After yesterday’s post, I thought more about why this challenge “feels” easier than other attempts to eat healthier. In addition to the points I mentioned, I thought there was another key component: no grey area.
Confused? Fair. I will try to explain.
In the past, I would try to “eat healthy”. This meant I was constantly assessing whether or not a food was deemed healthy. This would involve looking at the label and considering the amount of fat, carbs, sugar, sodium, etc. This might also mean keeping track of calories and trying to budget a day’s worth of calories – “Okay, if I eat this, I’ll have 300 calories left for the day”, or “I can eat this dessert if I eat light for most of the day”. This also meant comparing food items relative to other foods – “These baked salt and vinegar chips are a better version that the fried ones, so it’s healthier”. Basically, it was a constant puzzle I had to figure out, especially if I wanted to make room for foods I considered delicious. Like many others, I would fall into the trap of thinking healthy = bland. Now, I will note that yes, I was a lacklustre cook for a long time, so my home-cooked food was often quite bland – especially when compared to dining out.
When I think about the steps I would take to determine the health of a certain food, it’s no wonder this process failed me. Just thinking about the process makes me tired.
And [watch out, here comes my nerdy side] there is research that helps explain this phenomenon. In their book Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength by Baumeister and Tierney, the authors describe factors that deplete willpower. In other words, as you use willpower, your stores are depleted and you have less available. You need to restore your willpower through rest and nutrition. For example, those asked to watch a film and suppress their emotions demonstrate less willpower on subsequent tasks than those who simply watched the movie without any instructions.
One of the factors that depletes willpower is decision fatigue. The authors note the example of walking through a huge supermarket making hundreds of little decisions and then arriving at the check-out and caving to the urge for one of those chocolate bars by the cashier. One might not have purchased the chocolate bar otherwise, but willpower is depleted AND the chocolate gives the brain what it needs for refueling – easily accessed glucose.
So, having to constantly decide what is healthy or not can deplete one’s willpower. This is probably made worse by the fact that my old decisions were on a continuum, so if I started to slide further along the continuum, then I suddenly had ammunition for rationalization – “Well, if I can eat this, then that can’t be so bad”. Essentially, there was a big grey area. A big, confusing grey area.
With this challenge, I simply ask whether it is real food, not refined, not fried, etc. If the answer is yes, I can eat it. If not, I don’t. And, the food is not actually bland. I’m enjoying it.
Now, I may have made this sound far more simplistic than it is. But on the whole, it takes far less time to figure out if I should eat something than my previous method, which, looking back, probably did more harm than good. Over the past 17 days, I’ve gotten better at quickly identifying which foods are real, and which are not. I don’t look at the composition of food or count calories. I rarely label what I eat as good or bad, which was a common occurrence before. I still have some work to do with how I eat. I’ve been eating more at the table, but I still eat more quickly than I ought. But, I definitely notice the difference, and it’s a good one.