January 29, 2014

The Lizard Wants Ice Cream: 4 Ways To Eat Well Anyway.

What to eat, what to eat?

Who hasn’t stood with the refrigerator door open, staring mournfully inside?

Depending on who you are and who lives with you (kids, room mates, cats)—if you reside in a so-called first world neighborhood (because world ratings really don’t go by countries), you’re likely to be staring at these three things: stuff you want but shouldn’t have, stuff you don’t want and you wonder why it’s even in the fridge, and stuff you should have but don’t particularly want.

Our primitive bodies were well designed to crave sugar and fat—and lots of it—as a means for survival, and they continue to crave these things even though they exist in such abundance that what once helped us live, is now making us sick.

We know this, but it’s still hard to win an argument with the lizard brain—the lizard wants ice cream. Right. Now.

I spend an inordinate amount of time thinking about food.

I wish that weren’t the case, because, let’s be honest, there’s a whole wide world out there just waiting to be discovered while I agonize over whether to eat a 1/3 or 1/2 a cup of rice. But because of those endless hours, I’ve managed to boil down my eating philosophy to some basic principles that keep my karma reasonably in tact and my body reasonably clean, despite the lizard tapping his unkempt claw persistently against the base of my skull.

Principle One: When in doubt, eat plants.

I create the foundation of most of my meals with plants as close as possible to their original form. There’s nothing like a huge plate of lightly steamed broccoli with a squeeze of lemon, a dash of sea salt and a lot of fresh, cracked pepper to fill up my belly so it’s not crying pitifully for mac n cheese.

My sister and I call foods like this “high on the gorge-ability factor” meaning, we can eat unlimited quantities of them and still be okay. This is similar to the Weight Watcher’s theory of food with “zero points”. It’s comforting to the lizard to know that there is something it can consume guilt free, even if it isn’t ice cream.

It’s good to involve raw plants in each meal if possible as well. I toss a fistful of arugula or spinach leaves onto just about everything I make, which aids digestion, is high in fiber and nutrients, and adds to the satiety element.

On top of my mountain of greens and broccoli, (or squash or zucchini, or mushrooms or whatever is laying around), I pop a scoop of beans or quinoa or tofu or nuts, drizzle on some Sriacha and voila’, I’ve got a meal that is more filling than a slice of deep dish pizza.

Principle Two: Don’t panic—another meal is right around the corner.

Why is it that each and every meal I consume feels like the last meal I’ll ever have? That must be a primitive adaptation as well—get it while you can, you never know when famine might strike.

Well, based on the jam packed shelves at the supermarket, at this point I’m pretty sure I know when famine will strike—and that’s never. So I shouldn’t eat like it’s going to, regardless of my instincts. (If famine does strike, I can always re-evaluate this principle.)

Instead of frantically grabbing every last roll out of the bread basket before the waiter takes it away, now I try to talk myself down off the ledge. “You come to this restaurant at least once a month. The rolls will still be here then if you really want one.”

I also briefly imagine the next meal I might have–knowing that it’s coming along, seeing it in my mind’s eye—which goes a long way toward dispelling my panic.

Principle Three: 95 percent of food isn’t about punishment or reward, it’s about nourishment.

The world isn’t going to end if I have a scoop of ice cream and I don’t have to treat myself as if it is. Conversely, every little accomplishment shouldn’t warrant a scoop of ice cream, and I don’t need to behave as if it does.

I think about 95 percent of the time we eat, we should simply try to get the optimal nutrients into our bodies in the most palatable way possible. That means the majority of meals, while pleasurable, are mainly utilitarian. The idea that each meal is an excuse to treat ourselves is destructive, and over time, desensitizes us to the times when food can be extra special.

On the other hand, food is seductive, and hitting that 95 percent mark is challenging, so if I fall short (and I do), I try to calmly dust myself off and get back to the salad again.

Principle Four: Check in with things other than the lizard.

We know that our ancestral brain is a powerful force indeed, and that our intellect struggles valiantly each day to rule the roost. Both of these brains do much better if they are routinely circumvented. Our urges and our internal dialogue are not the only sources of information available to us. By cultivating an awareness of other things unfolding within us and around us, we short circuit the mind stuff.

There are a few consistently easy ways to do this.

Breathing is good.

Noticing the smells, textures, colors, and of course, flavors of our food is another.

We can also check in with our belly directly, seeing if it’s full or not full without looking through the filter of our mind.

And finally, best of all, we can deliberately put ourselves into a state of gratitude for having this food, whatever it is, in front of us at all.

The lizard is always going to want ice cream, and sometimes he should get a scoop of Rocky Road—but he doesn’t get to be in the driver’s seat on the ride to the ice cream shop.

Put him in his child’s seat where he belongs, strap him in and gaze at him lovingly, because after all, without him, we wouldn’t be here in the first place.

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Editor: Catherine Monkman

Photo: Vinni123/Flickr

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