On Moderate Eating

Eating has been my struggle for years.  As a teen, I grew like a weed, sprouting to 6’4” (193 cm) today.  But I’m 27 now. Anyone who tells me I should “eat up” because I am a “growing boy” is full of it.  Any growing I have left to do is horizontal in nature.

Fortunately, I accept that horizontal growth is my choice.

Millions of people struggle with horizontal growth.  My grandfather suffered from chronic widening and lost his life. Fear motivates me to avoid his footsteps and dodge the health problems that pushed him to an early grave.  

This fear drives me to watch my weight like a hawk.  I weigh myself daily and track the data with a Bluetooth scale.  What gets measured gets managed. We cannot monitor what we cannot see.

But as you see, I struggle to maintain a stable weight.  Sure, fluctuations of a few pounds is normal due to water, salt, and carbohydrate intake.  But I’ve seen my scale jump as much as 4 kilograms (almost 9 pounds) the morning after Captain Fatass goes to town.

Yes, I binge.  I binge hard. Sushi buffets, pizza, fried chicken, scones, cookies, ice cream, and more ice cream slide down my throat before I can appreciate the taste.

My saving grace is a busy week.  Thanks to a demanding work schedule, volunteer work, Korean lessons, and teaching after-school classes, I don’t have time to overeat on weekdays.  

On the weekend, however, the game is afoot. The Captain docks into port and terrorizes the town. This manifests in bakery-bouncing- buying tantalizing sweeties at four nearby bread shops. Scones and walnut pies are my weakness.  I stop once the fifth bakery is too far and I’m too embarrassed to retrace my steps.

I struggle to unearth the underlying psychology of my binges.  I doubt such eating stems from physical hunger. One body can crave only so much ice cream.  I feed my mouth and mind to the detriment of my body. My body wants vegetables, fruits, beans, and other nutrient-rich foods.

Last year, I experienced a decline in binge eating when I made a stronger effort to connect with friends.  I have no doubt that this overfeeding is emotional in nature.

However, it’s also momentum-driven.  Once I start eating junk, junk-eating becomes the default action.  These hyper-palatable food produce flash-flame pleasures than dwarfs eudaimonic activities like reading a book or writing a blog post.  Even though the latter, slow-burning pastimes promote long-term well-being, fat and sugar hijack my dopamine to the point of no return.

After I binge, I sleep poorly and awaken with stomach pain.  Pizza-flavored vomit and bile burp up into my throat. I force it back down with a wince as I reach for water.  Ever the mental masochist, I then step on the scale, sigh in disbelief, and ogle my puffy, bloated physique.

This is not a logic problem. I am not ignorant of the pain I bring on myself.  Why should I sacrifice up to two days of poor physical condition for what amounts to 30 minutes of hyper-palatable tastes?

I want to feel vibrant and alive.  I want to look good in the mirror. I want to live for a long while. These motivations never wane.  But my food cravings overpower them nonetheless.

Maybe motivation is not enough.

One day, listening to a kind Scotsman describe the dietary temperance of Marcus Aurelius in his audiobook, I considered a new source of motivation for moderation.

Not only do I struggle with overeating junk on the weekends, but also nuts and fruits on weekdays.  I defy my intermittent fasting window for late-night snacks. The following morning, my alarm blares. And I snooze.  And snooze. I snooze until there is time for nothing more than a brief meditation.

I teach my morning classes through a fog of lassitude and listlessness. The blood sugar spike is long gone.

However, listening to Marcus Aurelius’ dietary moderation reminded me of hara-hachi-bu – an Okinawan proverb.  Many residents of Okinawa, a southern Japanese island, recite this phrase before meals to remind themselves to stop eating when they feel 80% full.  In other words, they stop eating when the feel satisfied, not stuffed.

Anecdotes flood my mind.  I once spent several months doing weekly 24-hour fasts between Tuesday and Wednesday lunchtime.  During this time, memories of alert, inspired teaching surprised me.  

Perhaps there is something to maintaining a slight hunger – a whetted edge of energy.

So I gave it a shot.  I ceased to take seconds in my school cafeteria lunch line, I eschewed evening snacks (even healthy ones), and I ate moderate, portion-planned dinners at home.

And I drank enough water to kill the kidneys of a mortal man.

This proved difficult at first.  Temptation tickled me to no end. But after several days, I adapted and my life changed.  I felt more diligent and focused at work. I awoke to my 5:00 alarm without fail.  I taught with reinvigorated energy and cheer. I didn’t feel puffy, bloated, or sick to my stomach.  I felt strong.

Then I bakery-bounced after a soju-soaked dinner with co-workers. Two steps forward, one step back. I am a work in progress.

I am unaware of the scientific literature on caloric intake and energy levels, though I would hypothesize an inverted-U-shaped curve.  In other words, eating far too little or far too much produces sluggishness while eating a perfect amount of calories leads to optimal levels of energy.

For me, however, I try to err on the side of less.  Though I do not have scientific data to back this up, evolutionary logic speaks to me.

When we are slightly underfed, we to feel motivated to find food.  Perhaps that motivation manifests in a slight uptick in stress hormones like cortisol or norepinephrine – hormones geared towards energy mobilization.  Our body’s aren’t starving at this point, but perhaps the drive to find food ignites.

So when in a slightly underfed state (100-200 calorie deficit), we may feel sharper, more energetic, more alert.  After all, we need the motor skills to catch that gazelle and the sense to differentiate edible and poisonous berries.

This might be complete nonsense.  But given the scientific connection between minor caloric restriction and positive health outcomes, perhaps these beliefs are the placebo effects I need to motivate me against overeating.  Do I want to feel sharp or sluggish? Sick or robust? Do I want to wake up ready for the day? Or ready to lounge in front of the computer?

The choice of how we feel tomorrow lies in the food we eat today.  Armed with an additional mental model, we hope to make healthier choices moving forward.

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