Posts Tagged ‘Buffy’

Pepper’s hierarchy of food relationships: a heuristic and recommendations for disordered eaters

I like to think of our relationship with food as having three tiers.  Is this a little bit presumptuous of me, and unacademic, and on the fly?  Try enormously. But I’ve been thinking about and interacting with these issues for some time, and I find that thinking about food in this way helps me to get at both my own mental state and the state of other people I talk to on a daily basis.

On the first level is the immediate vicinity: where is the food, and where am I, and how are we interacting?  The second level is more abstract: what is my relationship with food like in general?  How does food fit into my life?  Why do I eat?  The final level is Meta.  Super Meta.  What is my life like?  Am I happy?  Am I stressed?  We normally don’t think about such big themes in our lives in terms of food, but for a disordered eater, this is the most important level of all.  Food health falls under the umbrella of holistic health, so if we can get the big picture problems under control, the rest can more easily fall in line.

What follows is a description of each level, plus useful strategies I’ve uncovered and tested for handling disordered (mostly binge) relationships for each.


1.  On the lowest level of the hierarchy, it’s you and the food in front of you. What kind of food is it?  How much is there?   Do you know if the food in front of you is a ‘trigger’ food, and if it is just going to leave you wanting more?  Are you going to eat all of it?  Are you going to go back to the fridge when you’re done?   And most importantly, what do you do to forestall grazing, overeating, or even a binge?  Here are some ideas:

Get busy.  Keep both your hands and your mind engaged.  Do whatever you can to get your mind off of it.  Video games are oddly effective, as is playing an instrument, or doing housework.  Often, I used to exercise.  If I had the “good momentum” from exercise behind me, it could keep me off of food for even longer.   Leave the house– go to the library, a Starbucks, or run errands.  Drive.  Meditate.  Go for a walk.  Make a cup of tea.  Chew a stick, or even a whole pack, of gum (make sure you don’t eat when you’re done!).   Try and make sure that only foods that need to be cooked before being eaten, such as steak, or even frozen foods, are in your house.   Ease of access is really demonic for bingeing.  Take a shower.  Dance around in your underwear.  Make a list of everything that is beautiful about you.  Put both internal and external characteristics on that list.    Insist on loving yourself.  Make out with your significant other.  If you don’t have a significant other, find an understanding friend.  You probably have one or two or six hundred of them hanging around.

And if you can’t stop the binge, choose your foods more carefully.  If you absolutely MUST have a sweet, or you MUST have that one food you’re just dying for, try to have a little bit of it and then move on to something less treacherous for your health.  Then, over time (because we don’t punish, but instead congratulate, ourselves for making baby steps) try going for slightly less bad sweets.  For example, eat ice cream instead of cake.   An even better way to do this is to decrease the sweetness over time.  Reach for fruit instead of ice cream next.   And then maybe sweet potatoes.  And then veggies.  When I want to binge now, know what I eat?  Cabbage.  That’s right.   I’ll eat a whole head of cabbage at once.  It gives me the satisfaction (read: serotonin) I crave from continually eating without the calories or the blood sugar problems.  Turning to a food like this is also a good call if I’ve already started a binge.  Just throw a few pounds of vegetable matter in my stomach and see if it can handle anything else.


This brings us to the second level in the hierarchy.  What is your relationship with food?  Are you obsessive?  Compulsive?  Super controlled?   Chances are that if you’re a disordered eater, you’re fairly obsessive, and you think about food and what you’re putting in your body a lot.  You may think that this is good for you because it helps you increase your mindfulness and your health, but it’s possible that you’re wrong.  Being in control of our food, and constantly thinking about what we’re going to be eating next, and what we could be eating next, creates feelings of deprivation.  This turns mindfulness into obsessiveness, and then into addiction.

This is why “cheat days” for dieters often don’t work out very well.   They spend so much time planning cheat days that their minds just get stuck on those few, hyper-desirable, built-up foods.  Psychology has shown again and again that most of the pleasure and pain in our lives comes not from immediate moments but from anticipation.  So we build up foods in our minds way more than they ever deserve to be.

What’s more, if you’re thinking about what you’re eating next, you’re making yourself feel deprived.  Feeling deprived makes you ache for food.   Aching for food makes you ignore satiety signals.  You might in fact not be deprived at all.  You might even know logically that you aren’t deprived, but you still feel that way.  (It’s awful, isn’t it?)  I believe this is because you just think about it too much.  Is there a way you can get food off your mind, as well as your plate?  Try letting yourself have foods you like to binge on in small quantities, and then moving on to different foods.  Try to de-demonize foods.  Do I think fruit is kind of the devil?  Sure.  But if I relax that feeling into something more like: “fruit isn’t all that good for appetite management, but it won’t put a spear through my heart” then I can have a piece of apple when my roommate offers me one without fear, without loathing, and hopefully without too much emotional baggage in general.   Be mindful of what effects certain foods have on you, but also acknowledge that you can transcend those demons.  Eventually.  Baby steps are the name of the game.

Aside from these few mental strategies, we can make tangible changes in our lives to help re-balance our relationships with food, too.  For example, don’t buy carbohydrates!  That’s a good one.  Make sure to never shop when hungry, too.  Or perhaps make a shopping list before going out, give yourself a time limit in the store (or go shopping when you’re in a hurry), and come home with only those foods on the list.   Maybe you can ask your significant other to do the shopping for a while.  Or you could try eating out more, if that would help.  Limit the kinds of foods in your house that can be eaten without cooking, such as nuts, fruits, and dairy.  Talk to your friends and family about your “problems” and get them to understand that they can support you by having certain foods banned in the house, etc.  If you live in a house where people insist on having unhealthy foods, try partitioning off parts of the pantry for “you” and for “them.”  And then don’t look in those parts, ever!   They become easier to ignore over time.  Trust.  Another good trick is to buy foods frozen.  Even if you try to eat them out of the bag, your fingers might get too cold.  Perhaps that one belongs in Level 1.  Frozen foods are a go go.

Another good strategy I find, particularly for grazing, is to not eat breakfast.  This gives me a bit of “momentum” with which I can start my day feeling good.  I don’t want to ever ruin that by eating poorly or too much for the rest of the day.  A lot of people experience the same boost with exercise.  Whichever works for you.  But it’s a good one, trust me.

There are, of course, plenty of other ways to have negative relationships with food, including mindlessness, severe restriction, purging, super selectivity, and a range of others.  More on those perhaps another time.  In the meantime, how does food fit into your life, and are there steps you can take in your brain and in your life to make it even better?


The final level in the hierarchy is mental health. If emotions drive you to food, how can you mitigate those emotions?  Some of my family relationships stressed me out, for example, so I moved out of the house.  At school, workloads were enormous.  So I dropped a class.   Are you depressed, worried, nostalgic for the past, or hurting in any way that can be medicated with food?  You can even be a “happy” binge eater and binge when you’re elated because you’ve forgotten to keep track of what you eat.  Or maybe alcohol drives you to food.  Or a certain time of life–”in June I binge because it reminds me of the funeral”–or a certain event–”I always eat after I talk to my mom”–or a certain place–”I always have to stop at Dairy Queen when I drive by because work sucks”–get way from those triggers as fast as you can!  Fix it.  Fix your life.  Fix your heart.  Find peace.  Make time to breathe.   These are Macro issues–Macro with a capital M–and of course they take a long, long time to fix.  But they are about holistic health, and we need that for our bodies as well as our souls.

So that’s my hierarchy.  What’s most fascinating to me is that my strategies and my situations on each level are always changing.  These days, because of particulars on each level of the hierarchy–I hardly have a problem at all.  But I know, I do know, that if my life changed back to how it was a month ago or a year ago, I’d be looking the same old demons in the eye and expecting Buffy and Angel to back me up again.  BUT: Having worked on these issues for so long, with myself before and now with others, I have experience.  I’m better armed.  I’m more aware.  This is awesome, and it’s helped me enormously.  Hopefully it can help you, too, no matter what your current relationship with food is like.


02 2011

My Paleo Journey

Perhaps a good way to start out with my blog is to share my past. This should demonstrate why Paleo eating and living is so important to me. And perhaps, if you’re new to all of this, it will convince you to give it a shot, too. That would be wonderful. I’d be happy to help you get started.

And finally, please, as always, take everything I have to say with a NorCal ™ margarita full of salt. I try my best to be fair and to make sense of life. But that’s a giant challenge we all struggle with, so use your judgment as best you can.


My story began in adolescence. I was…not quite fit. Perhaps 30 pounds overweight. Cute enough. Clean enough. Happy enough. And certainly productive enough. But I loathed myself. I loathed my body, and I loathed it even more because I should have been able to control it, but I couldn’t. What  I lacked, I thought, was willpower. I ate as healthfully as absolutely possible (with the occasional binge thrown in) but it didn’t make a difference. Special K cereal in the morning with skim milk, grapes and yogurt and a bagel for lunch, and salad or pasta for dinner. Seemed like a good idea at the time. But I was always grazing, never satisfied, and perpetually deprived. I hated myself for eating that much. Clearly, I lacked the control necessary to be truly beautiful.

So passed the years of 2002-2006.

I got to college in 2006 and my friends told me to love my body. Okay. I was a bit too busy running all over the world and getting pissed in fraternity basements to really be disgusted anyway, but still I lumbered on with my loathing. Moreover, for environmental, ethical, and health reasons, I became a vegetarian. (More wrath re: vegetarianism later). I needed to be stricter to be healthier. And I was. I ate virtually zero fat, with an avocado perhaps once per week and an egg white omelet perhaps once per week. I ate tofu. And I ate oatmeal, and I ate salad, and I ate approximately my weight in dried fruit. Also, continuing my habit from adolescence, I killed myself on cardio machines at least once per day (I was a college student and went to the gym at six AM: wtf?). Today I am appalled at the kind of damage I was doing to my adrenal system, to my liver, and to my brain.

Three years later, I wasn’t any smaller. I’m 5’2, and at the time I wore sizes seven and nine. And in September, miracle of miracles, I got a stomach flu. In my opinion at that time, this was the greatest thing that could have happened to me. It gave me momentum to keep losing weight. And now I’m really strict, but it’s working. I was eating perhaps 1300 calories of carbohydrates and cycling at least an hour each day. I dropped weight FAST. 30 pounds in three months. And I loved it. Of course it was hard as hell, and of course I craved food every second of every day, and of course I felt monstrously deprived, but at least I didn’t hate myself anymore.  I had control. My friends were terrified. Everyone was voicing disordered eating concerns. They convinced me I Had A Problem, and I panicked even more. How do I be healthy? How do I maintain weight? How fucked up am I really? Will I ever stop being hungry?

That winter I suffered a number of anxiety attacks. Have you ever gone an entire seven days without sleeping? I can’t explain to you how horrific it was. I wasn’t in control of my emotions at all, and I was barely functional. My hands never stopped shaking. There were some other hard things going on in my life, aside from the food issue, but clearly something wasn’t working. I remember one night when I couldn’t sleep, going downstairs and eating an entire carrot cake. It was blissful, and I don’t think I’ll ever forget it.

My mom finally got concerned, catching wind of the whole disordered eating deal even though she was seven hundred miles away. She had been eating Paleo for about six months, and she voiced her opinion to me. “Stef,” she said, “I don’t want you to take this the wrong way, but I want you to read this book.” It was Nora Gedgaudas’s Primal Body, Primal Mind. I was a scientist, and it was a principle of mine to be as open minded as possible. Fine. I’d do it. But I was not happy. “Mom,” I choked out on the phone, trying to get some privacy in a packed student commons “even if it turns out that it’s healthier for me to eat animals, I won’t do it. It’s not right, and I’m not willing to make that sacrifice.”

Well, I did. I read Nora’s book and marked with sticky notes where I thought she was wrong. But by page 60 I stopped that hyper-sensitive, unfair nitpicking. I had studied evolutionary biology. I had read popular science books. And I had common sense. My life became a series of Duhs. I lived in a house full of vegetarians, and I began trying to get them to read Mark Sisson’s Primal Blueprint, which I had also read, and loved fiercely. One of my roommates suffered anxiety issues the same way I did, and I thought that fat imbalances and nutrient deficiencies might be messing with her brain like mine. I didn’t really know, but it was possible. All the sudden, I had all these changes I needed to make. Fast.

Immediately I jumped into eating “Paleo.” Admittedly, I didn’t quite make it. I was still afraid of fat. If I, someone who was feeling hugely deprived, wanted to enjoy food, and to eat a lot of food, conventional wisdom told me to eschew the foods with the greatest caloric density. And of course I knew that one grape has two calories and one teaspoon of oil had one hundred and five. But my efforts were better than nothing. I cut the dried fruit I loved so dearly; I cut the cereals that had been a pillar in my life since I was five years old; I added in the animals. Thus, I stopped obsessing over food. The sugar cloud floated away. I breathed freely. I thought clearly. My shoulders drooped. I fell asleep each night with a degree of peace I hadn’t known before.

Since that day in March, I have eaten a huge variety patterns within the parameters of paleolithic diets, including a few weeks in Europe when all of my calories came from canned tuna and cheese. Today, I eat a lot of eggs, seafood, organ meats, seaweed, cruciferous veggies, and whatever interesting tidbits Taiwanese night markets have to throw my way. I have maintained weight without hating myself. (Well, for the most part. More on that later). I still struggle with sugar. I still struggle with binge eating. Sure, these days it might be a whole head of cabbage instead of a whole box of cereal, but that still isn’t ideally healthy. And I do still struggle from time to time with body image. Someone once told me that you can never condemn a disordered eater for their habits, because the actions they are taking are the best ways they know how to deal with the demons inside them. Wise. I like being (need to be?) thin because it’s the best way to keep out the loathing. But MOST importantly: the degree of my neuroticism is perhaps 10 percent of what it used to be. Cool!

Eating paleo is a weapon against demons. Mine are practically vanquished. I feel like Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Be gone, soul-suckers! Paleo works, And it works brilliantly. I am satiated when I eat, now, and I have better memory. I sleep seven hours a night for the first time since I was a young child. My hair has stopped falling out in frightening chunks. It grows faster. My skin is brighter. I work out less often, and when I do I enjoy it more. I forgive myself for my lapses because I know that all of the foods I am putting in my body are healthful. I no longer have excruciating pain in my knees and hips. I never feel the need to take naps. I have energy, and it fucking rocks. I can work for hours at a time without stopping. Did I say this rocks? It rocks.

There are other aspects of the Paleolithic perspective that have also altered my life. I have a different understanding of technology and of relationships, and as a result of reading the fantastic book Sex at Dawn, I think more benevolently of mankind. I think community is important, now, and I think more openly about sexual relationships and fidelity. I have read books such as Meat: A Benign Extravagance and realized that vegetarianism is not a catchall solution. I have identified the ways in which our modern world is at particularly strong odds with some of my natural inclinations, and I have done my best to manage those desires (eg: I will watch one EPISODE of House on my laptop, not one MARATHON of America’s Next Top Model on a TV.) I recognize the importance of play. And, while a lifelong workaholic, I try my best to live slowly and deliberately.

I like stopping. And I like smelling flowers.

I have never worn shoes. And I never will.

Paleo is for me, therefore, all about liberation. It is about the healthfulness of my body, the freedom of my mind, and, because of those two things, the peace in my soul. I love this life like it’s my job, and while there are elements of my life and the paleo world that I still struggle with, it’s a beautiful, evolving journey. I have nothing but whole heaps of adventure and vitality to look forward to.