Writers & Their Food

This post is a part of an ongoing series entitled MIP (Man In Progress). After my 25th Birthday I decided to improve three aspects of my life, one of those aspects was my physical well-being. My philosophy is that a writer’s work and his life are irrevocably intertwined and in order to improve one, we inevitably have to improve the other.

I’m at the grocery store.

I look at the produce aisle. In baskets across the wall, there are eggplants, and mushrooms, and tomatoes, and celery stalks, and lettuce, and brussels sprouts, and radishes, and cabbages, and broccoli.

Now, (like some dark twisted joke) the produce aisle is located near the bakery aisle.

I look at the bakery aisle. On display, on various low tables, are freshly baked cakes, lemon merengue pies, boxes filed with double chocolate chip cookies, glazed donuts, funnel cakes, brownies, and cinnamon rolls.

I look at the produce aisle. Miniature shower heads begin to spray fresh water over the produce, dousing their green leaves with glittery specks of dew.

I look at the bakery aisle. The glaze on the pastries shine, the icing on the cakes is moist, the delicious, warm bread smell rises up to hug my nose.

I can’t take it anymore. I bring my shopping cart over to the bakery aisle. I drop a cake inside my cart. (Okay, two.) I toss in a box of cookies. A lemon merengue pie. Those mouth-watering cinnamon rolls. A few funnel cakes, the donuts, and the brownies.

But instead of waiting until I get to the cashier, I tear into the desserts right then and there. I break open the cake box and shove the cake in my mouth. I swallow several cookies, devour the lemon merengue pie, shove the brownies down my throat, and toss the funnel cake into the air.

I open my mouth and the funnel cake falls right in. I swallow. Yum.

I juggle three cinnamon rolls, like a clown at a circus, until each roll drops into my mouth–one by one–and my hands are empty.

At last, I top it all off with a single, glazed donut.

My face is now covered with glaze and cake crumbs. I wipe my mouth with my shirt sleeve. I smile with delight.

But I turn to find that everyone in the grocery store is staring at me: their eyes wide open in shock.

Suddenly, to my great surprise, I hear a smattering of applause. The applause grows louder and louder until, finally, the whole grocery store breaks out in cheers and whistles.

I take an elegant bow. Then, I wobble back and forth until I finally collapse onto the floor.

Of course, I’m only imagining all of this.

I never went over to the bakery aisle. I’m still standing in the produce aisle.

While I was dreaming of devouring every pastry in the bakery aisle, I was putting some celery stalks in a plastic bag. Now I’m grabbing some broccoli and shoving them in a plastic bag, too. As I do this, I dream of an alternative universe where people can eat everything in the bakery aisle without fearing the onset of Type 2 Diabetes–or a severe heart attack–further down the line.

You Write What You Eat

Well, folks, I’ve finally gotten myself to eat healthier ever since I made my MIP pledge two years ago.

How did I do that? Well, for one, I tried to be more “mindful” as I ate.

I learned about mindful eating from John Kabat-Zinn. 

Mindful eating basically means that you try to be as aware, and as present, as possible while you’re eating your food.

Kabat-Zinn recommends several ways you can become more mindful as you eat:  he recommends being aware of everything about the food–its smell, taste, texture, color, etc.–the entire time you’re eating it, until the food makes its way all the way down your throat, and finally, into your stomach.

Ever since I engaged in mindful eating myself, my eating habits have changed dramatically.

Why?

Because I began to notice how I felt after I ate my food.

When I engaged in mindful eating, here’s what I felt whenever I ate unhealthy food:

Unhealthy food = sluggish, brain-fried, zoning out, lazy, low-energy, cranky, moody, uncomfortable, and not sexy.

Here’s how I felt after I ate healthy food:

Healthy food = energized, awake, no post “crashing,” sexy, comfortable, happy, excited, thrilled, peaceful, at ease, and new ideas came to me more quickly.

All of this, of course, made such a huge difference in my ability to write well. The state I was in after I ate healthy food was so much more productive than the state I was in after I ate unhealthy food.

The Problem With Eating Healthy

Although mindful eating eventually helped me eat healthier, I encountered several obstacles along the way. I discovered that there are some really good reasons why we don’t eat healthier even though we know it’s so good for us.

Here are some reasons why eating healthier is so hard for us to do:

  • We love instant gratification. For many of us, the delicious taste and smell of unhealthy food is a type of instant gratification that healthy food has trouble competing with. (The incentive for eating healthy seems to be in the future, while the incentive for eating junk food seems to be in the present.)
  • We’re simple beings. We are simple animals and we are using complex methods to get us to change our behavior (dieting, calorie counting, etc.)—and it’s just not working.
  • Future incentives just don’t work.  For instance, we may discover that when we try to eat healthier with the goal of trying to look physically better, we instantly fail. After eating healthy, we might look in the mirror and realize that eating healthy did not automatically change our outward appearance. In this way, setting up future incentives (i.e., “eating healthy will one day make me look better”) is like setting us up for inevitable failure.
  • Food is an important part of our daily joy.  It’s hard for many of us to see why we would want to extend our life span if all of our life is spent eating leafy greens for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. For those of us who really have a passion for food, a life spent eating baby tomatoes–all the time–is simply not a life we want to live.

How to Start Eating Healthy

Although there were many challenges to eating healthy, I discovered that there were several ways to overcome these challenges. This is how you do it:

  • Become mindful. Start with a regular “mindful eating” meditation. Pay close attention to how your body feels before, during, and after you’ve eaten your food. Notice the difference in how you feel when you eat healthy foods versus when you eat unhealthy foods. Keep a journal tracking how you feel right after you eat. You might discover that your body always feels so much better after eating healthier.
  • Place the incentive for eating healthier in the PRESENT, and NOT in the future. Don’t eat healthier because it will make you “look better,” or because it will “increase your lifespan.” Instead, eat healthier because eating healthy will make you feel better NOW.
  • Look for substitutes. Nowadays, so many stores and restaurants offer healthy alternatives to the comfort foods we’re so used to. (For example: instead of buying your frappuccino at Starbucks today, try buying a bottle of Naked Juice instead.)
  • Accept regression as perfectly natural. You will have moments of regression in which you’ll feel really bad about yourself for reverting back to eating unhealthy. This is inevitable. You can snap out of your regression when you remember that your goal for eating healthy was never in the future. Your goal was in the present: you wanted to eat food that made you feel good right now. So, look for food that will make you feel good right now and, eventually, this will lead you back to eating healthy again.
  • Be patient. Remember that taking the shift to eating more healthy happens slowly–and over a long period of time. So, be patient with yourself as the process unfolds gradually.
  • Make it simple. Search the internet for healthy, cheap, easy-to-make food recipes (I use foodnetwork.com. They actually have a whole section dedicated to cheap, easy, healthy recipes.) This will encourage you to cook at home more often because it takes less effort and time to eat healthy–and because it’s easy on your pocketbook. Many food recipe sites are finally coming around to realizing that more Americans are looking to eat healthier, but are also looking for cheap and easy alternatives to junk food. If you keep track of the costs you might also discover that eating healthier ends up being cheaper than eating junk food. (This will knock the lie in your head that tells you that you eat junk food because it’s cheaper, and will make it less likely that you will go for the fast food alternative when you’re hungry.)
  • Change the myth that healthier food doesn’t taste as good as unhealthy food. The secret to making healthy food taste as good (or better than) unhealthy good is all in the spices. Try this: take the vegetable that you have trouble eating, and try cooking this vegetable using different spices, or a different combination of spices. Then, observe which spice (or combination of spices) gives the vegetable the right kick that makes the vegetable savory to you. Try this approach with any healthy food you have trouble eating and see how healthy food can end up tasting good, or even better, than unhealthy food.
  • Avoid self-punishment. Self-punishment is a vicious cycle that will lower your self-esteem and make you feel worthless. This, in turn, will push you toward eating even more unhealthy food. So, try not to punish yourself for not eating healthy. But do pat yourself on the back for trying.

What Ends Up Happening

After practicing mindful eating for some time, I noticed that I started to naturally lean towards more healthy eating choices because I would rather feel good than crappy after I ate.

I also found that, miraculously, healthy food started to taste better to me than unhealthy food did. I could also tell when something I was eating was junk food:  it was either too greasy, too fatty, too salty, or too sweet. All of this made the food unsavory to me because it made me feel gross afterwards.

Moreover, whenever I felt gross after a meal, my writing always suffered. But the more healthy food I ate, however, the more level-headed and clear my mind was, and the more I could execute great writing.

It was that simple.

much yummy love,

Ollin

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30 comments on “Writers & Their Food

  1. Christina Kit. says:

    LOVED the bakery aisle fantasy!

    I’m into healthy eating too and it makes a huge difference! Though I do bake low-fat desserts which ease the sweet-tooth craving.

  2. danezeller says:

    Ollin, It makes so much sense. I’m going to adopt mindful eating habits. I will touch, smell, taste and observe with all senses, the healthy food. I will feel better, sleep better, write better.

    Naah. Hand me that doughnut.

  3. ansuyo says:

    Very good advice!🙂

  4. Eating well makes a huge difference. I have a sensitive stomach and feel physically ill when I don’t, which is a large incentive to keep eating well. I also eat slowly, but my hubby inhales his. I always wonder if he even knows what he’s eating tastes like…

    • Ollin says:

      I have to admit, I eat fast sometimes too. Trust me, I don’t always eat mindfully, but I try my best. The key here is not about being perfect, it’s just about trying your best.

  5. Fiona says:

    This is a great post! It’s really interesting to hear you describe the relationship between food and not only your overall well being, but on something which may seem completely unrelated like writing. Food is such a dominant aspect of our society, yet you’ve just proved how easy it is to take it for granted. I think I definitely will be more mindful of what I’m eating now, so thanks, Ollin!

  6. There are so many health benefits that come from healthy eating. Some of them are proving to be life-saving now. Alternative medical treatments for cancer (and they do work, they really work) begin with diet changes to what is just basically healthy eating. I loved reading about it in connection with writing and creativity. So much easier to connect to! Thanks, Ollin

  7. When I was only eating junk, I was ALWAYS starving, plus I had a daily stomach upset. Now that I am eating tons of fruits and veggies, and have cut out all the junk, I am never hungry, actually, I eat less than I ever thought I could, for the fresh foods fill me up. If I want a treat, I choose a healthy alternative, instead of a chocolate bar, I’ll get something from the health food store, that doesn’t have tons of preservatives.

    A lot of us, eat for comfort, I’m trying to stop that. Good luck, I’m sure you’ll succeed🙂

  8. R. E. Hunter says:

    I’ve been on a low carb, low salt, high healthy-fat diet (but reasonable, not too strict) since the end of January. I’ve lost 13 pounds (two more to my goal weight), 5 inches off my waist (my main concern), and lowered my blood pressure from 138/94 to 120/87. I feel great! Going to write a blog post about it when I get a chance.

  9. Angelyn says:

    I’ve committed myself to a healthier lifestyle as well and the benefits are so much more than I ever anticipated. I was travelling most of last week and my plans had not included my new exercise and healthy eating plan. Uggh! I felt horrible. (The lovely glasses of merlot probably didn’t help!) I’m slowly making lifestyle changes but I hadn’t yet planned for how to live healthy away from my natural setting. I too am a Work In Progress! Good luck!

    • Ollin says:

      It’s okay, sometimes we slip, even I slip. But I found that as long as we remember that we want to feel better NOW, you always go back to eating healthy. Just this weekend I ate pizza and I felt gross afterwards. It made me want to get a healthy alternative next time.

  10. Yvette says:

    Good on you Ollin! Great ideas….I like that mindful eating idea, because it feeds (!) into being more aware and conscious of living which of course makes for fresher writing. Back about twenty or more years ago I was interviewing a Chinese doctor. She demonstrated her wonderful method of diagnosis on me. Her opinion, was that my diet was not up to scratch and if I continued the way I was eating I would in future have severe digestive pain, trouble with my knees and my joints. How could she have known I lived on a diet of takeaways? Some time after that I began to change. I started, the same as you, to eat fresher, cleaner, simpler food. I instantly felt better so that helped keep me going! And here I am, twenty or more years later, and no digestive troubles, no knee or joint pain…so the proof is in the pudding (or should I say NOT in the pudding, but rather the fruit & vege!!)
    Yvette Carol

  11. Arisa says:

    This reminds me of how my mom always tries to encourage me to eat healthy and exercise. “keep your goal in mind, one day you’ll reach your goal weight”.
    I gave up on my goal weight. It only thoroughly frustrated me when I wasn’t losing weight. I also noticed that when I would eat healthy and exercise it didn’t mean my weight would instantly follow. That took time.
    So now I just take it on myself to live healthy, regardless of my weight. This has been really rough. Especially with the stress I’ve been having lately (which is calming down now)
    I remember past sunday evening I was almost eating my hands because there was simply no food to snack on in my home. Eating habits haha.
    For me it’s also a large matter of eating less oppose to eating healthier.
    Anyway, I’m definitely going to try this and see if it helps me become a better eater. Mostly because I know unhealthy food makes me depressed and healthy food makes me energized.

    • Ollin says:

      If you are mindful you are more aware of when your stomach is full. The stomach sends a signal to you when it’s full and usually we don’t listen to it, because we live in a world of such abundance. (Well, for Americans at least.) But when we’re mindful we’re more in tune with this signal and we also realize how awful we feel afterwards when we eat too much. So, if you shift to wanting to feel better now, you will naturally start to eat less, because you only feel better now if you eat only what you need to eat to be nourished. Isn’t that fantastic?

      • Arisa says:

        Right that’s true too. And eating slow of course, as your stomach needs time to send that signal.
        I’m going to try this today! It’s almost 9am now, and my stomach is growling for food haha. (breakfast was at 6am)

  12. GREAT post. I’ve been struggling with the junk-food-addict cycle lately (though, like you, I KNOW how much better I feel and how much more creative I am when I am eating nutritious food). What a GREAT point about the instant gratification/”future payoff” mentality of dieting/eating right. This is just what I needed to hear! I really want to master ‘mindful eating.’

  13. Manali Shah says:

    Delicious post🙂
    BTW, last year or so you mentioned in a comment that you intend to read Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things. Have you gotten around to reading it? I’d like to know what you think of it.🙂 It’s my fav novel.

  14. I am trying to eat better. When Ii get takeaways I try to go to places like Subway which as an Australian was new to when when i first went there while working in Tokyo in the 1990’s. Eating healthy in the face of so much fast food propaganda can be very hard indeed but I’m giving it a shot.

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