Taking a Long View

I have long wondered why, for some of us, making better food choices is so difficult. I have come to believe it may be that there is a clear and immediate reward for eating as we wish right now–whether it be saving money, saving time, or satisfying hunger and desire–and there is often no direct consequence to making poor food choices, no fallout we can feel. Looked at another way, there is no clear and immediate reward for eating “righteously,” no upside we can measure, which makes our current needs and desires far more compelling than our distant ones.

Our tendency to make choices that satisfy us in the short term but might harm us later on may connect to our relationship with time. It is easy to see the upside of having fast food for dinner or dessert every day, but the benefit of foregoing these in favor of more healthful options is not as clear because it’s hard to look that far ahead, especially when we have been conditioned to expect instant gratification.

We are pushed toward the primrose path, then, by our need for gratification in the moment; and so our so task may be to resist, and to remember that there is no shortcut to contentment, health or well being. These require time and effort, but they also develop skill, while easy pleasures, in the realm of food and otherwise, cultivate emptiness and little more. Real well being is enhanced by a willingness to forgo instant pleasure and use our everyday choices to build for the future. Among other “mature defenses,” Harvard professor George Vailliant has demonstrated that this ability and willingness is one of the best predictors of successful aging, joy in living, and vigorous old age.

If taking a long view is challenging, yet if the state of our well being depends more on our attitudes and everyday actions over time than on anything else, how do we bring what we eat each day in line with what we think we ought to eat? While there is no single path to change, I will share some approaches that I have found useful:

  • Honor “both” your selves. There are two sides to every person: the side that makes well-considered decisions about what and how to eat, and the side that chooses not to adhere to these decisions. These two sides comprise what game theorist Thomas Schelling calls the “divided self.” They reside within each of us and jostle for control. By allowing these two selves to bargain–feeding our short-term selves a dish of ice cream now and then, while consistently nourishing our long-term selves with healthy, balanced meals–we may meet our goals with greater ease.
  • Understand that indulging doesn’t lead to happiness. There is a perplexing aspect to eating for pleasure right now in that it involves seeking contentment in the moment while avoiding solid long-term choices that seem to be less pleasant. Yet immediate gratification generally leads to unhappiness and leaves us with a bit of lead in the belly–a heavy, sinking feeling. Real happiness and enduring good health are more often found when we act in accordance with a long-range vision.
  • Find contentment among fewer choices. Too many options can be overwhelming and, when we fear making the wrong choice about what to eat, our tendency is to make no choice and instead remain true to familiar habits and routines. One way around this is to opt for greater simplicity and to rely on fewer, more healthful foods. While in a world of vast abundance this approach may seem limiting, it is consistent with centuries of food tradition. Meals were historically structured around the life and bounty of the farm and prepared using a limited range of ingredients: Our ancestors ate staples year round and local, seasonal foods when they were available. Our comparatively broad and random approach to eating–every variety of cuisine, all through the year–may not work for many of us, or much of the time.
  • Simplify your food goals. We all know that setting goals is an effective way to bring about change, except when our intentions are too complicated or ambitious. In this case, the process can work against us and position us to fail. Since success fosters greater success, when you set a goal around food ask yourself: “Can I do this? Am I willing to do this?” If the answer is “no,” then what part of it can you do? Find that part and use it as your springboard for change.
  • Above all, believe change is necessary and worthwhile. We might wonder if change is worth it, if there is a point to the effort we will expend. It may help to remember that the way we eat is intrinsically connected to how we live our lives; we will benefit if we can link the two in our minds and in our actions. Each of our food choices makes a difference and has a meaning that goes far beyond what we eat for a particular meal.

Regarding these last two points, for us to develop convictions around food requires an internal shift, and here it may help to take a lesson from Benjamin Franklin, who had a keen understanding of human nature. Franklin knew that our ability to change rests on believing in a goal ourselves rather than feeling it is imposed. So, before we set goals we need to reason a situation out in our own minds, a process Franklin called “philosophical self-denial.” What he meant was that, to change a habit, we must believe the change will be better for us than our old ways would have been. Put another way, we must believe the change will serve our interests and bring us greater well being than we would have had otherwise. Once we make this inner shift, change naturally follows.

So, how would Franklin suggest facilitating an internal shift? Not by forbidding ourselves the negative; rather, by emphasizing a positive outcome and giving ourselves an upbeat purpose. Instead of putting ourselves on a “no” diet: no desserts, no fats, no carbs, no snacks–who wants this?–we need to replace negatives with positives. The shift might instead look like this:

Eating freshly-prepared foods made from quality ingredients will bring out the best in me.
I will look better and feel more energetic, and I will likely have better health down the
road. I will be better off. Instead of eliminating processed foods and sugary desserts, I am seeking
quality. This is a goal I can believe in. It feels right and will make my life better.

Most importantly, as you consider emphasizing the positive in this way, remember that you are unique and the approaches that will work best for you need to make sense from within. Remember, too, that even thinking about the long view is a victory, and any change you make–any movement in a new and better direction–counts as solid progress.

Copyright Ellen Arian, Ellen’s Food & Soul