A Culture of Rules

(Warning: This post addresses ideas about dieting and food rules.)

I picked up a skinny little book at a thrift store when I was in Las Vegas called Wake Up! You’re Probably Never Going to Look Like That … How to be Happier, Healthier and Imperfectly Fit by Michelle Pearl.

The whole book is only 100 pages and on first glance seemed to be about how a person could workout until they were dead and still not look like a supermodel/body builder/ideal role model.

So, I sprung the 50 cents and bought it. And then I read it.

Pearl, it seems, lost more than 100 pounds. Twice. The first time, she lost 120 and gained it back. The second time, she lost 150, went to Mexico to have her excess skin removed, and has kept it off for several years. She’s a fitness trainer now.

On page four, Michelle explains that she is always hungry and has found ways to handle the hunger.

At first I thought–this is clearly a self-published book and maybe she just needed an editor to clean things up so that it didn’t read like she had figured out how to be okay with always feeling hungry.

But then I got to the part where she talked about what she ate. She has so many rules. So many rules. One of them is that she won’t eat a certain sandwich at Subway because it has (gasp) almost 400 calories. Her favorite lunches have less than 300 calories and no fat.

No wonder she’s always hungry.

One of her favorite parts of her day is when she eats fat free/sugar free pudding with fat free/ carb free nondairy whipped topping and a few nuts with her husband. I’m all for tradition, and I fully understand that people find their comfort where they can. My favorite night of the week is my husband’s first day off when he makes gluten-free pizza and the kids watch American Idol with us.

But the nuts on her fat free/ sugar free/ carb free treat are the only part that seems like food.

As I was reading the chapter with her food rules, I started thinking about my work with addicts and alcoholics. When I was evaluating someone, I would always ask about their patterns of use.  And often they would say something like they only used on weekends, would only have two drinks if they weren’t at home (except that one time, when they got a DUI and ended up in my office), never drank and used in the same day, never drank or used until after noon/work/dinner.  And because they, mostly, followed their own rules, they did not believe they were addicts.

Here’s the thing. If you have to make a laundry list of rules to regulate something, it might be a problem.

I don’t want to be like Michelle Pearl.

I don’t want to have rules that regulate every bite I put into my mouth. I don’t want to be so terrified of getting fat again that I have to learn to cook without potatoes, rice or pasta. I certainly don’t want to have to drink a constant flow of non-fat, sugar-free hot cocoa to stave off the desire to eat dinner/popcorn at the movies/ french fries.

When I was a counselor, most of my clients were clean most of the time. They had a big motivation to be that way–they were urine tested nearly daily and if they came up dirty they went directly to jail. Too many of those and they went to prison. But despite not actually drinking or using dope, they still acted like addicts. They drank an alarming amount of energy drinks in order to feed their brain the stimulant it craved. They either smoked more than they had before or took up smoking if they didn’t already.

Often times, they needed these things to feel like they had some kind of control over something that felt too big to handle.

A meth addiction that has escalated to the point where you’ve lost your children, your job and your teeth is one big boulder hanging over your head.

And maybe losing 150 pounds by dieting is, too.

I’m not sure what I think about food as an addiction. I used to firmly believe I was addicted to food. Lately, I don’t like that thought much. I’m still forming my opinions on it.

I’m challenging some of my own food rules lately. And sometimes, there is a lot of anxiety that comes with that in the beginning. But that anxiety is always followed by a deep sense of relief. I can eat french fries without turning into a raving, binging fast foodaholic. I can eat a handful of peanut M&Ms without finding myself later that night in a food coma amidst a liter of candy wrappers and empty ice cream cartons.

It seems silly, I guess, for the idea that given the opportunity to eat whatever I want I won’t always choose the richest, most processed foods available to be a revelation. But it is. Turns out, it only feels that way because those are the foods I’ve either restricted or felt really guilty about eating for the last couple of decades. (Ever since Susan Powter taught me the fat formula.)

Those are the foods I have always had strict rules about.

Okay–follow me on this thought.

I don’t want sugar free/fat free hot cocoa to become my energy drink. My substitute for the real food my mind and body will crave until I die.

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3 Comments

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3 responses to “A Culture of Rules

  1. blessed

    TOTALLY. just like fat free/sugar free/carb free foods are not FOOD and therefore not worth eating, how is a life based upon such rules worth living?

    I mean that in all sincerety. That woman is in bondage to food–it is her idol. She is ensnared and I would venture that just as she has taught herself to be fine with constant hunger, she has also taught herself to overlook her daily fears, self-loathing, and misery.

    In my own world, I confess that I am a closet glutton. It is easier for a fairly slim person to get away with it–no one looks at me and tells me I should not eat that many dark chocolate covered caramels in one sitting; my outward appearance is not snitching on me. But I have known for years that food is still an issue for me, because I do have a strong psychological dependence on comfort foods for my “escape.” (I’ve written about that on my blog several times, so I won’t rehash here!) So the #1 best thing that ever happened to me was discovering the practice of Lent.

    I don’t know if you are at all a spiritual-minded person, but I firmly believe the principle of fasting from the things of our life that we think are too habitual or might even be addictions is SO healthy and helpful. Ever since I started doing it a few years back (this will be my 4th year) I realized that “giving up” something for 40 days made me feel free from any psychological dependence upon it. And then after the 40 days are over, I enjoy the thing more fully than before–that first mug of eat with dark chocolate is soooooooo yummy!–and no longer worry about it having some kind of hold on me. So every year I find myself giving up more and more things–I LOVE the feeling of being stripped down from my usual comforts and consolances, I feel more awake, more aware, more open, and find myself with more free time, greater patience for my kids, and interest in trying new things. It is all so completely good!

    ButI really, truly think I feel so much better about my relationship with food since I have been practicing Lent. Now I am much more likely to go ahead and eat the good stuff and just aim for moderation and not worry about whether or not I am doing something problematic. I know I can give it up completely, and will be doing so sometime in the year, and that kn0wledge alone is so empowering.

    If anyone wants to know what they are really addicted to, they just have to try going without it for a specific period of time–not forever! And not in the diet sense, like they are punishing themselves for wanting it, but in the sense of liberation from any weird relationship with it. It’s just food–like I think you quoted earlier, it is morally neutral. It does not have any power over us that we do not give it.

    • When I was a kid, we practiced lent. I remember giving up Oreos. I have never thought about it in the way you’re saying. It can be liberating to let go of the weird relationships, for sure.

  2. Being hungry all the time blows chunks. I can’t remember who it was that compared Olympic-level dieters like Michelle Pearl to flagpole-sitters (in that yeah, they can do this thing most people can’t do, but like…who cares?), but that really nails it.

    Since I found out I can’t digest gluten, dairy, or many of the fruits I used to eat, I’ve found myself longing for a lot of the stuff I had to give up so that I wouldn’t have to live in the bathroom any more. I keep wanting to tell people who are avoiding cheeseburgers or full-fat, full-sugar hot cocoa because they’re trying to be “good,” for gods’ sake, if there’s no medical reason for you to avoid that stuff, get it while you can. Because one day, you might not have that choice.

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