I got this idea in my head I would do an elimination diet starting on New Year’s Day. I would eat only meat and lacto-fermented sauerkraut (Vitamin C and probiotics) for a week and gradually re-integrate foods one day at a time to observe any inflammatory reactions I might have to them. This would serve three purposes: (1) I’d almost certainly drop some weight; (2) reduce inflammation; and (3) acquire valuable information about what foods were triggering it.
But as Mike Tyson famously said, “Everyone has a plan until he gets punched in the face.” The fist came in the form of a nasty cold on New Year’s Eve I couldn’t shake for seven days, and that made it tough to observe any benefit from the diet — my baseline was sick and miserable — and parsing the degree of it was tough the first week. I was sorely tempted to go off the plan too — those bright orange physalis fruits (fresh gooseberries) were beckoning me, probably due to their Vitamin C content, but I held off.
So I wasted a week, and even the second one was tough because I was full of phlegm, and doing my usual running routine in the cold-ish Portugal weather was unpleasant. Still, I stuck with the plan, and I’ve not had an ounce of carbohydrates since last year. Zero fruit, zero grains, zero vegetables other than the fermented sauerkraut. I added back coffee, eggs, ghee, sardines, olive oil and sea bass without incident. The only reaction I’ve had so far (and I’ll have to double check again tomorrow) is to butter. Butter has some casein (the protein in milk), while ghee has none, and I suspect I might be sensitive to it — something I sincerely hope isn’t the case because the salted French butter we have here is so good, and also that would mean I should avoid cheese too.
But this experiment has been interesting for reasons I didn’t anticipate too. While I can eat grass-fed steak to my heart’s content, I am cut off from eating solely for enjoyment. It’s not that I don’t enjoy the steak, it’s that I enjoy it while also satiating my hunger and procuring the necessary nutrients. That’s as opposed to walking into the kitchen from my office at 3 pm, eating two crisp, juicy apples and a pear with a chunk of cheese, despite having already eaten a perfectly sufficient lunch.
As an adult, I’ve long stocked my kitchen with “healthy” options, fresh and dried fruit, cheese, nuts and high-cacao dark chocolate. I don’t do processed food very often — I’m not stuffing my face with crackers, chips and bread — but I am very much stuffing my face with dried apricots, almonds and pecans. Or I was.
After more than two weeks, you lose the sugar cravings somewhat. More than that, you start to wonder what eating is really about. Without the particular satisfaction of sugar (any kind of glucose, fructose or sucrose), it’s less compelling, and I say that no matter how perfectly salted and seared on the outside, yet rare in the middle the grass-fed NY steak.
Some of it is probably biochemical (the way in which we metabolize sugars vs fats and protein), but it’s also how virtually everyone in this society was raised. When you’re a kid, your parents bribe you with sugary treats rather than succulent steak or crispy roast chicken. If you sit still for the dentist, you can have a cookie because you behaved. The first time all of us are incentivized to do something we don’t want, the payment comes in the form of sugar.
And once we’ve been introduced to that pathway, burning sugars (and other carbohydrates in the form of crackers or french fries), we tend to crave more of them. The original addiction, setting the template for all the ones you acquire later in life like alcohol and caffeine, is sugar. (I find it interesting that in The Bible the Original Sin involves Eve presenting Adam with an apple.)
But this realization is a problem — after a life lived in the sugar-bribery paradigm, I’m coming to terms with the possibility that eating should only be incidentally pleasurable, not something you do for pleasure itself. That your waking hours are not to be punctuated by pleasure on demand in the form of food, that the habit of doing so is unnatural and only recently acquired in human history. That the mechanism of hunger and satiety is not an excuse to give yourself a reward. That the dichotomy between eating because it tastes good and abstaining to avoid gaining weight or falling into ill health was a mistake from the get-go, a failure of parenting common to virtually everyone raising children in this sugar-obsessed society.
Where does that leave me? I don’t know. I am looking forward to the end of the month when I re-introduce fruits and vegetables. I want to eat all the things I enjoy so much again, but maybe it’s the habit itself that’s the issue rather than eating “healthy” and avoiding what’s “unhealthy.” Yes, you can stave off some of the worst effects from a bad diet by substituting cheese and apples for granola bars and cereal, but if you are still eating solely to give yourself a bump of pleasure, you are stuck in a cycle of avoidance and addiction rather than awareness and freedom.
. . .
Few people I know take the biblical creation myth at face value, but I’m starting to think it was meant more literally than they think. It was the temptation of the apple, the ability to use food (or other substances) as pleasure on command rather than simply experiencing pleasure as an enjoyable but incidental aspect of life, that undergirds so much unnecessary suffering and distraction from purpose. But for the initial bribe, the Original Sin, so to speak, we might still be free.
The question is — and I’m posing it mostly to myself now — what I’m willing to do about it.