People frequently wax sentimental for what they call “simpler” days—presumably times when the rules were fewer and clearer, when choices weren’t so overwhelming, when demands were less and common sense was more prevalent. Eating, of course, is no exception to this. If you listen to the dominant voices in the social-media-marketing-medical culture, it’s enough to ruin your dinner and make you feel guilty for skipping breakfast (Don’t buy the guilt trip). We’re fed contradictory studies, warned of the latest threats lurking in our food supply, told every bite squashes the life out of another ecosystem, and led through fluorescent-lit warehouses filled with more food options and label claims than one person should ever be reasonably expected to handle. It’s exhausting, frustrating and on certain days defeating. So what’s a reasonable approach in an age when anxiety too often overtakes enjoyment of eating?
Of course, the problem here isn’t the intention for healthy eating itself. In our primal ancestors’ time, healthy eating was a thoroughly mindless endeavor. No one knew anything about nutritional science in the Paleolithic Era, but it didn’t matter. Their consideration never wandered past the straightforward (albeit dramatic) question, “Is it poisonous?” Beyond that single inquiry (which usually offered quick feedback), bad choices didn’t exist.
Unfortunately for us modern folks, we don’t have the luxury of tapping into the food of our immediate environs without at least some degree of reflection.
We have the burden of choice and the burden of (often conflicting) information. From here, reflection can turn to chronic, tiring, or even oppressive deliberation—hence, the anxiety, the excessive worry or unease about the outcome or impact of what should just be a simple food choice.
Is it any wonder we may feel so much apprehension with the call to make every choice smart, informed (and then re-informed), socially-conscious, environmentally conscious, fair trade provided, humanely sourced, forward-thinking, allergy-friendly, coupon savvy, good fat proportioned, antioxidant rich, and lean tissue supporting, pesticide-, hormone-, and additive-free, etc.? Unless we’re farming, raising and foraging our own with Grok standards in mind, we’re bound to screw it up on at least a few levels.
So, what then would sanity look like in this scenario? How do we recover enough mental space to feel some degree of ease, not to mention pleasure in eating again? Try on a few of these modest proposals.
1. Reclaim eating for sustenance
It’s common to talk about “eating to lose weight,” “eating to fight illness,” “eating to gain muscle,” “eating to prevent aging.” Let’s put the truth back in that, shall we?
You’re eating to live—to survive, to allow your body enough nutrient and energy input to keep you alive and functioning. Each day, that is your main goal. Very simple in fact. That said, you can eat toward nourishing ongoing physical vitality as your primary goal. You can eat with a nutritional emphasis on building muscle mass. You can eat in such a way that prioritizes optimum metabolic functioning and fat burning.
And, no, it’s not just semantics. It’s mindset, which makes all the difference when you’re talking about emotional perception.
If you’ve been feeling wrapped around the goal of eating “for” anything but living, take a step back and reframe the picture. Each morning, each meal, make a point of telling yourself you’re eating to live, to enjoy time on this earth. The rest is Primal gravy.
2. Don’t politicize every choice you make
The morality of eating these days can careen a decently sensitive and conscientious person off a cliff. How many labels and certifications does it take to satisfy a Portlandia standard? From what I can tell, the number keeps growing.
Do I understand the usefulness of these standards? You bet. Organic and pastured offer in most cases substantive health benefit. Heritage breeds of produce and livestock may be more nutrient-rich. And I believe, as I’ve said before, prioritizing environmentally sustainable, humane farming practices wherever it’s practical. I make personal and business choices in keeping with that principle whenever I reasonably can.
But I don’t get wrapped up in questions of morality every time I put a bite of food in my mouth. I don’t deal in guilt or play a game of self-reproach. I view social, environmental and humane choices around food as interests and not inviolable prerequisites.
3. Dump the idea of perfection
I came up with the 80/20 rule long ago because I didn’t want the Primal Blueprint to ever be seen as a pursuit of perfectionism. Food is important. Good food choices can help you claim good health and lifelong vitality, but parsing out those exact choices, structuring intakes with precision, giving yourself no room for choice in the moment, adhering to the principles with exactitude sounds like a miserable way to live.
A short-term bout of Primal rigor can gain you momentum in your fat loss or energy reclamation, but there’s no need to equate Primal eating with meticulousness. I consider it one of the best attributes of the PB that it’s a simple, adaptable blueprint that offers plenty of space for everyday living and regular imperfection.
4. Don’t dramatize your missteps
In truth, some days people leave the “20” of the 80/20 principle in the dust. Maybe it started out as a well-intentioned gesture toward moderation. Or maybe it was always going to be a dive off the deep end. Whatever led to the “misstep,” there’s no reason to dramatize it. It happened. Don’t give more energy to it by moaning in regret or bewailing the slip.
Cheats (if we’re going to call them that) aren’t catastrophic. Long-term, repetitive behaviors are.
5. Scrutinize your motives
I’ve seen plenty of people over the years lose themselves in anxiety over their eating because they put their identities in their choices. Maybe they feel invested in a self-righteousness or perfectionistic compulsion that goes back psychic decades. Or maybe they’re distracting themselves from other behaviors or unhappiness they don’t want to own. They impose excessive control and experience emotional anxiety with food while some other part of life feels wholly overwhelming. It’s a coping mechanism, a grounding means to feel security or authority in their lives.
This is no way to live. Clean eating is a great action step, and real vitality feels great. That said, health isn’t a panacea, and it won’t ever cover for a life that doesn’t serve you.
6. Get back to the actual experience
Stop telling a story about what you’re eating and start feeling yourself eating it. It sounds so obvious, and yet this obsessive story-telling, script running, relentless monologuing is exactly what we do.
Forget the health story of what’s in front of you. Forget its sourcing. Forget how somebody on Food Network would judge it. Forget what your coworkers or mother-in-law would say about it. Cut off all language, and just be with your food the way a young child is.
Exchange words for sensation. Forgo judgment for mindfulness. Give yourself over to the sensory experience of what you are putting in your body. Smell it. Feel the texture. Take it in visually. Get in your own body’s responses to it.
7. Be grateful for every bite you take
It’s not a huge step from mindfully experiencing your food to being grateful for it in the moment. When we drop the story about something, we can finally be present with it. There’s a lightness to the moment. We’re open to enjoyment of it. How could we not be grateful for the chance to nourish our bodies?
If anxiety is fear of outcomes or impact, it has us in the future. If it’s unease about where something comes from, it has us in the past. Gratitude flows most strongly from the present. When we’re here in the now, when our minds are in the same time as the meal in front of us, we can at last enjoy that meal in peace.
Thanks for reading, everybody. Has this kind of anxiety ever been part of your story? What changes helped you? I’d love to hear your comments and additions here. Have a great end to the week.
About the Author
Mark Sisson is the founder of Mark’s Daily Apple, godfather to the Primal food and lifestyle movement, and the New York Times bestselling author of The Keto Reset Diet. His latest book is Keto for Life, where he discusses how he combines the keto diet with a Primal lifestyle for optimal health and longevity. Mark is the author of numerous other books as well, including The Primal Blueprint, which was credited with turbocharging the growth of the primal/paleo movement back in 2009. After spending three decades researching and educating folks on why food is the key component to achieving and maintaining optimal wellness, Mark launched Primal Kitchen, a real-food company that creates Primal/paleo, keto, and Whole30-friendly kitchen staples.