By Leo Babauta
For the month of May, I’ve decided to take my Year of Living Without challenge to a new level: I’m going to go without food reward.
Basically, I’ll be eating the same very bland foods over and over again, with no variety.
That means I’ll eat the same three unseasoned foods every day, and it will be exceptionally flavorless and unvaried. No salt, added fats, frying or stir-frying, spices, mixing foods together.
No fun with food this month. I know, most people will think I’m crazy after reading this.
- I can pretty much only eat three things: boiled seitan without spices (think of chicken or beef cooked in water, no oil or salt or spices), various boiled potatoes (no salt or fat), and steamed or raw veggies. I’m going to eat each one of these separately, not together (so one meal of just the potatoes, then later just the broccoli in another meal, then finally just the seitan). Every day, all day.
- I’ll also drink olive oil separately (straight up, by itself) to get fat in the diet.
- I’m going to have black coffee and unsweetened tea. My only exception will be red wine at night.
- I’m going to have unflavored plant protein powder. This isn’t necessary for the challenge or for life, but I’ve been trying to hit certain macro targets (protein, carbs, fat) as part of a plan I’ve been doing and I need to protein for the plan.
- I am going to allow myself one exception per week, so that I can socialize with my family (we have some birthday plans), but I have to designate that exception at least 2 days in advance. No spur-of-the-moment cheats.
Why I’m Doing This Crazy Experiment
If you remember, the Year of Living Without isn’t about sacrifice or seeing how dedicated I can be … it’s to explore letting go, and the resistance I feel when I let go.
Over the last couple of years, I’ve been reading and thinking about food reward — if you’re interested start with this great series on food reward by Stephan Guyenet (part II, part III, part IV, part V, part VI, part VII).
In case you don’t want to read that entire series (it’s very long), the basic gist is that a system in our brain/body that responds to high-reward foods overrides our natural inclinations to stop eating when we’re full or when we’ve had enough calories to maintain the right bodyfat level.
What’s food reward? Things that make the food more palatable (or tasty), like sweetness, saltiness, being fried, good smell, nice presentation or colors, pleasing textures, variety, etc. Basically anything that makes you like food.
The amazing thing is that when you start examining your diet, you’ll find that it’s full of food reward. Which isn’t a bad thing, but if you’re trying to lose weight, it’s good to be aware of how this food reward system will make it harder for you to lose weight.
Wanting to eat high-reward foods is something that’s so ingrained in our culture that removing it seems insane. Imagine eating nothing but boiled potatoes, unsalted, unseasoned, no fat … for a whole month. Or a year. That would sound insane to most people I know. And yet, people have done it and lost weight (not recommended long term).
Anyway, I’m not doing this to lose weight. I’m not doing it because I think it’s incredibly healthy (long-term, variety is a good thing). I’m not doing it because I’m crazy. I’m doing the no-food-reward challenge to see what it’s like to let go of something so important to us. To experiment with my resistance to letting go of it.
I’ve just started, but already I can tell that this is something that’s so strongly embedded in my mind that letting go will be very challenging.
I love challenges.
If you’d like to follow along, I’m going to try to keep a daily journal. It won’t be exciting.
March & April: No Alcohol then No Buying
In March, I went without alcohol, which I thought would be very easy as I did it for more than a month last fall. But it was a lot harder than I’d expected, for the first week. I constantly craved red wine at night, when Eva and I usually have a glass or two. It didn’t help that Eva was drinking a glass of wine and my mouth salivated.
But after a week, the cravings went down. I went to a family party where everyone was drinking, and I just had water. And fruits. It wasn’t a problem.
The hardest time, other than the first week, was when I was alone for a week, and Eva and the kids were at her parents. Every single evening, I craved wine. I broke down one evening and had it, but it didn’t taste as good as I’d imagined.
In early April, I went back to wine, but it didn’t taste as good anymore. I was doing it more for the evening ritual with Eva than wanting the taste. I’m still drinking it now and have developed the taste for it again.
In April, I gave up buying new things (other than groceries). This was very easy, as I don’t really care about buying things most of the time … however, there were a few times when I almost slipped up:
- I wanted a pocketknife, and went online to buy it. I almost ordered it before I realized I wasn’t buying things for the month.
- A couple other times I went to Amazon’s website to get something small, and again almost ordered without thinking.
- I really wanted to buy gifts for friends and family for my birthday, to continue the tradition I’d started last year of getting gifts for people on my birthday. I couldn’t though. I thought of making them presents but I got so caught up in writing my ebook on letting go that I didn’t have the time or energy to make anything.
Looking back on April, I thought the no-buying challenge was good for me. Even though I don’t buy a lot of things, it highlighted my habit of just ordering small things without thinking. It’s good to become aware of these urges, and perhaps put a check on them so buying becomes less unconscious.