Two weeks ago, I began the “simple diet experiment.” I have attempted to eat the same three meals a day (oatmeal, rice and beans, eggs and a side of toast or potato/veggies) each day, and will continue to do so until Father’s Day weekend. In my last blog I discussed my first motivation for this experiment, which was global hunger. I asked, “If someone starves to death every ten seconds (sadly, this is the case), how much money could I cut out of my food budget by eating simply so that I could help feed them?”
Today we are on to the second reason for this experiment, which is driven by this question:
To what extent do I use food to comfort myself, and how does that affect my life?
Confessions of an Snack Fiend
Let’s cut to the chase here: I love to comfort myself with food! Nothing like coming home from a hard day to eat a yummy dinner… or a big breakfast after a hard workout… or a bowl of popcorn and cocktail after an evening meeting. When I was a just out of college, I used to love my standard evening snack of popcorn, an ice cream sundae, and three beers. Now, I’ve come a long way since then (and thank God I don’t have diabetes). But still, I knew going into this experiment that it would be hard to let go of the comfort food. And up to this point the experiment is driving home the reality of my (ongoing) addiction to salty and sweet comfort food- particularly snacks (popcorn!). I have found that I can handle pretty mundane meals, but when it’s 7:30 at night and my snack options are veggies or more rice and beans or bread life gets a little more difficult.
So what’s wrong with comfort food?
Nothing! Comfort food is not inherently problematic. Good food is something to celebrated, as it has been in just about all places and times. However, problems do arise when comfort food becomes our norm and an expectation for life, and perhaps for some of us even a “need.” When comfort food becomes a primary means of comfort and even a necessity to enjoy life…
We lose our sense of gratitude.
I shouldn’t need to eat comfort food to feel satisfied or grateful for the food that I do have. And it’s a problem when I begin to organize my life around eating comfort food (living to eat) instead of simply using food to give me the strength to organize my life around more important objects (eating to live). I should be able to enjoy comfort food and be grateful for it when I have it, but I should be equally grateful for the food that keeps me alive, and be satisfied with it. In the scope of human history, I am incredibly fortunately to live without fear of hunger and to have any options at all when it comes to eating. So the fact that I would complain because I don’t have comfort food, and lose the gratitude I should have, is simply outrageous. Gratitude is a big deal. Grateful people are generally content, generous and merciful. This is because they recognize that they have unique privileges and advantages, and that these things are not owed to them. If we had more grateful people I believe we’d have less hungry people in our world… and perhaps we’d have less grouchy people as an added bonus.
We lose our sense of perspective.
This is a corollary to the gratitude thing. Addiction to comfort food (or, dissatisfaction with plain food) blinds us to the far greater issues surrounding us. Our addiction to our special food twists our perspective so that we think we actually need that food to be happy or to be nourished. And it’s that twisted perspective that we use to justify the excessive amount of money or time we use to procure that food, instead of say, providing food for someone in need, saving money for more significant needs, or having more time to be with our families or friends. How much less would personal debt be in the United States if people didn’t eat out constantly? Nothing kills me like hearing people talk about budgeting and debt and why they can’t give to people in need and then hearing them talk about all the restaurants they’ve been to recently. But the thought of giving up our delicious food just seems like too big an ask!
We lose our sense of contentment.
Now here’s the real ironic one: the more we satisfy our cravings, the more cravings we have. That’s a basic philosophical truth that you can find in Christianity, Buddhism, Hinduism, Greco-Roman philosophy, and much more. Unfortunately, it completely goes against the grain of our culture, which teaches that the satisfaction of desire makes for contentment. (Which should be obviously false to anyone who simply looking around at our society!) In particular, I love these lines from Lao Tzu regarding satisfying desire and contentment, from the Tao Te Ching chapter 12:
The five colors blind the eye.
The five tones deafen the ear.
The five flavors dull the mouth.
The more we get it, the less pleased we are with it. If you want to find someone who is content with their meal, then find someone who eats the same things every day…
We lose our freedom.
I’ll never forget, years ago, sitting in a room of people about to go on a trip to serve desperately poor people in a majority world slum, and someone became terrified that they wouldn’t have Diet Coke. Diet Coke?! The people they were going to serve live in fear of hunger and their focus was Diet Coke?! But- if I’m honest- I get that. How often have been prompted (by God, I believe) to do something that would “mess up” my next meal or give away the money I use to buy comfort food or perhaps to even skip a meal so I could give mine to someone else and not done it because of my “needs?” To my shame, too many times. And through those moments, I learned that whatever culinary delight that I can’t give up for God or even for another human being is a chain. Furthermore, if we have these sorts of “needs” for our special foods then we are also filled with anxiety when we aren’t in control of our schedule or meals, and are prevented from simply enjoying what we do get.
I am always going to love comfort (snacks!) food. But I don't want to "need" it to be content and grateful for what I have, and I want to be able to give it up for more important things. So I guess we could say my second reason for undergoing this experiment is to learn to be content with simplicity. And while simplicity isn't exciting or always "comforting," I believe it makes for a higher quality of life in the end. So, that being said, I’m going to enjoy another “delicious” bowl of rice tonight!