Desire & Oughts

Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about the concept of “heart.” Aside from the physical heart we all possess, we have core emotions and motives that come from a metaphorical heart that is invisible in our anatomy. Within this heart, we find the driver of all the things we end up doing. People talk a lot about how powerful our brains are, but we can’t think ourselves into lasting habits, consistently compassionate behavior, or emotive responses.

I think about this in the context of food quite a bit. I have a desire to “eat healthy” and maintain a body that is physically fit. But I also love pizza, burritos, fried chicken, and CAKE. (I won’t even get into my inexplicably deep love for cake.) How can I possibly balance this one ideal of healthy living with the pleasure I take in eating these foods that clearly don’t benefit my body?

I have come up with a technique that has served me well over the years. Unfortunately, it isn’t a silver bullet, catch-all solution. I don’t think anything in life is really that simple. There are always two (or more) opposing concepts in which we have to find some sort of middle ground. My food solution involves my heart first and my head second. Here it is: I aim to genuinely, deeply enjoy all of the food I eat. And then I seek to assess what I’m cumulatively putting into my mouth with complete honestly.

Let’s break those 2 components down. Let’s start with the enjoyment factor. We all know that we need to eat our vegetables, but it’s more of a “Yeah, yeah. Blah, blah, blah” acknowledgement. As a chef, I have thought a lot about where flavor comes from, and I can objectively say that vegetables have way more flavor than any meat. That’s a nice place to start. I don’t eat vegetables for the sole purpose of being healthy or because a poster I saw in elementary school told me to. I eat them because they taste super good. There are countless ways to make vegetables taste terrible, and I avoid those like the plague. But whenever I come across an amazing vegetable dish at a restaurant or find an awesome a recipe, I assimilate it into my repertoire. And then I eat those frequently and joyfully.

Do I only eat vegetables? Heck no. In fact, I ate a bunch of tacos, a cupcake, and 2 slices of cake yesterday. I don’t have a formula for how often we should eat less healthy food, but I typically like to reserve those times for eating out (where there are unique options and opportunities to experience someone else’s creativity) and being with friends. Our emotions are so closely tied to our senses (smell first, and taste second), so I try to take that into account as I eat all kinds of food. As a general rule, I try to limit my intake of sweet treats to no more than once a day. And I try to choose that moment wisely. I have observed that I can eat the same treat at different times in different contexts, and I will have different emotional experiences. For me, saving a treat for the end of the day and eating it in peace after my kids are asleep is very relaxing. I can savor each bite, and the moment can be special. It makes eating a less-nutritionally-beneficial food worth it. Compare that with grabbing a pre-packaged cookie to attempt to reduce my stress level when I have all 3 of my little kids with me at the grocery store. It doesn’t actually work.

Let’s look at the honesty component. This is a tough one. But I can say from experience that it gets easier with practice. If I had a sweetened coffee in the morning, I know that I shouldn’t have ice cream after dinner. However, I could do the ice cream and no sweetener in my coffee tomorrow. The nice thing is that our bodies have a tolerance for processing sugar; we just can’t overload our pancreases. If you give your insulin pumper a chance to do its job, then you can ask it to perform for you again later. Unfortunately, our culture doesn’t make this easy. That’s why I’m such a proponent of cooking our own food. We simply won’t be putting handfuls of sugar and salt into the dishes we make, so we’re already at an advantage over eating fast- or processed-food. I’ll ask myself, “Have I eaten mostly veggies today?” If the answer comes back negative, then I need to adjust.

The nice thing is that it’s possible to train our bodies and our senses. If we practice listening to our bodies, we can get an automatic sense of what foods we need to eat. Then we can be more on autopilot without such mental exertion. Our tongues are also highly adaptable. Taste is simply a perception that comes from our tongues sending a signal to our brain that either triggers pleasure or otherwise. A great personal example of changing tastes is in my recent incorporation of green juice into my diet. One day while at Costco, I saw a multi-pack of single-serve bottles, and I decided to pick it up. There were 6 bottles, and I decided to drink one each morning for 6 days. The first day was rough. These bottles contained nothing but cucumber, celery, grapefruit, green chard, green leaf lettuce, lemon, kale, spinach, parsley, peppermint tea, and spearmint tea. I was used to making smoothies that were mostly fruit, so this was quite a departure. On day 1, I was sipping and thinking of Costco’s liberal return policy. But I decided to keep pushing. Day 2 was ever so slightly better. Day 3 was tolerable. By day 5 I downright enjoyed the flavor. And by the time Saturday arrived, I was disappointed there were no more in my fridge.

That’s pretty remarkable. I would not have guessed my tastebuds could adapt that quickly. But that change required making a choice that started in my brain, and then allowing my senses to catch up. Now I can choose a drink like that in the morning from a genuine desire for the taste. Not because some cosmic nanny figure out there is shaking her finger at me telling me to eat more vegetables.

My encouragement to you is to eat all of your food with deep enjoyment. Eat what you want and do your future self the kindness of keeping things in balance. There’s a lot of room for being imperfect; just attempt to be thoughtful and conscious of each choice.

Mark BjerkeComment