TLDR: Stop mindlessly eating and let your body fill in the gaps where it needs to.
Do you slurp your food? Ever spilt food on your shirt? Choked on a fizzy drink? Scalded your tongue on something hot? If you eat food, the answer is probably yes.
Most of the time when we eat food, we are not really thinking about what we are chewing or what we will eat next. We are on autopilot. This is the status quo. We are even more automatic when we are rushing, hungover, bored, distracted, talking to others, tapping our phones and especially late at night when no one is watching.
We are shopping for, cooking and eating food, but nobody is home in our own head. I call this the the demented autopilot.
Occasionally, like when we get a divorce, or move overseas, we decide to take control from this mad robot. The goal is typically to lose weight, and the diet we follow usually involves some sort of restriction. Sometimes the diet works so well that we believe that the restriction is the solution. But avoiding something like sugar, doesn’t necessarily give you the control you were seeking. Never letting a drop of alcohol touch your tongue is a very different stance to recognizing that alcohol can be pleasurable, but actually not an especially big deal, and often not worth the hangover.
Diets do offer the positive effect of circuit breaking some of our robotic routines. Like when you help a Roomba that’s been stuck in a corner, by switching out the sights, sounds and tastes of our habits, we may get a better idea of where we’ve been stuck.
For example, I used to stumble into a my local 7-11 most mornings and buy a cup of cheap, strong coffee, and pair it with an original glazed Krispy Kreme donut. At some point I started to grind my own coffee beans at home and found myself eating healthier breakfasts. The Sugar Express that I unconsciously rode for many months had been exploded. Emerging from the rubble, I found myself relatively unscathed. Our brain isn’t that loyal to any particular habit. It’s already happily laying some new train tracks.
Some activities are natural circuit breakers, and we’d be better off doing them more often. Like a diet, hiking has lots of built-in, natural frictions that push us in healthier directions and help to disengage this demented button-pushing part of our brain.
- We notice the taste of food when we camp, not because we have a waiter describing it to us (although that can help), but because we are actually hungry. I realize some of the best meals of my life were eaten after all day on my feet backpacking.
- We don’t tend to eat large meals late at night (under fluorescent lights), or in the middle of the night. It takes some time to set up and get access to food, so we eat at set, reasonable times of day and then we put the food away.
- Most of the time we are snacking or nibbling on small nutritious things. We are moving about all day when we hike and we need food that delivers sustained energy.
- We can’t eat a large, heavy, elaborate meals because we have limited space in our backpack.
- We tend to wake up earlier and go to bed earlier. It’s not unusual to take a nap when we need to rest.
To counter the mindless chewing of autopilot eating, we need to seek some sort of balance. Most animals lean on their left hemisphere for targeting and acquiring prey and their right hemisphere for everything else. One way to introduce this sort of balance (without trying too hard) is to fill in the gaps.
- Adjusting a flapping sail fills in the gaps
- When we feel tired after lunch, napping fills in the gaps.
- Resting from exercise when you feel a cold coming on fills in the gaps.
- On a hot day, coconut water fills in the gaps.
- Extending your run when you feel good fills in the gaps.
- Gravitating towards veggies you haven’t eaten for a while fills in the gaps.
Homeostasis is the natural process where our bodies balance, self regulate and maintain internal stability, but we can get in the way of that too. For example, when I calorie counted, I would dutifully eat back the calories I had burnt in that days activities. That could be quite a bit of food, especially after a long run. Most of the time, I wound up feeling sluggish, bloated and with indigestion. I tried to force my body to balance. Instead, I could have simply listened to my stomach, and noticed that I all I needed to do was eat a tiny bit more over the next few days. I could have filled in the gaps.
Although friction and structure, like the kind you find while on a long hike can help to circuit break our automatic eating, we can’t spend all our lives hiking. If we are ever going to maintain our health and fitness, ultimately it’s up to us.
Luckily, when we ease up our reliance on the rigid, controlling left-hemisphere, we seem to be remarkably good at filling in the gaps.