I know right off the bat that the title of this blog entry will be seen as a statement of flaming psycho-social heresy. Don't we always hear "The family that eats together, stays together"? And, what exactly does this mean?
The traditional maxim about familial togetherness implies that eating in the same room at the same time is essential to bonding between family members. It is accepted as a universal truth that communal food consumption is required to establish and maintain genuine communication with our loved ones.
Even when family has successfully performed its function, and raised self-reliant individuals who are running households of their own, separate from their parents, there is the obligatory tradition to reunite during specific times of the year... to do little but inflame old family drama... and EAT. Of course, I contend that a lot of the reason we overeat during family holidays is to distract ourselves from the tensions and conflicts between ourselves and our blood kin, but I digress...
A large portion of my recent reflections about food and eating have had to do with the concept of responding to hunger appropriately. Eating when your body needs fuel, rather than for entertainment, emotional comfort, or social compliance. Eating the amount of food that your body requires to run operations, rather than overeat or undereat for reasons outside of energy requirements. Basically, eating when hungry, and, when hungry, eating.
When we eat in the absence of hunger, and when we do not obey the presence of hunger, the consequences aren't simply levels of physical discomfort associated with out-of-phase digestive functions. Eating without hunger and ignoring and postponing responding to the body's call for fuel will trigger the body's metabolism hormones in ways that, when repeated over time, will manifest in what we are beginning to know as "metabolic syndrome" (weight gain, diabetes, heart disease, etc.).
What does this have to do with eating together as a family?
Before we get to "family," let's examine a nearly universal phenomenon in our world: when single people pair up and form a couple, one or both of the partners will gain weight. The simple and obvious reason is that having someone to eat with is a whole lot more fun than eating alone. And, for that very reason, most of us will concede to eating when we aren't quite hungry, going hungry for a bit longer than we otherwise would, and eat something other than what we would choose independently, all for the sake of eating the same thing, at the same time, in the same room as the other person.
For the sake of convivial and communal eating, we are willing to disregard our bodies' extremely fine-tuned framework of hunger/satiety signals. We will endure hunger, ignore satiety, and turn away from our genuine food preferences, because "eating together" is so important. And we accept the ensuing gain of body fat as a "natural" part of the pair-bonding process. I know it. I did it. Husband did it. Virtually every single couple I've known has done this, at least at the start of their relationship.
When a couple has children and becomes a family, this problem gets compounded. I don't have children, but I was a child, and I know that eating/food/meals are a virtual battleground in the majority of families. Even the most level-headed of familial units have an undercurrent of control struggle when it comes to the simple act of refueling the body. Family members are entreated to eat at the designated mealtimes, even when they aren't hungry. Likewise, we are instructed to "wait for dinner," even though we may be hungry for a full meal NOW, and dinner is an hour away. Children are told to clean their plates, even if they are already satiated. The more "desirable" foods, such as ice cream, are withheld until the seemingly punitive fare of carrots and green beans has been consumed. And, of course, when we engage in familial eating, we are more than likely to consume what's being served, whether that is what our bodies are craving or not.
All of these factors contribute to a behavioral paradigm of forcing our eating patterns to comply with directives outside of our bodies' signals for when, how much, and what to eat. The more we focus on those outward guidelines, the more we lose touch with what our bodies are trying to tell us. And it is precisely this disconnect from our natural rhythms which is at the root of our food-based afflictions. We get fat and sick because we eat when we aren't hungry, we don't eat when we are hungry, and we don't pay attention to our bodies when it comes to choosing which foods to consume.
The draw to eat together is very strong, because our culture is largely centered around creating the illusion that convivial eating signifies deeper interpersonal bonds, and consequently a happier existence. However, the important part is to BE together, to SHARE experiences and feelings. Eating in the same room at the same time as our loved ones doesn't make or break our love for each other. Getting fat because we're overriding our bodies on account of eating "together" does undermine our own sense of individual confidence and happiness, however.
I think that the world would be a better place if we were brought up to have prandial independence, and to accept convivial eating as a matter of serendipity, rather than entitlement. We would be individually accountable for responding to our bodies' fuel requirements. We wouldn't be getting angry that our partners aren't eating what we want to eat. We wouldn't be going hungry in order to wait for others to have the time to sit at the table with us. We wouldn't be putting food in our mouths despite not being hungry, just because we're sitting at the table t the same time as the others.
And, more likely than not, far fewer of us would be fat.
Tuesday, November 6, 2012
Thursday, September 27, 2012
One of the earliest entries I wrote on this blog is titled Eat Only When Hungry. The concept is very simple: eat when you feel the physical need for fuel, and stop eating when that need subsides. It is the basic foundation of a healthy and balanced relationship with food. It's one of those concepts that, along with "everything in moderation" has been so overused in the discourse about health and fitness, it has been reduced to mere platitude, despite its incontrovertible validity.
Anyone who has sought to heal a damaged relationship with food has some understanding of the damaging effects of eating for reasons other than hunger. We also understand how eating solely to refuel is extremely challenging in a society in which gratuitous eating is ubiquitous, and eating exclusively to meet the body's energy needs is considered nothing short of quaint.
The part of this equation which is seldom discussed is the not always obvious corollary of always heeding the presence of hunger.
Our society is afflicted by an attitudinal paradox when it comes to eating. Everywhere we turn, there is the perceived obligation to consume food at times other than when our bodies require refueling. To name a few: the birthday cake for the office colleague, the second and third trip to the all-you-can-eat buffet, Halloween/Valentine's/Easter candy, the proverbial "holidays," and even regular meals on an arbitrary schedule.
And, although eating seems to be a ubiquitous, sine-qua-non element in all sorts of social and antisocial situations, eating as an operational priority in the management of our everyday lives has actually been relegated into a very low rung indeed.
We all have been guilty of claiming ourselves "too busy to eat." Every single person I know has said this at some time or another. Skipping breakfast on account of "no time" is a popular mantra, regardless of whether hunger is present or not. Working late into the evening, not responding to the body's call for fuel until it becomes a full-throttled scream that goes beyond the form of a grumbling belly and eventually morphs into our inability to continue that which was keeping us from eating in the first place. "I have a job, I have kids, I have..." Sound familiar? We let our perception of being "needed" by things and people outside of ourselves interfere with the primary form of physical sustenance that enables us to meet those requirements. We conveniently forget that, if we don't give our bodies adequate fuel, the job suffers, the kids suffer, everything suffers.
So, we are pulled in two directions:
- The social imperative to constantly eat for a myriad reasons, all of which are dissociated from the body's physical needs
- The de-prioritization of refueling ourselves within the hierarchy of our daily activities.
Not content with eating for non-fueling reasons, or with disregarding the body's cry for nutritional replenishment, we often combine the two, in an unabashed orgy of misguided behaviors. We decline to eat all day in order to "save room" for that special food or event later in the day. We skip lunch because we're going out for burgers and drinks with the colleagues. We survive all day on black coffee in anticipation of date night at a fancy restaurant. And, of course, we endeavor not to eat at all for about nine days prior to Thanksgiving.
What these two tendencies have in common is that they are both manifestations of disrespecting both the absence and the presence of physical hunger, in favor of societally or circumstantially imposed factors.
I wholeheartedly believe that this ubiquitous disconnect from our bodies and our sense of genuine hunger/satiety is at the root of the epidemic of obesity and associated diseases that plagues the Western world.
Most of the health, nutrition, and fitness literature which deals with appropriate eating (in the presence of hunger) versus inappropriate eating (in the absence of hunger) focuses solely on how detrimental it is to eat in the absence of the need for fuel. On the flip side of the issue, only the "Intuitive Eating" movement (with which I have a love-hate relationship, for reasons that I won't expound here) is the ONLY source where the concept of paying attention to hunger promptly and appropriately is even examined. "Honor your hunger," is what they call it. I feel that the sentiment needs slightly stronger language. "Respect your hunger," or even better, "OBEY your hunger."
I can't emphasize enough the importance of this much-neglected matter. It is an issue of basic self-care, and sensible operational logistics. You don't hear anyone saying "I have to drive from New York to Chicago by tomorrow afternoon, but I don't have time to stop for gas." If you tried that, you just wouldn't make it. It's that simple. And yet we have no compunction about pushing our bodies to run on fumes until that project is completed, or until we have gotten to Chicago after a 16-hour drive (during which we *DID* feed the car proper fuel, but we made do with a bag of chips). Why do we treat our objects better than we treat ourselves?
We should respect our hunger, because it is not only the kindest, but also the most efficient and healthful way to treat our bodies. And, if self-love and self-care don't resonate with you, then consider this: ignoring hunger costs you money and makes you fat.
How so? you may ask. I'm eating only one meal a day! Doesn't that limit the calories I'm consuming? Well, not really (even if you do indeed believe in calories in/calories out):
- Neglected hunger escalates and becomes increasingly difficult to satiate with an appropriate amount of food. We've all been there. We have waited too long to eat, or eaten too little beforehand, and we arrive at the table ravenous, unable to stop shoveling food in until we are uncomfortably stuffed.
- We become indiscriminate in our food choices, and our sense of physical urgency often leads us to eat whatever is closest at hand, which is likely to be overpriced restaurant or convenience store food.
- We are inclined to buy excess food which, if we don't end up overeating, ends up in the trash. More wasted money.
- It unleashes a hormonal reaction in the body which prompts it to lower metabolism and increase the percentage of fuel that gets stored away for future famine.
Yes, famine. Even if you have extra fat on you, every time you experience hunger and do not address it promptly with appropriate fuel, your body goes into a state of elemental panic. It slows down energy output, and it opens up the fat-storage gates in order to receive new deposits as soon as you eat again.
Now, I am not one of those science-wanking bloggers who can quote all sorts of studies and data to support such statements. I don't need to, because there are writers aplenty out there who already do this, and I know well enough to leave that kind of thing to the experts. All I know is that the most fattening thing I've ever done in my life is to go hungry without eating. Hands down the most fattening, far above binging on Häagen Dazs, or the entire period between Halloween and Valentine's Day on any given year.
An occasional, sporadic "got too busy and skipped lunch" isn't terribly damaging. It is the ongoing pattern of daily disregarding the body's call for fuel that is the real problem. Neglected hunger ends up escalating into a bottomless, insatiable pit, and a lowered metabolism, which delivers a double whammy of driving us to eat way above our body's needs, and decreased metabolism, which turns that excess into twice the blubber it could have been in the case of a mere occasional overindulgence. And I'm not going to go into the physical and emotional fallout from becoming overweight and obese. There's plenty of writing out there on that.
If we use a 1-10 hunger scale, in which 1 is "about to eat the cat" and 10 is "so full I can't even breathe," you should never let your hunger reach below a 3 (Very hungry). Ideally, you should start procuring food when you are at a level 4 (starting to get hungry but patient enough to take the time to seek or prepare food). And, as stated in "Eat Only When Hungry," stop when you reach a 5-6 (neutral, wouldn't stop what I'm doing in order to eat).
In this age of round-the-clock access to food, avoiding excess hunger should be nigh on impossible. But, the reality is that it does take some forethought and planning in order not to allow ourselves to be caught short on the go. The first thing we need to do is to prioritize fuel for ourselves. We need to accept that, if we aren't operating our bodies effectively, we won't be able to perform optimally in any capacity. On the practical level, this means making time and room in order to eat promptly and appropriately. If you know that you're going to be on the run, bring a portable meal or a substantial snack along, so that you can respond to hunger, even in the whirlwind of other activities. Prioritize eating regular meals rather than pushing off refueling until the end of the day (or the completion of XYZ).
When we work in harmony with our bodies, rather than fight against them, we will find that many things in life go a bit smoother. We manage stress more easily when we are adequately fed. We have a decreased tendency to become ill. We have more physical endurance. And we are more likely to maintain a healthy physique.
So, next time you are about to say to yourself "I don't have time for lunch," think again, and have a sandwich.
Saturday, September 1, 2012
In this blog, I have talked a few times about the balancing act between hedonism and self-care, between indulging the senses and respecting the body's limitations. There is a fine line separating enjoyment from excess, and one of my aims in life is to stay more on this side of it than the other.
From time to time, I will have a hankering for a rich and decadent dessert, which I most frequently satisfy by diving into a Manhattan pastry shop. I like to tell myself that I could do it when I go out to dinner at a fancy restaurant, but the reality is that, by the time dessert would have rolled around during a dinner outing, I no longer have any desire for any food. What can I say? I'm in love with meat.
When cooking at home, I am disinclined to make desserts because most recipes serve 8-12. Even though I am a hedonist through and through, I also have limited capacity, not only in terms of metabolizing sweets, but in how long I can remain interested in the same item. The reality is that, if I make a large cake, I will have one piece, and most of it will end up at the office, because otherwise, it would end up in the trash.
So, I've looked into recipes for single-serving desserts. They aren't easy to find. Many times, they are large recipes that someone has poured into single-serving containers or muffin tins, but which are still written in terms of 8+ servings, and aren't easily scalable, especially in terms of baking times.
My friend Charles shared with me an awesome flourless chocolate torte recipe, which I made twice in the full-size version. Both times, I ended up giving away 3/4 of it because it was going neglected at home after the initial rush of delight. Fortunately, the ingredients in this simple recipe (eggs, butter, chocolate) are in multiples of 8. No racking my brain to figure out how to divide 5 eggs to make 8 single servings...
I divided the whole recipe by 8 and came up with a basic formula for a rich, indulgent treat that allows me the luxury of finishing the whole thing without exceeding my body's capacity.
For each serving, you will need:
1 large egg at room temperature
2 oz high quality chocolate, chopped (or chocolate chips)
1 oz (2 tablespoons) unsalted butter
Vanilla extract (optional)
Preheat oven to 300º Fahrenheit. I used a toaster oven.
Using the whisk attachment in a hand blender, beat the egg(s) until foamy and doubled in volume.
In a double boiler over low heat, melt the chocolate and butter until it is incorporated. I added a sprinkling of sea salt to bring out the chocolate flavor.
Slowly add the beaten egg to the chocolate, one spoonful at a time.
Pour into single-serving ramekin(s)
Pour boiling water into the bottom of a baking dish, and lay your ramekin(s) in the water bath:
Bake at 300º for 15 minutes. They will look a bit soft in the center when you remove them from the oven. This is normal. The batter will set silky smooth when you refrigerate it.
Refrigerate for several hours, or overnight.
Top with whipped cream and enjoy!