I have fallen off The Wagon. I am on the couch, pulling open a bag of Dorito chips. I reach in, feeling the pointy ends for a big one. I stretch my mouth wide and bite down like a lion ripping flesh from the bone. The crunch rattles my pleasure sensors. It’s the sound of rebellion, of savory sin. Except it’s not nearly so dramatic a scene from the couch. When I take a breather between handfuls, I’m still just one woman in binge and lounge mode. I feel the weighty guilt of my choice as I sink solid into the cushions. Then, my mind talk starts. I remember that I should have more will power than this. I remind myself that I write about how to not get into this position. Now I’ve fallen by the wayside, clutching my bag of chips and watching The Wagon move on without me. Clearly, I don’t always follow my own advice. Despite all of the health ideas I’ve gleaned, and all the dots I’ve connected, I still make poor food choices. Why?
I know this question is not for everyone. Many seem to eat healthy with ease. For emotional eaters like me, however; it’s exactly where I live. I believe the answer depends on more than intelligence. Otherwise, I wouldn’t even be asking this question. I’d simply adapt my eating patterns to ever-healthier foods as science discovers more and more about nutrition. I would learn the right way to eat, and I would eat right. It’s the Scientific Method of eating: break the whole down into its basic parts, then we can understand how to heal the whole.
This linear, scientific approach is the road on which The Wagon travels. This road is marked by all the “right” foods experts say we should eat. When I make healthy food choices, I consider myself on this right road because I’m following their signs: “Eat more fruits and vegetables.” “Eat less fat.” “Eat more fat.” I use whatever guideposts I can to reassure me that I’m still eating “good.” However, nowhere on the map of healthy eating is there a sign reading, “Binge and Lounge Rest Area, 10 miles.” When I’m ensconced in the couch, crunching my chips, I’m squatting at that rest area. If I want to get back on the road, I have to start following the signs again by making healthy choices. The Scientific Method of eating tends to feed this idea. I’m either on the right road, or I’ve wandered off. I was curious if other women looked at eating this way, so I asked them about their food choices. They repeatedly referenced one of two extremes, either “being a good girl” or struggling with “bad habits.” I’m not alone. But, If it’s all about habit, then why do I switch habits over and over again?
Is habit about will power? If so, then where does will power come from? Is there a limited supply? Do I drain it every time I make a poor food choice, like a battery slowly sucked dry? Or is will power a matter of character, genetically encoded in some and forged by hard-won discipline by the rest of us? If I can discover where will power resides, then perhaps I can understand why mine comes and goes so readily. Sometimes I feel like I’m accelerating zero to 60 in 3.9 seconds in my Tesla Model S with a full charge of kick-ass will power. Then there’s the rest of the time when you couldn’t get me to eat a vegetable, even if you slathered it in peanut butter (well, maybe if it’s good peanut butter). The more I ignore my best advice, and eat whatever I want any way, the more curious I become about why I do this. I cannot pinpoint where will power ends and choice begins. I know the axiom, “You are what you eat.” However, it feels just as true that “I eat what I am.” In other words, in that moment of choice, I’m trying to connect with who I am. Screw “eating right.” I’m tired. I’m bitchy. As Kris Carr said, “I want to go do bad things with bad people.” Aren’t you glad I chose Doritos instead?
I lick the processed orange powder from my fingertips, and I burrow deeper into the cushions. I suspect finding the source of will power may not be easy. It may be a mix of biology, chemistry, Quantum Physics, and even a little desire. Here’s what I’ve learned so far…
It Could Be Biology
Neuroscientists have watched the brain in the act of choosing. They’ve noticed two things. First, thoughts run in neural pathways, like ruts, in the brain. When I’m choosing, my first thoughts likely emit from these pathways. This is the biological equivalent of habit. Why am I compelled to eat buttered popcorn when watching a movie? Perhaps because I have established ruts which connect the neurons of these two experiences. When my “watching a movie” neuron fires, electricity flows on to a neighboring “eating popcorn” neuron. Secondly, scientists observed the difficulty of choosing outside these neural pathways. To change a habit, I have to make new choices, over and over again, physically unhooking those neighboring neurons and nudging them into new connections with other neurons. The experts call this “Neural Plasticity.” It is difficult but possible, so choice is flexible. This explains both the power of habit and how habits can change. Is will power involved in this change? To find out, I need to look deeper.
It Could Be Chemistry
I remember science class, when my teacher explained that everything – including us – contained mostly space. This was hard to believe until I saw that fuzzy image from an Electron Microscope. A swirl of electrons, protons, and neutrons buzzed within each atom, like leftover Cheerios floating in a cereal bowl. Yep, mostly space! Common sense, however, says that when I bite into a chip, I feel the crispy crunch of something solid between my teeth. Now, with new instruments, I saw a deeper truth. Unfortunately, nutrition theory hasn’t adapted to this new reality. We’re still focusing on only the solid elements of food. In reality, I am not a stagnant, solid-state being. I’m changing all the time. Electrons pass from atom to atom, changing electrical charges within all of that space inside. Food has the same, basic chemistry. Is the secret I seek hidden within these changing charges? Do they trump my best intentions with their dynamic interplay between food and body? Or, if I’m mostly space, then is there something about that space that generates my will power?
It Could Be Quantum Physics
Let’s dive into the weird, or the really real (depending on how you view it.) What’s inside all that space? One idea is called “String Theory.” This foundational theory of Quantum Physics says that space is not empty but filled with “strings” of energy. They behave much like guitar strings, each vibrating at their own frequency. According to Wikipedia, “Every form of matter or energy is the result of the vibration of strings.” These vibrating strings combine, separate, and recombine in patterns which create a kind of energetic harmony. That harmony becomes reality. Think of the strings as a group of instruments and the realities they create as songs. In one moment, the song could be jazz. The next, it could be blues. The same instruments play both songs; they’re just combining in different ways to make different harmonies. String combinations are infinite but precise, giving rise to flexibility (in everything, from the brain to food choice.) Therefore, will power could be a product of how these strings of energy combine at any given moment. I know, weird, right?!
If this is happening in me, then could it be happening in everything, including my Doritos? What if I eat to match my energy level? Even when I know all the “right” things to eat, I choose Doritos because they’re vibrating at the same level as me. We’re in harmony. I’ll never look at string cheese the same again.
Wherever will power begins, my next, best step will be the same. I must connect. Connecting with myself — whether with food, music, or any other practice — will only move me towards my ultimate desire. Sure, I want to lose 100 pounds in 1 year, but I chart my weight loss by the connections I make. I don’t need to coax my path into something I think it should be. I don’t need a road. I am the road. My body is already the perfect vehicle for where I am today. What makes me want it to be different is not what experts say I should be, but how I change on the inside. My work is to learn how to trust that change.
I’m going to eat whatever food matches my energy.