Is Your Diet Hijacking Your Focus?

(Forge) Diet Culture Is Hijacking Your Focus

Virgie Tovar 

It’s not just the hunger, it’s the message that you deserve to be hungry

Mia Feuer’s beautifully calloused hands unconsciously fluttered over her belly as she talked. A sculptor who has shown her work all over the world, she said she was dealing with a creative blockage.

At Babecamp, a weekend intensive I lead in San Francisco that helps women break up with dieting and diet culture, she told me that she could feel that she had it in her to create something truly remarkable, and she couldn’t figure out what, exactly, was stopping her.

But I had a hunch.

Have you ever noticed what happens when you’re hungry? Time seems to slow down. Routine tasks become impossibly difficult. You lose focus as this deeply human instinct eclipses your every thought. Sometimes you get irritable about small things, or unaccountably angry.

This altered state (sometimes known as “hanger”) makes sense when you consider the gut’s profound influence on the brain, and vice-versa. Evolution has wired us to seek food. When people experience hunger daily, according to the American Psychological Association, their mental energy is used to “focus on food, which can lead to neglect in other areas of life.”

Hunger compromises focus. And, as uncomfortable as it may be to admit, hunger is a part of the experience of dieting, a practice that 48 million Americans engage in each year. What might be possible if we stopped opting into a state of hunger? Who could we be, what could we create, if we stopped letting diet culture squat on our precious and limited cognitive real estate?

Chronic hunger keeps our bodies in survival mode. When all you can think about is the next time you’re going to have a bite of banana or a spoonful of peanut butter, it’s really hard to have big ideas, make important things, or build a meaningful life.

After that weekend at Babecamp, Mia did stop dieting. Within a few months, she wrote me to say that she was creating the best work of her life. Like so many women, she had not seen the connection between the self-negating impulse at the core of dieting, and her creative block.

It wasn’t just the biological reality of hunger-induced lack of focus that had made it difficult for Mia to reach new creative heights. It was the very mentality woven deep into the bedrock of diet culture — that she deserved to be hungry — that inhibited her relationship with inspiration itself.

Dieting makes us obsessed with food

I’m a fat woman who was chronically hungry for almost 20 years. I called it “dieting,” and I believed this hunger was a small price to pay for the dream of someday becoming thin. Like many fat people, I was subjected to emotional abuse and cruelty that I thought was my fault. I’d been taught that my body size was a sign of an undisciplined relationship to my appetite; a self-control problem. If I could just control myself I could become a person worthy of kindness, the person I was meant to be. (You know, like the superior version that Oprah says is inside “every overweight woman.”)

For two decades, I restricted myself to small amounts of food in order to lose weight — and I thought my behavior was innocuous and even laudable. I hated my body because of how it seemed to make others treat me.

Every morning I woke up feeling an acute sense of failure because I was still fat, the fear that I’d have to eat and that I might lose control and end up gobbling up all the food in my refrigerator.

Dieting can increase stress hormones, which manifested for me as a low-level and persistent terror, and a neverending nagging internal monologue: “How many calories is this? When’s the next time I can eat? I probably ate too much. I should try to not eat for as long as possible. Maybe I can go to bed early so I’ll eat less. I wonder if I’ll ever be able to eat Nutella again. Probably not.”

Dieting made me obsessed with food. I was always, always hungry.

I lost the ability to enjoy socializing or celebrating over a meal, and I also lost my ability to focus on things other than food. Dieting made me incredibly distracted, and I thought that was normal.

There’s focus, and then there’s focus

But what about diets such as intermittent fasting? Disciples claim that fasting, done the right way, improves both energy and focus. It’s hard to argue with individual experiences, but it’s worth noting that the science isn’t conclusive. Bodies and metabolisms vary widely, but living without food manipulation is likely a better bet longitudinally. Diets rarely maintain the desired effects over the long run.

Ultimately, the question of whether or not the science backs up the experience of fasting proponents — from Jack Dorsey to Terry Crews — is hardly the point. Focus has more than one dimension. Most think of “focus” and see a person with a furrowed brow hovering over a laptop with a huge cup of coffee (kind of exactly what I look like right now). Sometimes focus comes about from being in a flow state with my work, and sometimes it’s come about through discipline (and caffeine).

One meaning of the word “focus,” a 17th-century word from Latin, described the point where rays of light refracted by a lens converge. That’s the focus required to complete short-term tasks with precision, and what I believe biohackers fasting their way through the workday are experiencing.

But focus has an even older definition, rooted in the Latin word for “hearth,”with its connotations of home and family. This type of focus is more existential and long-term: the ability to focus on what I want for my relationships, my career, my community, and my life. It’s the vision I have for my hearth. And this dimension of focus requires inspiration, not discipline or manipulation.

Food is life

There’s a reason that international development organizations advocate for free midday meals at public schools. It’s not just that the meals increase attendance, but also that filling children’s bellies helps them to focus — and learn.

Eating is core to our humanity, and our dysfunctional relationship with food says a lot about our culture. I often think about the psychic undercurrents that characterize the typical American relationship with food. For most of us, that relationship is shaped largely by fear, anxiety, and the impulse to control. Women are especially affected. We report higher rates of body dissatisfaction and are likelier to go on a diet than men.

Our cultural preoccupation with women eating as little as possible as a marker of gender success is deeply troubling. We don’t realize it, but when we ask women to lose weight we are asking women to live with considerable impediments to focusing on what matters most.

When I finally stopped dieting for good nine years ago, my recuperated ability to focus manifested in small and big ways. I found that not being hungry all the time took the edge off of everything I did. It was easier to write, to complete tasks, to figure out solutions at work, and to forgive my boyfriend for his inability to navigate camping equipment reservation websites.

I was finally not hangry. That made me less impulsive and better at making long-term decisions. I was able to focus on what I wanted in the long run professionally, personally, and even romantically. I built a business and healed from the trauma that had started my obsessive dieting in the first place.

And I began to share the knowledge I’d accumulated with other women, including this truth: Eating is a fundamental human need and a basic right.

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