[Originally published in Can-Fit-Pro, Jan/Feb issue 2010]
By Cliff Harvey
Just as I begin to tap away on my keyboard for this piece I feel a growing rumbling in my stomach…
It has been a few hours since my first meal of the day and it is probably about time to eat again…
But I have to finish this article! So I guess I’ll just ‘get through’ this until I finish and then I’ll have something to eat…
WRONG! (Note to self: “smack yourself on the back of the hand, go and eat something and think about what you’ve done…”) Please excuse me while I go and eat!
Ok so I’m back after having had a hearty meal of grass fed organic steak, wild organic rice and organic salad greens. I feel better, more balanced, less on the wire and really glad that I didn’t just ‘get through’.
A symptom of our modern lifestyle and our addiction to rushing, movement and constant activity is our seemingly constant desire to ‘get through’ tasks and activities we are involved in.
When we seek to simply ‘get through’ tasks we become overly focused on an indeterminate future that we think will be more agreeable than the present in some way. This can lead to us constantly looking forward into the future and creating a fantasy of what it will be like without ever really appreciating the present moment.
On a physiological level it also often encourages us to ignore the subtle signals from our body telling us what we need, and what we need to be doing.
I see this in practice in several common scenarios:
Here are just a couple of examples of how we seek to ‘just get through’…
I used myself in a hypothetical situation to introduce this article. I was beginning a task that I had outlined as being ‘mission critical’ for my day, but as I began I realized it was time to eat (because my body was telling me so!) I see this situation time and time again in my nutrition practice where people do not listen to their bodies but instead say to themselves “Oh I’ll just get through this…and then I’ll have something to eat…”
The problem with doing this is that as soon as we say ‘I’ll just get through this’ and we subvert our natural instinct to eat, we are telling our bodies “I NEED to get this done!” in other words it becomes a survival imperative.
When faced with a task necessary for survival our bodies will produce stimulatory hormones (norepinephrine, epinephrine and dopamine) to allow us to remain alert and active and to encourage continued physical performance and mental acuity. They also act as appetite suppressants.
Have you ever noticed that when you continue to work, in spite of being hungry that you stop being hungry? Well that’s the reason why.
This can continue for some time and I’m sure you all would have noticed how when you get into this state you can work for hours on end and simply ‘forget’ to eat.
BUT – when you get a chance to relax what happens?
You crave everything under the sun! You have been through a period of deprivation and your body, once the perceived ‘threat’ is gone wants to restock and it wants to do it by elevating blood glucose rapidly (by eating sugar or highly processed carbohydrates) and by eating the most calories possible (fat). This is what many people experience when they get home after work, having not eaten well during the day…and this is the reason there is a line up for donuts at the Tim Horton’s located under my office at around 3pm!
When we tell our bodies to just ‘get through’ it responds as if we are in danger. I mean really, why on earth would we not eat food when we are hungry? Surely we must a) be out of food and need to go out hunting and gathering or b) about to be attacked by a saber toothed tiger!
We can see then why this response is so very valuable…
You don’t want to be eaten by a saber toothed tiger now do you?
However in the modern world we tend towards overusing this ‘fight or flight’ response and as a result are overly stressed. Acute stress is something the body can deal with well (running away from a predator, chasing down game etc) but it needs to be in small doses and for tasks that are able to be completed and then put aside and alternated with periods of rest.
Chronic stress is when we are constantly utilizing this stress response, and this is what we tend to do in the modern world – we beat ourselves up with too many perceived survival imperatives without listening to the signals our body is giving us.
I see this exemplified particularly in two other major habits that people have nowadays:
1) Caffeine use and 2) ‘Snacks’…
I want to say firmly that I am not ‘against’ coffee. In fact I love the stuff…but because I do I need to make sure that I do not over use it. And unfortunately over use it we do…
Caffeine is the world’s most used drug. In fact the total world consumption of caffeine equates to 70mg (approx 2 cups of tea or a shot and a half of Arabic espresso) per day for every man, woman and child on the planeti! In North America up to 90% of the population ingest caffeine daily at an average of 200mg-280mg!
This to me is chronic use. Coffee can give performance benefits and it has many healthful properties (providing certain beneficial alkaline compounds and antioxidants to name a few) but it also provides the stimulatory response that we all tend to over utilize. The reality is that most North Americans are tired and exhausted and we subvert what we need to be doing by taking stimulants to just ‘get us through’ our days.
If we are tired what should we do? – have a nap? (or even better re-evaluate our sleep routine, diet and lifestyle habits so that we are more rested and have better energy reserve)...OR gulp down an enormous coffee? The answer by now should be obvious.
Snacking is good right?
I’m not so sure. I am a fan of eating frequent meals but too often snacks are seen simply as a means by which we ‘get through’ until our next proper meal.
When this happens we tend to overeat at the larger meals and under eat at snack time. This serves to provide big rises and falls in blood glucose (causing poor energy and potential for fat gain) but also rises and falls in blood protein levels that negatively affect protein synthesis and thus muscle retention, metabolic rate and repair from training. Not to mention the fact that many ‘snack’ foods are fairly nutritionally devoid.
Snacking also promotes ‘eating on the run’ something I encourage my clients to never do. It is much better from a digestive standpoint to stop, sit down and eat a meal (which helps encourage more effective peristalsis and motility as well as gastric and digestive enzyme efficacy), and it really doesn’t take a lot of time to do this. In fact I have measured time and efficiency of stopping and being total and present in the act of eating vs. eating in front of the computer and trying to ‘multitask’ (by doing emails or other tasks) and it is actually MORE time effective to do one thing well at a time than trying to do more than that.
By eating frequent balanced, quality meals as compared to a few big meals separated by ‘snacks’ we help to break the cycle of ‘getting through’ plus we provide more consistent nutrition and ‘nutrient density’ to help us perform (and look!) better.
Stop ‘getting through’..
…and start listening to your body. It will tell us most, if not all, that we need to know…if we only listen.
Our bodies are not a ‘machine’ that we can afford to run into the ground through future focused ‘getting through’ patterns. It is a vibrant collection of interdependent cells with independent and collective consciousness.
By honouring this wonderful community we honour ourselves!
‘When you’re hungry - eat, when you’re tired – sleep’