put most comprehensively to me in Jason Fung’s The Obesity Code, with its emphasis on insulin as the main driver in obesity, I have developed a liberating framework within which to make dietary choices.
In terms of what to eat, I generally avoid refined grains and sugars while predominantly seeking foods higher in unsaturated fats and fiber. In terms of when, for many reasons beyond the scope of this article, I have concluded (and experienced) that intermittent fasting (IF) is a very effective practice in achieving and maintaining fat loss. The way I think about IF is to basically extend the periods of non-eating as long as I can as often as I can. This has led me, for example, to omit breakfast or snacking (even “healthy” snacks) as a rule. This sounds very restrictive–and even frightening–to some people. But because it has become set in routine–and adding the fact that after becoming habituated to fasting one feels much less hungry most of the time–I am effectively unaware that I’m not eating and so don’t feel any stress related to what might seem a deprivation to others.
So it is not that I now shun pizza, ice cream, and cookies, or that I don’t appreciate an exquisite Sunday breakfast. It’s quite the opposite. I still love and enjoy such delights. It’s just that I’ve been able to put them in their proper place. By refraining from them on principle, it is easy, guiltless, and without detriment to my health to indulge in them whenever an inviting occasion emerges.
I might be accused of equivocating on the concept of freedom. But one is not free to drop context. There is no such thing as an effect without a cause, and to be free does not mean to do whatever one feels like and be exempt from consequences. “Nature to be commanded, must be obeyed,” and if one wants to attain fat loss and good health, one must obey the nature of our bodies. So for me, I might not be “free” to eat three meals a day or “free” to snack or “free” to eat sugary treats, but neither is anybody else. And that’s not what I mean when I say that I am free.
I have understood and serenely accepted the science of obesity (or am continuously working on it), and because I have followed the practices of IF combined with the kinds of food I consume, my body has become a different kind of machine. It doesn’t feel hungry during fasting periods; it doesn’t crave sugary foods all the time; it uses fat for energy because of the choices I’ve made and the kind of machine it’s become. So now, I am free to eat a brunch buffet or a specialty doughnut or anything else I might want to enjoy without disrupting the machine–and without experiencing any stress as a result of a diet breach. That’s freedom.
Within the context of my own physical constitution, tastes, and goals, among other relevant factors, I have set reasonable and effective boundaries as to what and what are not good dietary practices. And because I am convinced they are right and good for me, the boundaries are as immovable as reality, and I have come to obey them almost on a subconscious level, as I do the ground. With that–and with my hormones set to support me–I certainly have to be aware not to allow bad habits to re-establish themselves, but I otherwise don’t have to be conscious of my diet; I’m just living. Like the kids in the fenced school grounds, I just roam liberally, free to eat what I want within my lifestyle’s prescribed framework. The same is possible for anyone.