The Hedonist Cleanse: Cutting Out B.S. Diet Advice and Enjoying Food

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It’s that time of year when everyone makes resolutions and decides which cleanse is right for them. Stop booze for a month? Drink only green stuff? Eat nothing but red meat? I, too, frequently desire to eat better and be a healthier person. When I was a kid, I was so unhealthy that my mom had a “one candy bar per day” limit for me, and I once showed up to the dentist to learn I had 12 cavities. 12. One visit. When I was 12, I started reading magazines that were aimed at 30+ plus adults and teaching myself about nutrition and exercise. I pretty quickly lost a ton of weight (one of the first times I would lose too much weight, too fast), and basically cut out the cavities.

Since then my life has been a cast rotation between “chubby and happy” Becky and “a little too obsessed with diet and exercise” Becky. I have a feeling a lot of people can relate to this, no? This is America after all. Pretty much all of our media and product development is aimed at helping us constantly yo-yo between these modes, to pretty disastrous mental and physical effects.

I’ve spent a lot of time reading about health and nutrition, because I generally like to figure out what is “true” and what is just a lot of marketing/hype. The most interesting idea I’ve found is an idea called mindful eating. I came across it when I was interviewing someone from The Emily Program, an organization that aims to provide “real help for eating disorders.” I was trying to make sure that our strategy for a food brand did not promote an unhealthy relationship with food for women. I was surprised how much of their advice was about not just under-eating, but over-eating, or “mindless eating.” They pointed me to some mindful eating books, which I had to wade into the Eating Disorder section of Barnes & Noble to find. I settled on Eating Mindfullywhich I would (and have) recommended to anyone who likes to eat and wants to be healthy.

The idea of mindful eating is that we often don’t stop and think about what we eat, and we often take no pleasure in food. We’ll consume a whole bag of chips standing up, waiting for dinner to finish in the microwave. We’ll eat the same things every time we watch TV because that’s who we are and what we do. Mindful eating forces us to dwell on these choices and decode why we do them. Do we eat too many donuts because we’re sad? Because it’s the one way we reward ourselves? Because they remind us of our moms? Are there possibly better ways to feel better, reward ourselves or think of our moms that don’t give us diabetes slowly? Yes. But the biggest question it asks us is, are we actually taking pleasure in our food? Are we tasting it?

This is a surprisingly foreign question for us in America. After all, food isn’t really tied to much for us, other than nostalgia. My friend who was raised Hindu worked on a thesis exploring whether or not obesity in America is tied to the fact that we don’t really have an overarching spiritual tradition dictating what we do or do not eat, when we eat, or why. While some of us have religious regulations to our diet, they aren’t often reflected in mass culture. We’re a melting pot, yes, but a young nation too, one without a lot of shared tradition. In place of these culinary rituals, we have capitalism. I’m not saying capitalism is bad or that religion is necessary to make us eat better. I’m saying where other people eat according to tradition and ritual, we eat according to where the nearest drive-through is. 20% of American meals are eaten in the car.

When we’re not scrambling to eat at all in our busy, crazy lives, we’re often following fad diets. Cut out carbs. Cut out dairy. Cut out this, and that, and that too. I tried the Vegan Before 6 diet for a month, because it makes so much sense, but did not enjoy it at all. I was spending all kinds of money on special substitute ingredients, and wasting a lot of hip produce, and I felt this nagging hunger all the time. (I did lose like 4 pounds or something though I think.) I’m not saying don’t do Vegan Before 6. I seriously respect people who do. I’m saying that a lot of these diets make us less able to take pleasure in our food.

Being unable to take pleasure in food is a huge reason people are overweight and unhealthy. We don’t taste what we eat. We don’t think about it. And often times, as Louis C.K. put it, we don’t stop eating when we’re full — we stop eating when we hate ourselves. We take the opposite of pleasure in food, a lot of the time, as an entire culture. That is crazy! I don’t think any diet can fix us until we learn to repair our ability to take pleasure in food.

As I see people commit to new cleanses in the New Year, I want to propose something I’ll call a Hedonist Cleanse. This “cleanse” isn’t a cleanse, but a way of eating that has only three rules:

  1. Eat only what you take pleasure in.
  2. Think about what you eat.
  3. Eat more of what makes you feel good not just in the moment, but for the next few hours. Eat less of what makes you feel good for a second and then bad the rest of the day.

It’s a diet for the rest of us. Slackers, Chipotle-lovers, coffee drinkers, beer enthusiasts and people who just can’t afford the co-op. It’s not a diet at all really, but just a slow, fun process of repairing your relationship with food, and building something meaningful in place of stuffing your face.

How does this look? As the mindful eating book says, if you’re going to have a chocolate chip cookie, enjoy it. Don’t say, “Oh, I didn’t eat lunch today!” or “I’m sooo bad.” Think about it as you eat it, and then stop when you reach the point where one more bite would not give you any more pleasure. You don’t have to finish it even, especially if it’s one of those huge café cookies. (There is a point, halfway through, where you start to feel gross. Listen for this.) Once you don’t hate yourself for having a cookie, you’ll be less likely to eat a whole bag of them.

For me, this idea has come more naturally with age and travel. The more you learn about the joys of nice food (fresh seafood, for example, which I would never have touched as a kid), you see what you’ve been missing. You see that other people, in the rest of the world, eat less food because their food is good. We eat more because our food is bad. It sounds crazy, but we’re all eating till we reach a point of pleasure, and it takes longer when you’re essentially eating flavorless carb paste than it does when you’re eating seared tuna with wasabi.

Now I have to confess, I’m not a diet expert or a fabulously thin person, and I eat like a child a lot of the time still. What I am learning to do is not apologize for eating what I actually feel good about. I will turn down the free subs at work to get a spa salad instead, which is an amazing creation that is vegan and $7 and gives me at least five servings of vegetables in one delicious meal. I will not feel bad about spending a couple dollars more at lunch if it means I will be less likely to develop diabetes (which is very likely due to my family history).

I bought a book the other day called The Food Lover’s Cleanse by Bon Appetit magazine. I kind of suck at cooking, but I subscribed to that magazine and have really enjoyed making their healthy, tasty recipes. I also loved the cookbook’s description: “140 delicious, nourishing recipes that will tempt you back into healthful eating.” This to me sounds like a true hedonist’s diet, focused on actually enjoying /understanding food, not depriving yourself of it.

I was conflicted when I saw that the book is full of 2-week cleanses that come with super expensive-looking shopping lists. I just don’t think I can do that kind of thing. I travel for work a lot and I don’t want to load up on eight different kinds of vinegar to plan for two weeks of eating. I also don’t see myself eating wilted spinach and egg whites for breakfast ever. That’s my biggest problem with these diets. A daily food plan means eating things I don’t like, at least once a day.

Also, the cleanse involves dramatically reducing your intake of coffee, and I don’t care to do this. I like caffeine a lot and I just don’t feel that bad about it. Sorry. Instead I want to be intentional about how/ when/ why I drink coffee, and make sure I’m truly enjoying the process of making and drinking it. I don’t regret buying the cookbook though. I plan to bookmark recipes that look good and take pleasure in making them and eating them. That’s enough for me.

The “hedonist cleanse” rules also apply to drinking alcohol. I’ve drank my share of bottom shelf whiskey mixed with soda, and that’s part of being twentywhatever. But now I want to learn how to enjoy making and drinking nice cocktails, and cut down on drinking occasions I don’t actually enjoy or feel good about. For example, drinking on airplanes. I don’t do this often, but when I do I feel dehydrated and tired.(That’s not to say I will rule out a pre-vacation cocktail, however.) I bought a cocktail shaker and a book called Shake: A New Perspective on Cocktails because it teaches you to make delicious cocktails using seasonal ingredients. That said, cocktails have a lot of alcohol in them — sometimes a regular old vodka soda is a better choice than a cocktail with four shots of booze in it. Plus, alcohol gets just as easily rolled up in a mindless cycle of drinking till you feel bad. Moderating this is the art of, as they call it, adulting.

I feel compelled to point out that a common thread in a lot of this is, spend more to consume things you enjoy. Buy the right cookbook. Buy the more expensive salad. Buy a less bottom-shelf variety of whiskey. That kind of sucks, and it’s definitely the reason I’m only getting around to thinking this way at age 28. For example, I never liked seafood until I started eating it at nice restaurants during expensive business dinners. Rich people aren’t only thin because they play tennis and have personal trainers — they’re thin because rich people food is delicious and made well with good, expensive ingredients. They get to eat for pleasure. A lot of people have to eat on the go, and have to eat crappy food because it provides enough calories for their whole family on a budget they can afford. This Clickhole article sums it up pretty well: Gwyneth Paltrow Tried to Survive a Week on Food Stamps and She Died. I survived on Pop Tarts and processed food for years because I had no money. Unfortunate, but such is reality.

The good news is, you can be mindful about taking pleasure in what you eat, no matter what it is. If you’re having a Pop Tart for breakfast, think about it. Enjoy it. And don’t apologize because it’s not the recipe in the cleanse that involves grass-fed butter and organic egg whites. Maybe someday that will be your life. For now you are human. Being human should taste good. Eat like a rich person when you can. Chilean sea bass? Heck yeah. But when you’re forced to go through the McDonald’s drive-through, get something you’ll feel good about it, and savor it. Slowly you can repair your relationship with your mouth, and truly take pleasure in the food and drinks that pass through it. All you have to do is eat intentionally, and remember that food is supposed to make you feel good. As an early hedonist once said, “Fill your belly. Day and night make merry. Let days be full of joy.”