What Should I Eat?
What should I eat? That is the question one of my yoga students asked me just the other day, and yep I have heard that one before so many times. It is one of those questions that seems so simple, yet many Americans battle this inner chatter day after day, myself included. So let's dive a little deeper into the question, and attempt to find an answer.
Marc David, one of my favorite nutrition guru's says that in order to find a solution, you must first understand the problem. So as clients come to me dazed and confused looking for answers, the first one I must give them (and probably not what they want to hear) is "It Depends." In order to know what to eat, we must first ask ourselves - Why are we eating? The reasons behind our hunger may be many, but at the root it's not all that complicated because it is on of our primal instinct, the first thing we learn is how to feed ourselves when we are hungry. The baby wants food, the baby cries for it, some adult human brings the bady food. The same thing happens when we are older when the body needs food, it cries out for it. This could be communicated through hunger pains, a growling belly, and energy drop, or even a little "Hangry" mood swing.
Now that might sound simple, but then we peel back the layers and dive deeper into the complicated ways of the body and mind. Why are we hungry, and what are we hungry for? This brings us to understanding what Dr. Ed Bauman categories as the Four Levels of Eating. The Four Levels of Eating are a way of understanding where you currently are with your diet choices based on the current state of your body, mind, environment, emotions, logistics, and ongoing challenges. When you understand your level of eating, you can start to see why your body craves what it craves, and start to become more aware of better choices you might be able to make as you slowly climb the ladder to better health. Now we often jump back and forth between these levels, sometimes even in the same day, and they all have there place in a healthy lifestyle. By learning the levels and becoming aware of what your body needs any given moment, makes finding the right foods to eat little more clear.
The Four Levels Of Eating
Level 1: Eating for Pleasure Oh it taste SOOOOO Good! Yes that is the reaction most of us had when we took that first big bite of Ben & Jerry's Half Baked Ice Cream. I mean come on, combining my two favorite things cookie dough and chocolate brownies was a dream come true for this teenager. And that ice cream tasted even better after a bad break up or a stress Econ test. Yes, we all eat for pleasure at some point, and this usually draws us to sweet, salty or greasy foods that tickle that part of our brain that make us feel good. You might call them comfort foods. When eating for pleasure we are eating for immediate gratification, aimed at maximizing pleasure and minimizing pain. The foods that often fill this level of eating include cookies, cakes, chocolate, bread, cheese, pizza (yes that sweet combination of bread and cheese!), chips, french fries, soda and alcohol.
This choice often correlates to foods we ate as kids that our brain now connects to pleasure. And while yes eating for pleasure can lead us down a slippery slope to food addiction, undereating and overeating, it is also a natural part of the eating process when exercised correctly. I like to think of the 80/20 rule here. Marc David says we all need a little vitamin P (pleasure) as part of our healthy diet. So allowing yourself to indulge here and there can actually be beneficial if it's in that 20% window, and the other 80% is delicious and nutritious foods. What changes as we become more aware of our bodies and our foods, is that those foods that bring us pleasure start to change. Maybe one day you will be craving for healthy foods that bring your pleasure, like a big bowl of Kale Salad or making your own homemade treats with all natural ingredients such as dates or rich coconut milk. Believe me pleasure is a must, but resetting our taste buds and rewiring the brain takes some time and effort in our world of mass produced and overly processed foods that act more like drugs on the body as they hijak the pleasure center in the brain keeping us coming back for more.
Level 2: Eating for Energy
This level is all about what I HAVE to eat to keep going. You might know an elite athlete who sees food as fuel and harness the power of specific food combination to thrive. But on the other side you may have met those people who are just so busy they "forget" to eat lunch and eat anything you put in front of them when it comes to dinner. This level of eating is all about blood sugar regulation, and grabbing whatever is available to add fuel to our fire and keep us moving along. We tend to choose slightly better foods then the pleasure level, often reaching for a quick fix of substantial portion sizes. Carbohydrates might be more complex and vegetables might make the cut, but you want it quick and easy. These energy meals can include burritos, burgers, pasta, sandwiches, Chinese take out, or maybe some fried chicken.
Food is energy, so you might be a bit confused here because you have been programmed to just think about energy as calories and calories are what make up our food. But our food is SOOO much more than that. Food is complex and has layers that need to be explored, examined, and understood in order to make good choice about how to feed yourself or your family.
Now with this level, there is often a lack of awareness about the quality of the food we are eating and then also the quantity. We don't think about if it's organic, we often reach for frozen foods over fresh and we don't realize what the food industry may have snuck into our meal because we didn't take the time to read the label. A diet that is constantly fast paced is often acid forming, disrupts our digestion and leads to over-eating because we don't think about the food even when we are actually eating it. One of the first steps to improving your diet at this level (and really all levels) is to practice the SLOW DOWN diet. Through awareness of our food, we can cultivate action when needed. Action is really how to start to make those changes in our diet we keep talking about but haven't got to yet.
Level 3: Eating for Recovery
The Standard American Diet (SAD) is often a combination of Level 1 and Level 2 eating which inevitably leads us to chronic health problems, low energy, and struggling to balance our emotions. Now this is not where any of us want to be, but it's often when we hit the bottom that we finally start to pull ourselves back up to the top. This leads to a Recovery Diet, a diet formulated by some doctor, cutting edge expert, or celebrity with a book deal that promises you will get back into the best shape of your life if you just follow their quick and easy plan. We are all looking for this magic bullet, and walk into any book store (or log on to Amazon) and you will be bombarded with an on slot of Diet Books, programs, shakes and magic pills. When we feel like we are broke down, we look for the fastest and easiest way to get back up, the diet industry knows this and makes billions of dollars from it.
Now some of these diets are actually really good plans for therapeutic eating and help thousands of people regain their health. Things like the Zone, Atkins, South Beach, Vegan and Raw diets may work well and get you where your going. But the problem is that most people don't know how to choose the diet that is right for them, or know how long to stay on that diet, or can afford to purchase all the must-have products, and in the end just get bored with a limited style of eating. The idea that most of these diets follow is put into a GOOD or BAD categories, then restricting those BAD foods for long periods of time because when following the "RULES of the DIET". Now anyone who has walked into a museum and seen the little red sign that says "Don't Touch" knows that the first thing you now want to to is touch it! So these diets tend to lead us to binge eat or quit as an act of emotional rebellion sending us right back to level one.
The benefits of these diets are often quick and exciting but short-lived as we reach a point of diminishing return. Many people then find themselves in the dangerous cycle of chronic dieting, which over time can do much more harm than good. As Dr. Baumen points out, this level of eating is better than the first two, but quickly becomes tiresome, judgemental, obsessive, emothional draining and often times product or supplement driven.
Level 4: Eating For Health
Ok so we have finally arrived! The goal of this approach is a life-long exploration of food, nourishment, healing and love. It allows for personal choice, variety, seasonality and individuality according to a person's needs in that moment. Yep like I said, when answering the question "What should I eat?" the answer is : It depends! When eating for health you want to choose healthy whole foods in their most natural forms. You are looking for those foods that taste good, are visually pleasing, and make us feel good before, during and after each meal. This level of eating does not dictate what foods you MUST eat, it opens you up to the abundance of amazing food we GET to eat. By becoming more aware of our body, its wants and its needs, we can choose the best available food for our personal health and benefit from thier healing wisdom.
When you find yourself at the Eating for Health level, it's like being in the zone with food. You are drawn to seasonal, organic, unrefined and local foods that nourish your Soul. The simple foods taste better and makes you more satisfied than other "food like substance" or highly refined foods that have been stripped of their energy and nutrient content. The Eating for Health model draws on many different systems and philosophies, allowing you to find one that resonates with you such as Chinese Medicine, Ayurveda, naturopathy, cutting-edge biochemistry and even environmental sustainability.
When eating at this level you are fully aware and enjoying your food from start to finish. This includes not just what we eat but how we eat. In a relaxed state of mind and body, sharing a meal with family or friends, celebrating the moment and showing gratitude for the abundance of nourishment on your plate. This allows us to embrace our food for its pleasure, energy, and healing powers that we are all seeking on our journey through life and take us to a place of health, happiness and beyond.