On the Structure of Religious Conversions

2011-09-11 § Leave a comment

If you’re a thinker and you’ve never read Kuhn’s “The Structure of Scientific Revolutions”, you should. It’s fascinating and worthwhile, and therefore widely cited in all manner of contexts both on the web and in print. Kuhn observes some actual scientific paradigm shifts that have occurred and draws conclusions about how such shifts occur in general. It helps us understand how we think, and how we can perhaps think better.

Earlier this summer, I had a paradigm shift that, in retrospect, was like a conversion experience. It’s the first one I’ve had in my life. Being an adherent to the same religion since early childhood, I never had a wholesale conversion where I had to jettison a bunch of prior beliefs and behaviors. I always wondered what that might feel like, and now I know.

After a decade of sedentary work and a progressively growing waistline, I found myself at least 30 pounds overweight, with noticeably pathological eating behaviors and attitudes toward food. I knew there was a problem but did essentially nothing about it. I tried to curb my intake, and get active when I could, but I didn’t approach it as a first-class problem to be solved, the way I would if my car stopped running or if the integrity of my house were threatened with an infestation of carpenter ants.

Along with awareness of the problem, which has been apparent for some time, this summer I was suddenly provided a solution and a reason to change over the course of just a few weeks. The solution came in two parts: (1) I joined a CSA, specifically the Root Connection organic farm in Woodinville, WA, and found myself with tons of leafy vegetables that needed eating; and (2) I watched Dr. Lustig’s video called “Sugar: The Bitter Truth“. The motivation also came in two parts, first reading books on industrial meat production such as Jonathan Safran Foer’s “Eating Animals”; then watching a family member enter the hospital with a heart condition. These caused me to re-evaluate almost everything about my diet. I wasn’t pleased with what I saw, but am pleased with the changes I made and with how things turned out.

That understates the case. What I found is that, after losing all my excess weight and arriving at a diet that works and is sustainable (in all senses of that word), I wanted to preach it to anyone who was interested. This is not at all like me. I used to hate the idea of blogging, but here I am. I think I see now why many who undergo religious conversions go on to become so devoted to the cause. They see people all around them who still have the same problems they had, and they want to share the solution they found. They want to help their fellow man, even if their fellow man would rather not hear about it.

If you’ve been worried about your weight, or have tried a few diet plans, you might be thinking “well, speak up. What’s your sustainable diet?” Pretty simple: mainly it consists of high-fiber, low-calorie vegetables such as lettuce, tomatoes, bell peppers, green beans, beets, carrots, jicama, bok choy, that kind of thing, with enough good-tasting stuff like olives, avocado, cheese, butter and mayonnaise to make it attractive. I eat fresh fruit all the time, whatever’s in season. I cut my intake of animal protein by about 70%. I still eat meat, but not often, and in small amounts. And I make oat-based granola, which I eat irregularly.

What got taken out? I drastically reduced calorie-dense carbohydrates like potatoes, bread, pasta, and rice — to probably 20% of my previous intake; and practically eliminated refined sweeteners (sugar, HFCS), any commercially produced foods that contain them, and high-fructose snacks like fruit juice (100% or otherwise). I stopped buying sugar-sweetened cereal (there is no other kind sold in stores — if you don’t believe me, go ahead and check. “Evaporated cane juice” is still sugar.)

This diet lets me eat as much as I want, whenever I want, and still maintain or lose weight depending on whether I choose to indulge in the occasional sandwich or pasta dish. Without sugar in the diet, I enjoy the food I eat just as much as I used to enjoy junk food. The instant I eat cereal, cookies, ice cream, cake, pastries, and peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, my metabolism changes and the sugar cravings come back. So I don’t do that very often, once or twice a week at most, and under controlled conditions. If I eat a heavy meal, I fast one or two the next day. Fasting is easy, where before it was difficult.

Notice this isn’t the Atkins diet. Taubes and many others claim we did wrong by embarking on a mass diet of carbohydrates in order to reduce fat, and to right the wrong, they claim we should eschew carbohydrates and go back to a high-fat diet. If the only goal is weight loss, this might work for a lot of people. It’s definitely better than eating a lot of sugar and flour, but it still isn’t an ideal long-term diet, because simple high-fiber carbohydrates are so much cheaper and (I believe) better for our cardiovascular health. Large quantities of animal proteins are not sustainable, because there is no way to produce them in a way that isn’t unconscionably abusive to the animals, and even if we develop a method to do that properly, as I think we should, the animals are still inefficient in terms of how much they consume. Lack of protein is not my problem. As for fruit, I like it way too much to give it up for no reason. If I found that I had to reduce my fruit intake (as Atkins urged) in order to control my weight, I’d do it; but fruits have a lot of useful nutrition and somehow, two or three oranges a day doesn’t seem to make any difference.

You’re noticing something by now: I am running on at the keyboard with details and strong opinions about diets. Before this year, I NEVER did diets. I read about them, but never actually tried them. I hoped that pure will power (eat less! exercise more!) would be enough. It wasn’t. So why do I sound like a food evangelist now?

It’s that conversion experience again. I constantly read about the obesity epidemic and I can see it all around me. I look at a fat person and think, “You’re fat. I used to be fat. If you want to change, I can help you. I can describe a solution in under an hour that will change your life, if you let it. And you should want to change, because being fat is so harmful, to you and to society. Is the pleasure you get from eating sweets really that important?” I don’t say any of this, because there is no inoffensive way to do so. But I sit in the lunchroom and munch lettuce, and I blog, and I ramble on about my diet to anyone who will listen.

So to go back to generalities: how did this conversion experience happen?

Did I decide, consciously, that I had to change? No.
Did I hear a voice from heaven, or on the TV, tell me what to do? No.
Did I wander into a desert, fast for 40 days, and come out thin and enlightened? No.

What actually happened was much more interesting, and in a way, even more mysterious, because I watched the process unfold. There was a confluence of need, desire, new information, and new conclusions based on things I already knew. Without explicitly trying to find a solution, I arrived at a set of beliefs that could be easily tested. Testing them bore out their validity, because they produced the results I desired. If they hadn’t, I could have arrived at a different set of beliefs that worked, because I had a reason to.

My previous diet model said a bunch of things, mostly implicit. I had never critically examined their validity. Many were wrong:

  • Sugar tastes good, so I will eat as much as I can get away with.
  • Desserts are not very good for me. I should avoid eating too many cookies from the vending machine, the leftover cake in the cafeteria, the ice cream that I love so much.
  • Meat is a staple part of my diet. Animals are a good source of high-quality protein. I need protein, so I should have some at every meal.
  • To lose weight, I need to replace fatty foods with whole grains. Or replace starchy foods with HDL’s. Or Omega-6’s. Or is it Omega-3’s? Something like that.
  • To lose weight, I should drink a lot of water.
  • I’m fat because I eat too much. To get thin, I need to eat less.

My new model is radically different at some points. At other points, it’s just a slight adjustment in mindset:

  • Sugar tastes good, but it’s slowly killing me. Since it is no more necessary than alcohol, I should use it the same way: infrequently and with caution, and if I can’t control it, not at all.
  • Dessert is NOT FOOD. Treat it like restaurant fare. It’s expensive entertainment for my taste buds, with costs way beyond the initial cash outlay. Even “free” junk food isn’t free, if it makes me diabetic.
  • I am carnivorous, but that doesn’t mean I have to eat animal flesh every day. A couple of times a week is more appropriate. And carefully sourced milk and eggs are much better than factory-farmed pork and chicken from an ethical perspective. I spend real money to stay on the right side of ethics in other areas of life, so why not in my eating?
  • Speaking of spending real money, joining a CSA is the Right Thing to Do.  Buying ConAgra flour at Costco is wrong in so many ways that it’s hard to count them all.
  • Speaking of protein — nuts, legumes and tofu are rich in protein and I like all of them.
  • To lose weight, I need to replace the extra fat calories and carbohydrates with fiber.
  • When I eat a lot of raw vegetables, I don’t need to drink much water. I’m well hydrated already.
  • I’m fat because I eat too much of the wrong thing. I can still eat, and feel full. I just have to eat the right things.

The real change in all of this was a change in the MIND. It has to do with information, education, decisions, motivation. You may make that change deliberately, or it may sneak up on you. Crucially, it leads to action: changes of habit, and visible behavioral changes. I don’t think going through the motions following a diet plan works for very many people. It’s equivalent to following the outward trappings of a religion without any change in the heart. It doesn’t work, at least not for long. You can’t follow a diet; you have to change your diet, permanently.

I can’t stress too much the significance of being off sugar. I sleep better, I never crave anything (honestly), and normal food (like raw vegetables) actually taste good. This seems like the way my body was intended to work. I like this. And this is part of the conversion, part of the epiphany. I NEVER REALIZED what effect it was having, until I did without it. Since I was a 6-year-old boy, I have never questioned it. “A spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down,” and all that. Some people say you will eat the right amount, and the right foods, if you only listen to your body. This works when your body chemistry is right, but it doesn’t work at all when you eat a lot of sugar. The signals are all wrong.

If I sound like a true believer, sorry. I am. I’ve always been strongly religious, so I’m comfortable feeling like I’ve got a secret that everyone should know about. The difference is, now, I’ve had an actual epiphany. How strange that it should be over something as mundane as sugar?

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