Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Checking Premises, Part 1

Okay, I wrote a few weeks ago about the changes I've made over the last 8 years or so in what I eat, how I cook things, etc. In that post I referred to the fact that I had to check some eating premises, so this time I'm going to write about the changes I've made in the last oh, 15 years or so, in my thinking about eating, my whole approach to food. This post represents the mental work of many, many years, and it has a happy ending. :o)

It's interesting how bad premises get inside one's head, and I don't exactly know if I can adequately describe the process. I know, though, that many of the wrong ideas I had came from things I picked up as a kid. I'm not suggesting that my unhealthy eating and being overweight as an adult is all the fault of my parents, because of course, grown up people need to do their own thinking and are responsible for their own decisions and actions. But I discovered during this process, most of the bad ideas I had to identify and fix have been in my head most of my life.

Once I started down the paleo road, it was clear to me that I had TONS of mental work to do, introspection. Why did this become clear? Because I couldn't eat only the foods I believed best for my body; I just couldn't stick with it. :(  I felt out of control (and I was) and sad about this. I think perhaps people who have never struggled with themselves over food don't understand how a person can be out of control with food. If it's bad for you, don't eat it, right? Just get some willpower!

It's not that simple when you have a lot of bad ideas that have been really ingrained into the gray matter shouting different instructions at you. "Willpower" alone won't fix bad ideas, and when you have bad ideas warring against good ideas in your head, your will is battling itself. In my experience, sometimes the good ideas won; sometimes the bad. I'm not sure I can really explain it, but I know many, many other people who can probably identify with this food battle, and the feelings of shame, guilt, resignation, and even despair that often occur as a result.

But this story has a happy ending, promise! You know why? Because of thinking. Lots of long, rigorous thinking and testing and matching ideas up with reality, and thinking some more. Then some doing, and figuring out the results of the doing, and figuring out whether the doing matched up with the thinking. And yeah, it took a while. Like my whole adult life (so far!).

So which bad ideas did I identify and change? I had thought to write this in rough chronological order (and indeed, that's how I did the outline for this post), but instead I think I'll just list the bad ideas out, how I think I accepted each one in the first place, how I identified it, and how I changed (and in some cases, still working to change) to a better idea.

The Standard American Diet (SAD)

This is the easiest bad idea I had to overcome, and in many respects, the least important. Before Brendan got diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes in March 2001, we'd tried some low-carbing, to a certain degree of success, and I learned through my research at the time how carbohydrates affect insulin and how insulin affects the body (makes fat), and all of the other things (good and bad) that insulin does. Then when Brendan got the diabetes, well those ideas were made more clear and . . . I don't know . . . present in our lives than ever before. If you don't know what a Type 1 has to go through to maintain something close to normal blood sugar, it's amazing, really. (Too much to get into here though.) Still, we both realized that the low-fat diet was based on some wrong ideas. I think this idea was one of the easiest for me to overcome because it was merely an error of knowledge--I had had wrong information. Once I got better information, it was easy to get rid of the old information.

As I wrote before, I was introduced to the Weston A. Price Foundation back in about 2003 I think. That did it. I understood where we'd gone wrong with Atkins, and why much of the weight we'd lost had come back. I'd been too focused on finding a low-carb alternative to all the crap I wanted to eat--instead of focused on choosing foods I should be eating. I was looking sideways for treats that would be "on diet" instead of straight ahead down the path to good food and health.

Still overwhelmed by the changes I'd need to make in my diet, I embarked on my snail-paced incremental changes--which was the best approach for me. The bad idea SAD was replaced with the good idea: paleo. Which brings me to another bad idea:


I joke around now that I'm a "recovering perfectionist" but really, it's not funny. There is nothing wrong with having high standards, nothing at all. But having high standards that are either impossible or don't match reality in some other way is not rational. Getting caught up in the feeling that things have to be 100% perfect or why even bother? Also not good. Having that idea stuck down inside one's brain so deeply that it affects your ability to cope with non-ideal circumstances in a rational, grownup, mature fashion--really not good. (By the way, allow me to take a moment to say that I have the best husband in the whole world.)

Perfectionism of that magnitude is not about having high standards. It's about having impossible standards, yet holding yourself--and others--to them. It resulted in this odd sort of paralysis. Either I'd do something perfectly--or I wouldn't even try. Because why bother? If the result isn't perfect, the world will surely end,  yes? Much of my perfectionism comes from ideas I picked up as a child.

How did this affect my eating? Well, if I wasn't going to be a supermodel, then why even bother trying to look good or eat right? And if I ate something bad for me at breakfast, well then the whole day was shot! Might as well eat tons of carbs--I'd already blown it for the day. And if I ate poorly yesterday, well then why not today? The whole week is shot, right? If I was 100% perfect in my eating, I was floating on cloud nine; if I ate one corn chip at a restaurant, I was a complete and utter FAILURE. Failure = why bother at all?

It took me a while to notice that I did this. Basically I had to start paying attention to the things I was telling myself inside my head. If I ate something I shouldn't have, I'd immediately feel defeated and upset. Sometimes I'd even feel defiant, if I was in a rebellious mood! Once I noticed how I felt about what I was doing, I started to ask myself why I felt that way. WHY did eating a piece of bread make me so upset? Because I knew it wasn't something I ought to be eating. WHY did I feel despair though? Because if I ate a piece of bread then I wasn't going to be good about eating paleo that day. WHY? I kept asking myself this question. And the chain of thought went like this: Well if I'm not going to be eating paleo today, then I might as well give up. I'll never be a normal weight again and it's my own fault because I can't figure out how to avoid one stinking piece of bread. And if I'm never going to be a normal weight again, then I might as well enjoy myself and eat more bread. And so on and so on...

Once I first noticed this inner dialogue I was having, I decided to try to notice it every time it happened. Just being aware that it was happening in the moment was a HUGE thing, and it helped me analyze the wrong ideas. No. One stinking piece of bread does not equate to a lifetime of crappy eating. It doesn't help, but it's not equivalent. And the perfectionism thing was all over other areas of my life, too, and I learned to identify other inner dialogues, too--well if we can't make headway on our credit cards this month due to some unexpected expense, might as well buy XYZ, too. If I can't have a full complete garden, why plant a flower in a pot? Etc.

So I'd identified these things--first the feeling, then analyzing the feeling, then trying to notice the feeling and how it was linked to what I was thinking in the moment, then trying to notice more such moments, then analyzing my thinking, then finding the bad ideas in my thinking (false dichotomy: Unachievable Perfection vs Failure), then trying to find better ideas to put into my thinking instead, then trying out the new ideas, dealing with the successes and failures that resulted, then consciously practicing the better ideas. Whew!

I had to re-learn how to match my expectations of myself--and others--with reality, and accept that life moves on, even when it's not 100% perfect. I lowered my standards--not to Low Standards (with housework the notable exception here, of course)--but to Real and Achievable Standards. I also learned to prioritize my values. Not every. single. thing. in my life requires pull-out-all-the-stops 100% effort (hence, housework). So I save my energy and effort for the things I value most--my husband, children, friends and family, writing, podcasting, thinking about Objectivism as it is applied to parenting, being more involved in Objectivism in general, feeding us in a healthy way, being strong and healthy myself. Housework--meh.

With eating issues, letting go of perfectionism has been amazingly helpful--and healthy both physically and mentally. I learned that eating mostly healthy foods yields good results. I learned that it's okay to look like a regular person (who has had three babies!) than having to look like a supermodel. I also had to learn (and am still learning) to manage my feelings of disappointment, frustration, and anger in a more mature fashion (nothing helps a person do that better than having a job where you must teach children to do the same, IMO).

I developed the 90% rule--not just for eating, but for other areas of my life, too: It's okay to be 90%. I can be a good person with 90%. I will make good progress with 90%. I am able to enjoy 90%. 90% is Real and Achievable. Okay, "90%" is arbitrary, and not really measurable in many respects (how do you measure 90% of housework, when it's a moving target?). It's a mental substitution for the bad idea that my life either had to be Unachievable Perfection or Failure. It's an attempt to concretize a better idea instead. Does that make sense?

Again, if you're not a perfectionist, this whole little section might be a source of bewilderment to you. But if you ARE a perfectionist--I'm right, aren't I? 100% right! 100% right! I mean, 90%! :D

Okay, I'm going to stop here for now because it's becoming clear that this is going to be looooongggg. I'll put up the next installment soon. I'd love to hear comments about this so far!


Chris said...

Yes, yes, yes!

Um, I liked this.

Bill Brown said...

If your following of a low-fat diet was an error of knowledge, would you say that someone who is fully aware of the paleo diet yet doesn't follow it is immoral?

Jenn Casey said...

Thanks, Chris!

Bill, of course not. If you are aware of the paleo diet and don't agree with it or think it's healthy, then don't eat it. Everyone should try to eat the foods they think are healthiest, and each person is obligated to make that determination for himself. I think the facts support a paleo diet but it's okay if someone disagrees with me.

For me, continuing to follow low-fat would be immoral because I've determined it to be extremely unhealthy and based on not-very-good science. But each person has to make this decision for himself, based on his own research, thinking, health, etc.

Bill Brown said...

Okay, that's perfect and I agree completely. I just wanted to make sure that that wasn't an implication of what you were saying.

I'm also curious about your statement that "Everyone should try to eat the foods they think are healthiest, and each person is obligated to make that determination for himself." Frequently, I don't eat the food that I think is healthiest because "healthiest" is not my standard for choosing what food to eat. My standard varies: sometimes it's "tastiest" or "most convenient" or "cheapest." In fact, it's fairly rare that I am concerned about "healthiest."

What I'm driving at is a premise that might be worth checking: that food must maximize one's health. It's definitely one that has spread far and wide in online Objectivist circles. I've seen many foods, especially ones containing carbohydrates, vilified as evil and those who consume them as dupes of the SAD establishment and I just don't get it.

Kim Catacutan said...

I think I found another way in which we are similar. I, too, am a recovering perfectionist. In my perfectionist past, I would make one minor mistake and dwell on it, even if I was 99% correct.

I am still working on my eating habits. I eat a healthy diet about 90% of the time, so maybe I shouldn't be so hard on myself! I had never thought deeply about how my perfectionism (recovering or otherwise) affects my eating behaviors, but I'm sure it does. I know my emotions trigger certain eating behaviors, usually unhealthy ones.

Bill, I am intrigued by your comments. I guess you won't think I'm evil for eating two ice cream sandwiches last night. Ha ha!

Jenn, I look forward to reading more about your journey with food and paleo eating.

ACH said...


Great post! I really appreciated the breakdown of what was going on in your head during this process. It is also inspiring the way you were being honest with yourself about the whole situation. I wish you well on this journey.


Prometheus said...

Great article. Thanks for being brutally honest about perfectionism. I too am struggling with it. And yes, 90% is okay. Thanks for the tips.

Kate said...

Oh YES! Great post!

I totally identify with that circular reasoning.
7 or 8 yrs ago, I learned these two sayings and I walked around all day saying "It doesn't have to be perfect, it just has to be better." and "Close enough is good enough." I even wrote them on Post-its, and stuck them everywhere in the house!
Home schooling, house work, gardening, diet, etc...it took me months to internalize the concept that perfection isn't realistic or achievable.

Our home life is so much more peaceful now, since I took the pressure off myself and everyone else in my family.

Elisheva Hannah Levin said...

First, I totally understand the perfectionist problem. It's odd, but I find that I must deal with it issue by issue, and I expect that sooner or later I will be able to generalize recovering from perfectionism. Currently, housework seems to be the issue over which my perfectionism is fading.

Secondly, in dealing with food and diets, I learned that for myself, the whole idea is meshugena. I come from a culture that has a pretty good sense of what tastes good and what is good for you. And it has conflicted with every single dietary fad that has hit the United States in my lifetime. So I just tell people that it's against my religion to diet.

I'd rather eat a little bit of satisfying real butter than half a tub of margerine trying to be satisfied. So I eat what I call "real" food, prepared in ways that make me happy because it fits my heritage food culture, and I don't obsess about my weight. Real women have curves!And Jewish men don't like "skinny."

As a biologist, I have always been suspicious of the food fads in the US because they are generally one-sided, and have a lot to do with "will power" rather than satisfying nutritional needs. People should eat and be satisfied--that is biologically sensible. Being hungry after a meal? Feh.

Also, as a biologist I am very suspicious of "diet science" and studies based on BMI. It's a bad measure that does not take into account genetic differences, or muscle/fat ratios--which are necessarily different between the sexes--as well as the patterns of growth in children. BMI has become a moral issue among a certain class of technocrats, and it is being used to control the population in ways that I find ugly.

Anyway, I have maintained the same weight for 16 years--since I stopped nursing my younger child--even if it has redistributed itself on my body as I age. And I refuse to obsess. For me, that way lies madness. I will always look like a short, round woman with an Eastern European heritage. I will never be tall and willowy. And my husband likes me that way--even though my body has changed through childbearing and aging. Life is good, and obsessing over not looking like an anorexic model will not improve it any.

And I have good genetics in this regard--no food allergies, no diabetes in the family. In other areas, I did not get the turn of the friendly card, but in this one, I was dealt a good hand.

Jenn Casey said...

Thanks for your comments, everyone. I'm glad what I've written has seemed familiar to you other perfectionists out there! :o)

Bill, in the context of this post, and the follow up posts to come, I am talking about my journey to healthy eating, and an improvement of my physical and psychological health.

Of course I recognize that there are other standards by which you can choose food. In fact, I am planning to make a big decidedly non-paleo birthday cake for my son's birthday this weekend. I will make it, serve it, and eat some, too. And I will enjoy it very much, because of the improvements I've made.

However, since a certain level of health is a prerequisite to pursuing other values, I believe that overall, a person should make more healthy choices than non-healthy. Each person must choose which level of health he is happy with--we don't all need or want to be body builders, for example--and the diet and other things that are conducive to generally maintaining that level of health.

I'm not going to presume to speak for everyone else in the Objectivist circles which you're referring to, but I have not seen any evidence of what you suggest. If you are concerned about this, please bring that concern to those people, not here. That is not what I'm saying at all, and I hope I've clarified myself. And I suspect those others will agree with what I've stated.

I do think too many carbs in a person's diet over time will result in poor health--I think this based on the research I've done and from personal experience. And I do think most people have been duped by the pseudo-science that has resulted in the SAD. You are free to disagree with this, of course. It's no skin off my nose if you disagree with me, and honestly I'm not going to lose sleep worrying about our disagreement on this detail.

Finally, the purpose of my posts re: paleo is not to expound upon or explain or defend the diet per se--there are many others better equipped to do this (not to mention more interested in doing so), and I suspect you know where to find them. These posts are about a different issue, and the paleo thing is but a side note to the main issue--that of improving my mental and physical health.

Elisheva Hannah Levin said...

Jenn, to be clear, I was not making any judgement on your paleo food choices. I don't know much about it.
I hope you didn't take what I said as an argument. I haven't seen many Objectivists that are all that excited by any particular diet, and I have seen no criticism rendered of those who do follow them.

My comment was from the perspective of my own perfectionism and the way I avoid sabotaging myself by using my inherited food culture as a guide. I hope it was helpful.

A question: Does the Paleo diet take into account origins? What I mean is that if you were to do a genotype of different people, there is a pretty clear line of descent that leads to different places: NE Europe, Eastern Europe, Southern Europe, Asia, the Middle East. Each of these origin points has dietary peculiarities that also link to certain prevailing gene frequencies. For example, people with gene lines going back to the Middle East seem to handle alcohol better, but do not binge and there is some genetics that supports that. They also tend to eat a lot of dairy in the form of soft cheeses and yoghurt. And there are genes that turn on to break down milk sugars efficiently.
So I am wondering if this is taken into account when considering an evolutionary approach to eating.

Kim Catacutan said...

Elisheva, I found your comments very interesting and not at all argumentative. I think Jenn may have been referring to a couple of Bill's comments.

Anyway, I found your question about ancestry/genotype quite interesting. It reminds me of something I read once about how Asians are much more likely than Europeans to be allergic to cow's milk. So from what you said, one may infer that the allergy may possibly be caused by lack of a certain gene to break down the sugar or protein in the milk. I also remember reading about how Eskimos were able to stay very healthy and live long lives eating a diet of all fish. So it's possible that including some cow's milk or broccoli in their diets might not be compatible with their genetic makeup and may lead to health problems. Or someone from Eastern European ancestry may become ill eating the same diet as an Eskimo. You brought up many interesting questions for me! It makes sense, and it reminds me how our standard American diet (SAD) of processed food is slowly killing us.

Jenn Casey said...

Elisheva, my previous comment was mainly addressing some of the things Bill brought up re: a number of Objectivists who are exploring and advocating this "paleo" diet (I much prefer to call it Evolutionary Eating). It was not directed at you. In fact, much of what you wrote makes excellent sense--eating to satisfy real nutritional needs versus following a fad (or the SAD) and feeling hungry. And that's perfectly consistent with paleo. So I am sorry if you thought I was directing that at you.

If you are interested in learning more about it, there's a website called Modern Paleo that has many links and resources (the owners/managers are Objectivists). It's modernpaleo.com.

I don't know the answer to your question about ancestors. I'd be interested to find out more--there might be resources on MP, actually.

And to clarify for one and all--the reason I don't really want to get into the ins and outs of paleo per se is not because I can't explain or defend it--it's simply because I'm not that interested in doing so, especially given my mile-high plate of other things I should be working on! And the folks at MP have done an excellent job at this.

I hope it's enough to know that I think it's a great sensible science-based way to look at your overall diet, and that I have experienced great success eating this way (beyond merely losing extra pounds I mean) in improving my health, and it's yummy. :o)

Adam Thompson said...

Exactly! I'm dealing with that exact perfectionism problem in my work. "I have to find the best possible solution, or not do it at all." And mirroring your struggle with food, I will think, "I already wasted two hours chatting, so the whole day is shot for work, I might as well not even try." This is extremely, horribly detrimental.

I'm going to try out your techniques (including introspecting...more) and see if they help.

C. August said...

Bill, I believe you stated in a comment on my blog awhile back that you haven't read Good Calories Bad Calories, and have no intention to. (As evidence of that statement, you also suggested that the obesity epidemic is simply due to people eating more and exercising less, which books like GCBC go to great lengths to disprove, and successfully so, I might add.)

That's fine--there are many other resources to use if one is interested--but have you done any research into the paleo diet? If not, why comment on it?

If you have done research and disagree with the scientific claims, I would respect that. I'd think you were wrong, but big deal.

As it is, it doesn't appear that you have done the legwork to understand the issues, but still wish to comment negatively about those who have determined to pursue the healthiest lifestyle they can. As you said, "I just don't get it."

Laurie D. said...

Very accurate description of the mind language of perfectionism. I am a procrastinator perfectionist also. If I can't do it right, I tend to let it go. I've become much better at conquering these tendencies over the last few years but food is still a sticking point. I KNOW paleo is better, so why can't I just do it?! Very frustrating but your post gives me some insight and impetus to keep plugging away at it. I'm wondering if any of your children show perfectionist tendencies? My 22-year old daughter has been one from birth. She used to line up toys in perfect lines and get so upset if they got out of line. Now, she still has perfectionist meltdowns. Unlike me, she does not procrastinate, but instead does everything to the nth degree which is so stressful for her. For both kinds of perfectionists, the common ground seems to be the negative thoughts we use against ourselves. Looking forward to the next installments and some more insightful comments!

Bill Brown said...

I haven't read GCBC, that is true. I've read Taubes' long essays on the subject though so I'm not quite the ignorant simpleton you might think me. I've read quite a bit on Modern Paleo and other sites. Furthermore, I read several of The Zone books back when they first came out and followed the diet for about three months.

I'm not quite sure why you think I "comment negatively" on those who follow the paleo diet. I only referred to paleo in following up on an implication of something Jenn wrote that she cleared up admirably. I did suggest that a particular premise might warrant checking and then that carbs were vilified, but I don't think that is somehow beyond the pale. In fact, it's precisely the point of her blog entry.

I prefer to live my life without worrying about the precise composition of what I eat, counting calories, or spending my free time doing nutritional research. I couldn't tell you my Vitamin D levels are or what omega-3 is good for. I am healthy with no weight problems. If other people care passionately about such things and meticulously measure their health, more power to them. I don't think that there's anything wrong with either of our approaches.

It's optional beyond a certain point. But I'm not going there again.

Elisheva Hannah Levin said...


Thanks for the link. I have become interested in genomic differences that result in different food cultures, believe it or not, because of something I learned about bacteria when I took genetics years ago. Certain bacteria carry an operon in their genome, the LAC operon, that lets them process lactose when it is present in the environment. Although eukaryotes do not have operons, there are other ways in which cells can turn off and on genes, and there are genetic variations that allow the organism to exploit the foods in different environmental niches, although the variations do not lead to speciation.

And here my Aspie tendencies do indeed come out--I am so fascinated with this that I forget you may not be.

Anyway, thanks for taking my question seriously and providing the link!

And, as you gathered, I am not much of a fan of SAD, which has become not only strange and unhealthy, but also a source of misplaced moral judgement rendered on calories, of all things!

maryallene said...

I enjoyed your post a lot, Jenn! I used to make one bad diet choice and then figure I'd blown it I may as well eat whatever junk I could find. I spent over 40 years correcting that error. I'm 56, and can say I have that problem about 98% under control :)

I also like Laurie D.'s comments on procrastination. That was an eye-opener for me, and made me realize that my procrastination is related to perfectionism. Especially if I have to write something for work or Toastmasters I put it off and end up in a total time crunch. Don't know why I didn't see before that the reason is partly because I know I won't be satisfied with what I write, at least initially, and I don't want to face that :0(

Amy said...

Thanks so much for your post, Jenn! I too am a recovering perfectionist. I really love your introspection, and have done a lot for myself as well.

One of the unhealthy thoughts that I struggle with is thinking that junk food (yummy sugary food) is a reward -- or that it will bring up my energy (not!) -- or that it will cause me to experience happiness (a little bit). I've recently tried my best to rethink this and to understand that by eating junk, I am *punishing* my body -- I am punishing myself by causing a circumstance where I am ashamed of my body, and instead I deserve to look and feel attractive and healthy.

I've also struggled with the feeling of junk-induced hunger (which I understand only some people experience). You eat sugar or a carbonated drink or bread or any simply carb (as opposed to complex carbs like veggies), and a feeling of sickness, weakness, nausea comes over you, until you give in to more simple carbs.

I've pretty much overcome this feeling as I've been eating better, and I know how to handle it when it comes on -- this is when I find will power to be the most helpful, until I can get some veggies or nuts or something healthy in me.

So I wish you all the best in your journey to health! I'll keep working on me as well.