Why does ‘nutrition’ keep changing?

Originally posted on Nourishing Revolution as ‘The problem with ‘nutrition’

One minute coffee is good for you, the next it’s bad, blueberries will save you from cancer, no, they won’t, red wine will.  Chocolate is a health food, sugar is the devil. After studying food and nutrition formally and informally for the past decade, I could tell you a thing or two, but the things I can tell you won’t make any sense unless I clarify something first: there is a problem with the way we have been taught to think about nutrition.  Actually, there are a few inter-related problems. I will do my best to explain them.

 

The body complex

Now, here’s the main thing: the body is incredibly complex, probably more complex than we even realise. We seem to simultaneously know too much and not very much at all: it’s very confusing. Nutritional research usually works in one of two ways: 1) controllable experiments on rats, 2) much much more variable studies of human beings. The main problem with this is that the much more scientific studies of rats are hard to extrapolate to humans, because we are not rats, and more importantly, because we do not live in controlled environments. The research on actual human beings can hardly tell us anything because there are so many factors that unless something is really obviously good or bad for us the difference is not statistically significant. The other problem with the latter is that correlation is probably a much more major factor than we’d like to think, eg: people who drink a glass of red-wine a day are probably eating more ‘healthy’ bourgeois food like vegetables than people who are drinking five beers a day.

Media sucks

The media particularly suck at reporting science, especially relation to nutrition, for example: this neuro-psych experiment looking at people’s behavior after consuming a serotonin-decreasing drink resulted in media reports that cheese and chocolate help people make better decisions.  Obviously this is not science, by any stretch, but it makes a good story because people like the idea that cheese and chocolate are good for you.

 

 

People’s bodies are different

Yes, we are all biologically and genetically very similar, but we are also very different. Partly this is to do with lifestyle, and the way our different digestive systems have experienced life so far, partly it’s to do with the way our immune systems, as well as endocrine and other bodily systems interact with our digestive system and the food coming into our bodies.  It’s well known that not everyone can digest or tolerate gluten or dairy or peanuts or a plethora of other things.  Suffice to say, nutritional advice is often given out as if it is relevant to everyone, all the time.  This makes absolutely no sense.

 

 

Nutrition has become a moral issue

There is a naughty and nice list when it comes to nutrition.  Fat tends to be considered immoral and sinful along with almost anything else that is indulgent and delicious.  Apparently ‘callories’ are bad (so getting energy from food = bad?). It used to be common knowledge that cholesterol was evil, but actually it’s a very important substance in human health, wait a minute: there are good and bad types of cholesterol (actually LDL and HDL are lipoproteins, not cholesterol as such – public health advice tends to treat people as if they are stupid).  This puritan religious discourse continues: healthy food is hard work and morally good. This is echoed in advertising and is absolutely ludicrous.  Perhaps we will reach a kind of healthy-heaven if we use trim dressing. Perhaps we will burn in hell with all the other lovers of saturated fat and the chocolate biscuits that give you devil’s horns.  I very much doubt it, but the moral value of nutrition is something that most people take for granted.  People who over-eat or are obese are considered to have no self-control and are blatantly discriminated against. People who are skinny must be morally superior, especially women, after all, there is only one ideal image of feminine beauty that we should all revere, and Barbie doesn’t eat at all.

 

 

Nutritional value means different things

I was quite confused when a friend of mine once remarked that mushrooms have no “nutritional value”.  It turns out that they aren’t particularly high in calories (not morally bad?), they aren’t a great source of macro-nutrients (fat, protein, carbohydrates), but they are nutritionally very complex and are a source of lots of things like potassium and vitamin B6, so how, exactly, don’t they have nutritional value? Sometimes nutritional value is just talking about calories, other times it’s talking about other things we know about that might be “good for you”.

 

 

‘Nutritionism’ 

Nutritionism, as described by Scrinis, is the focus on the constituents of food, on vitamins, fiber, minerals, amino acids, types of fat, anti-oxidant and so on, rather than focusing on whole foods.  This reductionism is great for selling vitamin supplements and for advertising products but it’s not actually very helpful for people who are trying to decide what to eat or to understand healthy food.  One obvious problem with this goes back to the body/health/food being so very complex.  Identifying vitamin C and Omega three may be helpful in situations where there is a problem with deficiency, but supplementing is inferior, in practice, to consuming whole foods.  Supplements are often dubious in quality and sometimes taking a substance in isolation is actually more harmful than taking it in a complex form.  Vitamin C, for example, is commonly known as ascorbic acid, but that is only the name of the most active component of a whole lot of things that are naturally found together. It didn’t surprise me when the research came out a few years ago that Vitamin C didn’t help treat the common cold, the experiments on mice were using only ascorbic acid.  Whole foods contain a whole lot of complex things that we are just beginning to understand. We know of hundreds of important compounds like vitamins and minerals, but there is a lot we don’t know.   Remember:  Nutritionism is only one fragmented western perspective on food/health. It does not integrate well with other views.

 

 

Things keep changing

Not only do the chances of coffee saving you from Alzheimer’s or giving you cancer seem to change from week to week, every five minutes there’s a new super-food from the amazon that will probably cure all your problems, and make you a more morally superior person.  Aside from the constant instability in the nutritional landscape, our food has actually changed.  Wild fruits, before we selectively bred them for hundreds of years, were lower in sugars and higher in protein and micro-nutrients.  We have never-before had access to so much energy in the form of processed grains and processed oils. Chances are, our bodies, which are still very similar to how they were 10,000 years ago, don’t really know how to deal with this stuff.

 

Good nutrition is a privilege

Ironically, the cheapest foods now, are the more processed. A century ago only the wealthy could regularly afford white bread, now it’s mostly the domain of the poor.  Bread has become somethings almost mythical: soft and light, like a cloud, and totally unlike any other food ever known in human history.  While the middle and upper-classes can afford to buy whole-grain sourdough with only four ingredients or, better yet, go gluten free, there are plenty of people who make do with processed sausages and the budget-brand loaf.  While some can afford to drink their glass of red wine and eat a variety of vegetables, other people learn that vegetables spoil quickly and that red-wine is best consumed by the cask in order to forget how terrible life can be.  Moral judgement when it comes to nutrition is a privilege.  ‘Healthy food’ is a privilege, and in a ‘developed’ country we have the vague idea that there are thousands or millions of people in the world worse-off than us, and there are.  While there are many people in the world who would be grateful for any calories at all, the wealthy are watching their waste-lines and trying not to cave-in to temptation because the over-processing of food has left a legacy of over-fed and under-nourished people.

 

Why the market won’t save us

There are lots of things that are said so often that people take them for granted: if you work hard, you’ll succeed, people are lazy and selfish, and so on.  We are usually so absorbed in our own culture that we don’t really see it, and therefore, can’t challenge the things that aren’t healthy/functional/true/ideal. After all, our culture is the water in which we swim.  There are some serious problems with out dominant social discourses.  Neoliberal ideas surrounding work and ‘the market’ tend to come under this bracket, so while I’m in a deconstructive mood I’m going to rant about a few of the false premises that people seem to take for granted:

1. People are essentially selfish and lazy 

This is only a lie because it’s a partial truth: people are sometimes lazy and selfish, but that is not our essential nature (if we have one at all). People are communal animals. We are hard-wired for community. We get satisfaction from work that is meaningful and helpful, we get good vibes from doing nice things and helping other people. Assuming that we are all just selfish and lazy is actually kind of yuck. It’s an excuse to devalue some people’s lives because they haven’t achieved as much as other people.

2. We all have equal opportunities to succeed

Now, even to an amateur goldfish, this would sound ridiculous. No one really believes this, do they? There is absolutely no evidence for this assumption. Perhaps it is part of the fairy-tale of the uber-privileged who have no vision outside of their limitless choices. Okay, so maybe we don’t have equal opportunity to succeed, but surely even socially disadvantaged people have options, right? They have choices, right? Let’s just pretend that this is good enough.

3. Poor people are just making bad choices

This has been bugging me since I read Linda Tirado’s essay: Why I make terrible decisions. We all know the price of rent, food and power has gone up heaps and the minimum wage and benefits haven’t followed suit, yet some people insist that people accessing food banks are just not budgeting properly, and that’s just the tip of the iceberg – you see that poor-looking person over there smoking cigarettes/gambling/drinking and you think it’s as simple as ‘bad choices’? Fuck man, you have no idea what it feels like to have massive social pressure and so few choices, that easing the pain just a little bit, and sacrificing other important things, seems like the best choice you have. I’m not even going to go into the implications of inter-generational trauma, but I will mention that my supervisor who did her PhD looking at food scarcity found that some of the people she talked to smoked cigarettes because they suppress hunger and a packet lasts longer than a meal.

4. Hard work can work for everyone

Even if you don’t really believe in premise 2, you might have a bit of faith that with a lot of hard work and a dash of determination success is possible for anyone. The ‘hard’ work discourse really grates because it assumes that the people who are at the top worked the hardest. News flash: the people who clean your toilets work fucking hard for relatively little reward. This also assumes there are enough jobs for everyone and that everyone has the ability to work.

5. There is this trickle-down effect…

So, the idea here is that people who make it to the top will invest in more business ventures and create more jobs, that this is all good for the economy, and that wealth trickles down. Now, anyone with a bit of critical awareness will tell you that the trickle-down effect is nothing more than the rich pissing on the poor, that for those people to get to the top they have to make tough choices – like paying people as little as possible and employing as few people as possible. That’s just good business sense, right?

6. What is good for the economy is good for us

People seem to have this idea that the economy is very important and must grow at all costs, without really knowing what ‘the economy’ is and who it is serving. We all need to think a bit more critically about what ‘the economy’ actually is, every time these words crop up in conversation. The way we measure ‘the economy’ is actually just a number based on all the transactions (GDP) and lots of transactions might just mean lots of crises – earthquakes are great for the economy, times of peace are not. While the economy is booming we still have poverty, crime and deprivation, in fact, we seem to be getting even more of the above as the gap between rich and poor widens. What is good for ‘the economy’ is not necessarily good for us.

7. The market is holy

‘The market’ is a similar concept, used in the religious discourse of neoliberal devotees: the market will save us. Just let it be free. There is absolutely no evidence to support this religious belief.  The main problem with this is that it leaves corporations free to exploit whomever they can, in whatever way they like. Corporations function much like cancer in the body – their job is to grow and grow and amass more and more resources. That is all. If you take all the power away from governments to regulate this kind of unhealthy social growth, you give all the power to the the tumors.

8. Paid work is morally good

This is based on the premise that people are inherently selfish and lazy. It’s much like the other puritan discourse in our social religion: we are all born sinners (selfish and lazy) and therefore to be morally good we must perform paid work – as much as possible – then we are able to feel self-righteous and superior to those who don’t work. If we are really really good we will even do unpaid work for charities or something, and if you work very hard for a long time you deserve your pension (not a Neoliberal idea) but any other dependence on the system is morally wrong and should be punished with verbal abuse and judgement, never mind that people who seek welfare are vulnerable and socially disadvantaged, never mind that they are human beings, never mind that the way they are treated by society and dysfunctional welfare systems is dehumanising and not really helping, never mind that poverty and social inequality is bad for everyone and that more equal societies are better off.

9. Taxing the rich is mean

Now, someone keeps telling me that extra taxes on high incomes are punitive, that is: punishing the rich. I fail to see how wealth distribution is a kind of punishment when more equality is better for everyone and quite frankly, I’m not overly sympathetic if Banker-Brad can’t afford a second yacht when there are far too many hungry children in this world. Now I’m not meaning to be mean and judgmental of wealthy people, there are lots of unhelpful stereotypes of rich people as well, I’m sorry about that, but it’s not top priority for me.

Negative stereotype of rich person

 

10. Taxing the rich is bad for productivity The argument goes like this: Banker-Brad works hard for his money (unlike those lazy toilet cleaners).  If Brad doesn’t get rewarded with extra money, or (heaven forbid) he gets extra money but it’s taxed at a higher rate (to subsidise the lavish lifestyles/healthcare/education/welfare of the undeserving poor) then Brad will start to lose motivation for his high-flying job, he won’t want to work as hard, and neither will all this other high-income-bracket friends. The economy will collapse and everyone will suffer. Bullshit. Research into human motivation shows that money motivation only has limited effects – for example, when people are given a task that requires creativity/challenge or ‘thinking outside the box’, money doesn’t help them achieve the task, but in a similar experiment where the creativity is taken out of the equation more money does work as a motivator. This suggests that people with more challenging/creative roles like Brad would actually benefit less from monetary motivation than the people cleaning his toilets.

For more information, watch this TED talk:

There are lots of other things that could be included here, but I hope this begins to point out how ridiculous some of the ideas we have around work and poverty are. Sometimes the ideas we take for granted are analogous to the shit floating around our social fish tank. We can either see it as part of the water or we can see it for what it really is: an unhealthy part of an unsustainable eco-system.

How to get over someone

Are you caught in a bad romance narrative? Maybe X has suddenly broken up with you or you really need to break up with her/him… Or perhaps you’ve never even gotten close enough to that lusty bottle-store clerk to even have the chance to go out, let alone break up and yet you can’t get the beer chiller fantasies out of your head. If a crush, unhealthy infatuation, pathological relationship or similar is getting you down or making you crazy, have I got the post for you.

Unhealthy romantic attachments can soak up a lot of time and energy. The drama can be exhilarating, but after a while you might notice you’re stuck on the same roller-coaster and you can’t seem to figure out how to get off. As I discuss in the Romance Narrative Trap, these kinds of things function much like addictions, producing the same neurotransmitters (like dopamine) and activating similar pathways. The patterns that we tend to fall into come from the attachment patterns we learn in childhood. I discuss this in more depth in my post about insecure attachment. The good news is that all these destructive mental patterns can be changed, you just need to change the way you think. The first thing to come to terms with is that you really want to get out of the loop. Then try out some/all of the following advice:

 

1. Get some perspective

Step back from the drama of the romance, to stop sinking my energy into crazy fantasies. Don’t turn into a love zombie, you’re too good for that, and after a while your friends will stop wanting to hear about X and how awesome or horrible they are. Maybe X is your soul-mate, but that’s neither here nor there. In your present life you have other more important shit you could be doing. Do it.

2. Bring it back.

Bring your focus and your energy back to you.  You have been leaching it all over the place and it’s making a mess on the carpet.  I have this mantra which also resembles this 90s song, which ironically has extremely love zombie lyrics if you read the rest of it. Play this song and try to dance like in the music video. Go on.

3. Balance. 

Balance everything – food, sleep, exercise, entertainment, meditation… be calm. Balance out your one preoccupying attachment with X by spending time with other awesome people. Balance out your brain chemistry with lots of hugs from different sources. Don’t rely on any one person/thing to be your opiate. Regular exercise does wonders for the brain. Try going for a stroll in the sunshine (when possible) and eating a salad every day.

4. Get fulfilling creative interests. 

There’s nothing better than fulfilling creative interests. Do something, make something, build on something. This will get your dopamine/reward pathway functioning more healthily because you are being awesome and getting rewarded for it.

5. Learn to meet your own emotional needs.

Easier said than done, but you really are the most qualified person for the job. Be sensitive to your own feelings and figure out what needs aren’t being met – then find more awesome ways to meet those needs.  People who actually have healthy relationships tend to be experts at meeting their own needs, they tend to have good self-esteem and realistic/adaptable expectations.

6. Stop talking about X all the time

Just stop it. stop thinking about it so much, think about cats, cats are nice. Okay, if you can’t stop it, write it all out.  Journal every thought you have and watch how circular it is. Get it out of your head and onto the paper. You can always burn paper.

7. Bring the relationship to its logical conclusion in your mind.

Stop playing white picket fence in your mind and get real, even if X changed and got totally into you the relationship would probably end because… Take off those rose tinted glasses and have a healthy dose of reality. If X fell madly in love with you/told you what you wanted to hear/stopped being a ____ and so on, what would actually happen? Probably in a few months you would get sick of the relationship, X would become too needy, you would out-grow him/her. Face it: if you’re in an unhealthy attachment with someone, the chances are they’re not really the best person for you to be with, anyway.

8. Get Freudian.

Let’s talk about your childhood. There’s nothing like incest to ruin the mood. Most likely, your unhealthy relationship-infatuation patterns come from unresolved childhood attachment patterns. Don’t beat yourself up, its normal to project your mommy/daddy issues onto lovers, its just not a sexy thing to think about. So think about it: what needs were unmet, as a child? Is X like your mum or dad? Maybe a sibling? Do you want to punish him/her for mistreating you in the way children react to betrayal? Is X a healthy or unhealthy model for a parent? Either way, it kinda kills the romance buzz, doesn’t it?

9. Resolve the underlying issues:

This is something that can take years of therapy, but is ultimately worthwhile. Basically, if you have unstable foundations (the kind that cause insecure romantic attachments), it won’t do you any good to keep piling bricks up. Your structure will always be wonky unless you take everything down, brick-by-brick, peel back the layers of protection and self-deception, and heal the primal wound.

10. Let Go

To really get over someone and get out of the romance narrative trap you need to let go – over and over. Surrender is a powerful life-skill. My good friend writes the Surrender to the Infinite blog. She has some great posts about letting go of a lover, letting go of Prince Charming, letting go of jealousy and letting go of grudges, among other things one might benefit from letting go of. The wonderful thing about letting go is that it can only do more good than harm. The  unhealthy/unreciprocated attachment you have is hurting you. Letting go won’t get in the way of any future romantic possibilities with X, in fact, it will only make future possibilities more likely because you won’t be so crazy/attached. The tricky thing is, you have to want to let go in order to make everything better and when you are attached you don’t really want to let go, but you can get there, step by step, until it’s not even a big deal anymore, I promise.

Do you fall into the lottery trap? On real happiness and problems with fantasy/destination thinking.

If you reach the destination of life, then what? Then you will be very embarrassed. – Osho

When I was growing up us kids, enthralled by the deluxe smorgasbord of TV advertising, would continuously ask mum “can we go to Disneyland?” or other requests obviously out of our budget. “When I win Lotto” she would always reply. It took a while for us to realise she never bought lottery tickets. Despite that, she still had the fantasy herself: if I win lotto I’ll buy a place in the Coromandel…” I didn’t question it until recently when I started to wonder if this mass social delusion that more wealth (particularly if won) equals more happiness. Apparently it doesn’t.

Research on happiness suggests that people are generally no happier (or sadder) a year after winning the lottery – even if they win millions. Interestingly enough, people are apparently about the same level of happy, a year after becoming paraplegic, as they were before.  Now, that is something to really chew on for a while. If these things we wish for, long for, fantasise about are not actually associated with happiness, then what are we doing to ourselves?

We are projecting our happiness into the future. This is so appallingly common. We have been taught since childhood that when we get to the next stage happiness awaits us: when we finally get to school – when we can read/write/swim/ride a bike we will finally be happy.  When we have a friend, or a lot of friends, when we have a boyfriend, when we graduate, when we finally get a job or clock this XBox game or reach our weight goal we will surely be full of endless joy. Obviously, when we grow up we will be happy. Yes – because we can have ice-cream for dinner and no one will tell us what to do and we can have all these cool jobs and things: happy as! Wait, being grown up is just as much work. Making decisions is tricky. Money is tricky. I bet I will be happy when I reach that next goal: have a baby, get a promotion, get married, buy a house, sell a house, buy another house: happiness will abound! Oh, wait, I’m still chugging along. I know, when I get discovered for my real shining talent as a singer/actor/genius or win lotto or NZ’s Next Top Model I will then be happy… except it hasn’t happened yet, so where is my next goal? I know: when I retire I will be incredibly happy because I can do whatever I want! Yay! No job! Except that retired people often (not always) get depressed because they aren’t contributing to society as much as is satisfactory. They have removed the work from their lives and many interesting things can fill those empty hours, but real happiness is still only a goal away, or did I waste my life going from one goal to the next, projecting my happiness into the future instead of realising that happiness is only ever now? After all, what is the real destination of life? Death? Are you just biding your time ’til the Armageddon comes? Are you hoping for a blissful after-life instead of making the most of this one?

All the Zen dudes will tell you that: happiness is only ever now. They reckon now is the only thing that really exists anyway. The past is just muddled memories in the narrative we tell ourselves about our lives.  The past is often full or sad stories or nostalgia that we can re-live over and over to no-avail.  The future is just projections and uncertainty. Many an anxiety can be found in thinking too much about the future. Life is very uncertain (yes, I have been reading too much Osho).  All this is very obvious. Happiness is a choice, moment to moment. If our established thought-patterns are interfering with our happiness we can change them through therapy or self-help or bazillions of other methods. Thoughts can be changed.

The problem with the “if only”, lottery-type thinking is that it’s not in the moment. It comes from being unhappy with our jobs and our lives and our lack of options. We have been taught to think that money is the problem and that money (particularly a large lump of it right now) is the answer, but really, with more money just comes a different level of finance to deal with.  Don’t get me wrong, having not-enough money and struggling for survival really sucks, but unless your fantasies about winning lotto are a helpful coping strategy for dealing with real hunger and desperation they are probably doing you more harm than good.

For most people who read this, who are in the pattern of ‘lottery thinking’, it is a little escape from the drudgery of every-day life. You wake up, you go to work, you work, you come home, you *insert escapist media here, eg: Playstation, movies, TV series, Facebook*, you maybe get a bit of creative time to work on building that model air-plane, writing that screen-play, painting that impressionist take on the New York skyline, re-designing your poodle’s coiffer, you practice in your steam-punk death-metal band and so on… and you dream… you dream of all the poodling, steampunking, screen-playing you could do if only …If only you had more time, if only you didn’t have to work.

Well, here’s a thought: how about, instead of fantasies and escapism, you try making little baby steps toward genuine happiness. There are two ways to do this and you probably should do both:

1: Choose to be happy. Try it now. Just one moment of happy. Just one moment of letting go of the struggle. Relax those shoulders. Breathe. Good, now go on. Don’t grimace. Smile. Yes, yes! That’s it!  You’re doing it, baby. Every time you realise you’re in a yucky mind state, your going around in circles, you’re dreaming of that day you finally reach heaven STOP! Yes, now, relax. Smile. You don’t even have to smile, but find a tiny bit of happy just by dropping all the shit. I’m glad you’re so good at following instructions. The more you can choose happiness in moments, the more moments of happiness you may experience in your life. Don’t just depend on the external world for you happy, DIY it.

2. Make steps towards doing more of the things you really love. What really feeds you? Do you even know? If you’re not sure, think about the experiences you’ve had, the things you’ve created and done, that have given you moments of happiness. Don’t tell me you’re not creative. Creative is part of human. You are continuously creating the story of your life in your head (right now), how do you want your story to go? Try new things. Figure out what brings your joy, little by little. Write a list. Figure out what you want to contribute to the world in your lifetime. Make baby steps. If your job sucks the life out of you, look for a better one. If you don’t have a job, figure out how you can contribute to your community. Community can feed us when jobs can’t. If you love to paint, sing, write, draw, ski, ride, explore, love, share, don’t relegate your passion to: ‘if/when I have time’. Everyone has the same amount of time. Everyone. It’s how you use it. If you want to be happy, let yourself do the things that bring the happiness with them. Let go of your own internal barriers to happiness. It takes a lot of time to master an art so start right now. You never know, you could be the next professional poodle coifferer.

The anxiety paradox

There’s a lot you should be doing right now, isn’t there? Why are you on Facebook and reading blogs when you have work to do, that thesis to write, the lawn needs mowing, dishes doing, the house is a mess, that exam isn’t going to study for itself,that deadline is looming..?

The dumb thing about stress/anxiety is it’s often counterproductive when it’s supposed to be the opposite. Isn’t your body filling up with all the fight-or-flight chemicals to make you get off your butt and do something? When I was trying to finish my Masters I suffered from so much anxiety that I couldn’t make any progress and my lack of progress gave me more anxiety. It was a vicious self-defeating cycle. Now that I’m onto the PhD I’m trying to break the pattern and not get too wound up – but still get stuff done. It’s a delicate balancing act.

There’s this graph they use in sports psychology to illustrate the way stress helps performance, up to a point, then it drops off sharply. They call it arousal, not stress, but the connotations or arousal are somewhat more sexual than required for this type of thing.

So anyway, why is the body making more stress than is useful? (see, arousal would be awkward here). Well, our bodies didn’t evolve during times of plentiful desk jobs or academic study. We are animals, remember? Stress means: get the fuck out. Escape the harsh climate, defend from predators, run from fire, then relax. Ahh… Aren’t you glad we ran from that fire? Now let’s find some food and have a nap in the sun.

These days the stress is never ending. There is always more to do: bills, chores, projects, deadlines… Deadline is a particularly morbid word, isn’t it? Like mortgage (to the death), we accept these things as a normal part of life. We get used to endless mounting stresses even though, physiologically, our bodies suffer.

Cortisol is a nasty thing when it gets out of control. This stress hormone puts pressure on bodily systems and exacerbates disease. It also makes it even harder to make progress because we are biologically wired to avoid cortisol inducing things – enter the plethora of avoidance strategies you have amassed in your life.

One way of tackling this silly state of affairs is to try to reduce cortisol on a physical level. Here are some suggestions:

1. Drink green tea. Apparently green tea and a bunch of other herbs and food can help.

2. The three cures for everything: Sunshine, exercise and good food seem to be the cure for almost everything.

3. Do relaxing things: I suppose it’s worth investing time in activities that are actually relaxing – go to the hot pools or indulge in scenic walks rather than playing PlayStation or aimless Facebooking.

4. Write a list of easily accomplishable things then tick them off and feel the rewards of accomplishment: your anxiety shrinking.

5. Remember to breathe.  Breathing is important, breathe slowly and deeply – do yogic breathing exercises, meditate, all of that important stuff that people tend to over-look because they’re too busy being busy,

6. Adjust your posture. Posture is important too, if you are hunched over and tense you aren’t doing yourself any favors on the anxiety front. Shoulders back and down. See, isn’t that better? Feel your chest opening up. Give yourself space.

Facebook: just like the Sims

There have been a few times in my life where I have gotten addicted to games; growing up I went through phases of being hooked on particular games on our families old Mac computers and more recently I went through a bejeweled fad. The most serious addictions I’ve had were as a teenager to Diablo II and the Sims (1 and 2). I used to love making the houses and decorating them. Perhaps designing the barbie-like characters made up for my barbie-deprived childhood. I would sit at the screen and stare at my little people, taking good care of them.  They were always bathed and fed and well-rested whereas, after staring at the screen for so long, I could have done with some bathing and feeding myself.  I would get anxiety when they burnt down the kitchen but felt proud when they studied and up-skilled and no longer posed such a great fire-risk.  I gave up on the Sims because I realised that I was putting all of this energy into something that wasn’t really feeding me.  It was a hard sacrifice to make but ultimately more rewarding.

Dopamine is an interesting brain chemical. It motivates us and gives us that sense of accomplishment of attainment, how-ever brief.  It is the primary brain chemical involved in addictions to cocaine, shopping gaming and Facebook.  Every time that little red number appears at the top of the screen you get a little bump, every like on your hillarous re-posted meme, every comment on your wall just reinforces the pattern.  Validation. It’s a trap!

The Facebook trap is a lot like the Sims trap. We can become pre-occupied with virtual lives – with the lives of other people, with our own closed-circuit-insular-universe to the point where other things are less important.  When I’m tired and don’t have other exciting things I do I always check Facebook looking for connection, validation, that little bump. I have been through times where I was getting psychologically dependent on Facebook to the point where it started to bother me. Unlike blogging, where I have the room to be creative and expressive, where I am building something that lasts and sharing ideas with the public, Facebook is insular and offers less space for expression, it rewards conformity and encourages me to share other people’s creations (which is not a bad thing) rather than develop my own.  I’m not saying Facebook is absolutely evil, and it certainly offers more real-world agency in communication and networking than the Sims does, but I am saying that it’s ultimately less satisfying than actually doing real stuff.

Dopamine is very relevant, but we can’t just reduce everything down to a neurotransmitter. Reality tends towards the complex.  There are lots of weird things happening in our brains, but what is easily observable is that doing something that triggers the reward pathway in the brain without achieving any meaningful results is infinitely less satisfying than doing something that activates the same pathway but does not accomplish much. Gaming and Facebook are less satisfying (for me, anyway) than working on a novel or writing a blog post – even reading a novel or doing the dishes, and yet, they are easy ‘lazy’ habits to get into.

Recently I went through a period where no one was liking my Facebook posts. WTF? Usually a plethora of people care about what I have to say.  I started to feel strange.  Out of my hundreds of friends, no one was bothering to comment or validate me – or even argue with me. No one was reading my blog posts either. How rude. As a result my blogging got more prolific than it ever has been, and more personal too. If no one cared, I was even more motivated to carry on with my life.  Something did seem a bit fishy though and then I realised that I must have somehow accidentally changed my Facebook settings so I wasn’t sharing my posts with my friends.  Hmmm.

This experience mirrors my experience lately of feeling like I’m walking in the dark.  Everyone seems very distant, and very few people seem to understand anything that is going on inside my head.  I suppose I’m not understanding most other people either. It’s kind of like temporarily regressing to teenage-insular-fog-brain, everything is a bit distorted. So if this blog post makes no sense, that will make absolute sense to what I’m going through.

The end.

The feminism of submission: food, sex and blogging

A friend recently told me that she has been taking a submissive role in her relationship with a man, not just sexually, but in-general. Normally she would want to be in-charge of everything, but lately she has chosen to concentrate on certain things, which happen to be ‘traditionally’ feminine things – cooking etc. On a camping trip she was able to let go of a lot of the decision making. She let him decide where to put the tent and focused instead on what foods they were going to eat on the trip. She sometimes liked to kneel next to him as he sat in a chair and felt comfortable and safe.  She said she felt good but was worried that what she was doing was anti-feminist or that other people might think she was in some kind of abusive relationship. I wasn’t worried. I wouldn’t be phased if the gender roles were reversed in this situation either, although that might be far less common.  Cooking isn’t necessarily submissive, but there is a feeling among some women that we always have to be in control, that we have to do everything and that we have to be responsible: we must be dominant in order to accommodate for the oppression of our gender.  In my friend’s case, letting go was possible because she felt safe and empowered enough to do so.

Perhaps submission is the wrong word here, but I want to acknowledge the power of giving up responsibility in the same way that Hegel’s master-slave dialectic argues that the slave has power because without the slave the master would not be a master. Although, I’m also not talking about slavery, just the power-dynamic of dominance and submission. This Penny Red post is an interesting read, exploring gender sexuality and submission. She makes some good points:

At no point, however, has anyone implied that men who want to be sexually dominated by women also want to be dominated by them socially and economically. Quite the opposite, if the long history of powerful men paying poor women to beat them up in backrooms is anything to go by. Apparently, though, a few smutty books about naughty professors wielding handcuffs are meant to prove that modern ‘working women’ (sic.) aren’t really as into all this liberation schtick as we make out.

She is talking, of course, about the media frenzy around the popularity of Shades of Grey and Twilight – books that have dominant, controlling male characters and female characters who are insatiably, irrevocably in-love with them.  Penny scorns the notion that these books are a reflection of modern woman’s secret desire to surrender the burden of their responsibilities. I’m unconvinced. But then again, I would believe that men with sub kinks are also escaping into a fantasy land where they don’t need to be responsible all the time. Being responsible is hard work.  They don’t really want women to control their lives (and neither do psychologically-healthy women really want a Christian Grey or Edward Cullen to decide what they’re going to wear) but a fantasy is a fantasy. Escape is escape.

Another friend of mine who is into BDSM type stuff argued that kink is something that can and should be relegated to the bedroom. She is particularly freaked out by dom-sub relationships that extend past sex games and into day-to-day relationships, particularly by her ex boyfriend who is in his thirties and has an eighteen year old sub with a learning disability who has to ask permission to leave the house. Ick!

To me the difference seems obvious between healthy relationships with secure attachments where submission in particular areas (from either party) is an active choice, and push-pull manipulative relationships where one partner is clearly in control of the other one.  For the record, I’m not especially kinky (hence having to ask other people about it) but I think woman and men can both healthily express their submission and dominance in various areas of life, taking into account the feelings of the other people they’re affecting and communicating effectively. Maybe I’m naive. I think it’s possible, I believe in a feminism of submission as well as one of dominance because I need to let go sometimes.  Letting go is a luxury and maybe it’s a privilege reserved for those who are already empowered in their lives.

A couple of years ago I was doing my Masters looking at the Weston A. Price Foundation and food blogs. The research sparked interesting discussions on my research blog and Sandra’s blog Letters from Wetville surrounding the gendered politics of food blogging. Almost all food blogs are run by women and there are also countless other craft blogs etc focused on ‘traditionally’ feminine past-times. The question was raised: are we food-blogging because of some underlying socialisation or is it a coincidence that the things we happen to be interested in are girly-type things? It’s a question that we never really could answer but it did raise a whole lot of other questions around social pressures, femininity and blogging.

Despite the first friend I mentioned taking on the ‘traditional’ task of cooking, food isn’t exclusively a feminine domain.  In the higher echelons it’s almost entirely male-dominated. Watching NZ Masterchef last night (my yoga teacher’s husband is in the top two) I noticed that the ten top New Zealand Chefs invited to lunch were all men, as are the three judges of the show, although many contestants are women. There’s an example of vertical gender occupational segregation if ever I saw one – food bloggers are generally unpaid, although some manage to etch out a living through ads or score a cook book deal like our locally raised Emma Galloway of My Darling Lemon Thyme.  It is worse than unfortunate that the kinds of food-work that women do are largely unpaid and it is a clear demonstration of why we still need feminism.

I don’t mean to get Utopian but it would be nice to live in a world where healthy submission was always possible because everyone is equal enough and empowered enough to feel safe in letting go of responsibilities sometimes. It would be nice if we didn’t even have to talk about whether cooking and food-blogging is undermining feminism.  It would be nice to see female sexuality portrayed as belonging to women and not represented almost entirely in relation to men.  To quote Penny again (because she’s so quotable):

Female sexual autonomy itself is what’s really unorthodox today. Agency and self-determination, the right to own our own desire – those are the kind of forbidden fantasies women across the world still pant over in private, unable to pronounce for fear of being slut-shamed. As Rousseau might put it : “Whether the woman shares the man’s desires or not, whether or not she is willing to satisfy them…the appearance of correct behavior must be among women’s duties.”