I’ve been in a decade-long battle with food, but I don’t fit some of the typical traits of someone who struggles with food.
- I’m not obese (I’ve lost 30 lbs since January, 2021, but I’m still 20-30 lbs overweight)
- I’m not a binge eater.
- I wasn’t overweight as a child.
Although I continually work at reaching an ideal weight for my body, my food story is different from most people’s, and I often feel like I’m the only person like me. It’s not fun to feel alone, so I’m writing today’s post to let you know…
You’re not alone, regardless of your particular struggle.
The details of my story might be different than yours, but if you struggle with food, then we have something in common.
I’m 56 years old, and almost 12 years ago, I decided to become plant-based. After reading The China Study by T. Colin Campbell, and watching Forks Over Knives , I was convinced that eating a whole food, plant-based diet was the healthiest way to eat.
I’m not talking about processed vegan food, but real food: vegetables, fruit, grains, legumes and nuts and seeds, with little to no added oils, sugar or salt. You might believe we’re designed to eat meat, dairy and eggs, which is fine. This post is not about what the best diet is.
It’s about how trying to stick to a diet that is healthy (by your own definition) can be a real struggle.
2010 wasn’t the first time I wanted to ditch animal products. When I was in my early twenties, I read Diet for a New America by John Robbins and attempted to go vegan. I turned to chips, and other junky food, telling myself it was ok to eat them because they were made from plants. Since living on junk food wasn’t a good plan, I went back to eating the standard American diet that included meat, dairy and eggs.
Since 2010, I’ve been trying to stick to a whole food, plant-based diet. Eating this way is filling, delicious, nutritious and gives me lots of energy, and it helps me stay at a healthier weight.
So, what’s the problem? First, let’s look at my struggle.
-My pattern is that I’ll eat a plant-based diet for weeks or months at a time. I enjoy it and feel great. Usually, I’m not interested in eating things like pizza or chicken wings.
-Then I’ll veer off track by eating something like cheese. Next, I might start eating eggs or seafood.
-This often turns into weeks or months of consuming other foods I don’t really want to be eating (processed foods, meat, dairy and eggs).
I tell myself I don’t want to eat those foods, and that I want to stick to the healthy stuff. It’s frustrating when I’m trying to commit to something, but I just can’t be consistent. I used to feel ashamed when I went off track for chunks of time. Sometimes, I’d feel really low for days. Now, I remind myself that it’s part of the journey and I don’t feel bad about myself.
There were times when I wondered, Is there something wrong with me? Why can’t I do this?
There’s definitely nothing wrong with me, or with you.
So, what’s going on?
It’s the food.
Based on what I’ve learned over the years, as well as my experiences, here’s what I think is behind my struggle, and possibly yours.
Processed food and animal products have calories that are highly concentrated. This means we get a big dopamine (a feel-good brain chemical) hit in our brain when we eat them. The fat, sugar and/or salt levels in these foods are super satisfying and keep us coming back for more. A low calorie density food such as an apple will not give you the same dopamine hit as high calorie density foods like cheese or donuts.
Humans are designed to be drawn to foods that are highly concentrated. In The Pleasure Trap by Dr. Alan Goldhamer and Dr. Doug Lisle, I learned how our brains are designed to get as many calories as we can get. In hunter/gatherer times, we didn’t know where our next meal would come from, so we had to recognize the importance of eating those satisfying calories when they presented themselves.
In our natural environment, a ripe mango was sweet and an avocado was creamy; both were rich in calories. We’d get a nice hit of dopamine, which taught us to eat more of the foods that gave us this boost. The dopamine shot in our brains helped to keep us alive by teaching us to choose foods that made us feel good.
The problem is that in today’s modern world, we’re bombarded and surrounded by food products that are high in calories but not good for us. We’re still drawn to them, and crave them, and then we eat too much of them.
Today, grocery stores have aisles of “food” that are high in calories. Oreos are sweet and creamy, and our brain receives a dopamine hit when we eat one. This means when we can’t put a bag of chips down (high in fat and salt) or we eat too much pizza (high in fat, salt and sugar), we’re acting according to our brain’s design.
Pizza and chips are not natural foods. Sure, some may have more natural qualities than others, but they don’t grow on trees or sprout out of the ground. Humans weren’t designed to eat and digest these highly processed foods for energy. But, we’re hooked. Modern foods can be addictive for many people.
Think about it. If you refuse to give up a certain food, or you say you can’t live without a certain food, then what’s going on with that food? You’re addicted to it. Could you give up that food for 30 days or 6 months? Would you go through withdrawal and crave it?
Something to think about.
The addictive food out there may be different than alcohol or heroin, but in its own way, it’s got a hold on you. In Michael Moss’ book, Hooked, he references a definition for addiction that makes sense: “…a repetitive behavior that some people find difficult to quit.” If you keep going back to cookies, bread, potato chips, etc., then you might have a little addiction on your hands.
That’s me, and maybe that’s you. If I keep going back to cheese, then cheese is addictive for me. I’m not the only one, either. Cheese is often the hardest thing to give up when people go plant-based. If you’re interested in learning more about how cheese has such a strong hold on people, you can check out The Cheese Trap by Dr. Neal Barnard.
Another aspect related to anyone’s struggle to eat healthier is our taste buds. Once our taste buds get a hold of fat, sugar and/or salt, they want to party. If you eat nachos with sour cream or even vegan chocolate cake, you’re giving your taste buds a turn on the fat, sugar and salt dance floor. They want to boogie all night long, and every day.
If I eat unhealthy food for a couple of days, then my body simply wants more of it. I tell myself I should have a salad, but my taste buds are whispering to me, “No…we don’t want that. We want more of that fatty stuff you ate yesterday.”
I’ve found this to be true in reverse. When I eat healthy smoothies and salads, my taste buds love it and ask for more. They’re happy with fruit and vegetables. They don’t want the crappy stuff.
I can’t tell you why I veer off track when my taste buds are already happy with my healthy food choices. I think it’s a trick of the mind. After eating really well for a while, I think that I can just have a little of this or a little of that. Or I think I’ll just treat myself on the weekend. After those taste buds latch on to the fat/salt combination I love, though, it’s very difficult to tell them we have to stop eating that stuff and go back to spinach.
Food, as well as my evolutionary history, brain and taste buds, all have me gravitating to the unhealthy stuff. It’s not my fault I want to eat processed vegan cheese, or real cheese. They’re both high in fat and salt and both make me want to keep eating more. However, both will move me away from optimal health, and it is my struggle to try to avoid eating them or eating too much of them.
Just because there are powerful forces at play doesn’t mean the pressure is off, and that we have the perfect excuse to pig out. If I give in to the power of food, then I’m giving in to future health issues, which include being overweight. I want to be healthy and independent when I am older. The pressure is still there.
It’s my belief that the addictive nature of foods, with highly concentrated calories (via fat, sugar and salt), is the key factor that keeps us overweight/unhealthy and battling with food on a daily basis.
Of course, there are other factors that contribute to our eating patterns (our family’s diets, our past experiences, our stress and emotions, etc.), but ultimately, IT IS THE FOOD. You don’t sit down to watch a Netflix show with a bowl of green beans or celery. Instead, you’re chilling out with popcorn or Doritos (both high in fat and salt). When you come home at the end of a challenging day, you’re not reaching for carrots or kale to soothe your soul.
Aside from my battle of wavering between healthy food and unhealthy food, I have other situations that contribute to my struggle (although much less so than the addictive nature of food itself).
My inner critic beats myself up for not sticking to something I believe in. I ask myself, “What’s wrong with me?” “Why can’t I just stick to this way of eating, when I believe it’s the healthiest?” Even though I know there are issues with the food itself, I expect to be perfect somehow. The mental fight can be brutal, but over the years, I’ve learned to be kinder to myself. I have more self-compassion than I used to.
Part of my struggle appears in certain situations or listening to the opinions of others. For the most part, I don’t let them bother me, but occasionally, I get caught off guard and let their views affect me. There are three types of opinions or situations I run into when I’m eating in a certain way that can add to my continued battle with food.
Situations/Opinions that fuel my Struggle
The first are meat eaters who question me when I’m eating plant-based and tell me I’m not getting enough protein. Huge myth created by the meat industry. Some of them will go on and on and tell me other reasons why eating vegan is not healthy. I don’t bring up my way of eating at all; it’s their questions that start the conversation. I’ve learned to quickly change the subject. I’m not interested in defending my way of eating. I’m not out to convert anyone.
My struggle is also heightened from comments by people who judge me because one minute I seem to be plant-based, and the next minute, I’m not. They ask me why I’m changing how I eat all the time. I try to explain, but they just don’t get it.
I don’t really know what the judges think, but when I don’t stick to plant-based eating, I feel like a fraud and assume others think of me as sort of a fraud. I feel like no one should listen to me or take me seriously. It’s my own thinking here that’s the problem, and not other people. It’s the situation that triggers my thoughts.
The last group are the people I should be able to count on the most: other whole food, plant-based eaters. Many people who are vegan or plant-based will harshly judge others who try to eat that way, but aren’t always consistent. People like me. I appreciate their passion, but I don’t understand why they can’t encourage me and say “good for you” for trying.
Plant-based eaters and vegans with strong opinions could also remind me that what I’m trying to do, many people are not even willing to try. I’m not looking for a pat on the back, but support and encouragement would go a long way. Their opinions, which often center around their concern about animal cruelty in the agricultural industry, cloud their empathy for people who are making progress at reducing their meat intake etc.
This leads me to the topic of labels. I’m tired of people putting others into categories based on labels, and then expecting them to act/be a certain way because of those labels. It leads to purist thinking.
If you’re vegan, then why are you eating honey? If you’re whole food, plant-based, then why are you eating that fake meat? If you’re plant-based, then why are you eating that vegan cheese that has casein (a milk protein) in it? If you’re eating healthy, then why are you eating ice cream? And so on.
News Flash: People aren’t Perfect.
We need to praise our progress instead of pointing to the lack of perfection. For ourselves, and for the efforts of others.
I used to tell people I was plant-based, but then, I could see I wasn’t eating that way consistently, so I’d tell people I was 90% plant-based. Then I felt like I was a vegetarian because I kept going back to dairy. Forget it. No more labels. I don’t fit into a box with a label on it.
So, who am I then?
I’m a person working towards consistently eating a mostly plant-based diet. That’s it. I will not give up on my goal of becoming as healthy as I can be. I will not give up on becoming the healthy, active person I want to be just because I’m struggling and not doing it perfectly.
I will not let others or their expectations shame me.
There is no shame in my struggle, or yours. Take pride in your efforts that move you toward overcoming your struggle with food. Praise your progress.
Be HEALTHY (Healthy Eating And Living Transforms and Heals You),