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Paint Branch Unitarian Universalist Church

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Hungry for Change

Presented by Service Leader Mary "Tyrtle" Rooker; with Jonathan Mawdsley, Worship Associate, and guest pianist Deni Foster

Hungry for Change, July 20, 2014

More Americans are killed or hospitalized from the actions of one group of terrorists than from anything else. The enemy isn't the terrorists we usually think of:  rather, it's the food industries. If this were a foreign enemy, even the pacifists among us would be tempted to declare war.

Many of you have shared that you want to make various dietary changes for a range of reasons, but are finding it difficult. What makes dietary change so hard when so much is at stake? I used to struggle just like most people. I now find dietary change fairly easy and painless. We can put an end to this terrorism. Many of us are hungry for dietary change, but we just don’t know how to make change happen or can't maintain it long-term.

I want to share some big picture considerations and leave the detailed tips to a handout on the table in the lobby. What I'm sharing should also apply to non-food changes you might want to make, like quitting smoking or taking up an exercise program. Knowledge is power, and understanding these larger issues was critical in helping me change my diet.

My doctor diagnosed me as pre-diabetic when I was 35. I suffered occasional allergies and a permanent sinus infection. By 41, I had just gone mostly vegetarian, and I needed surgery to remove a tumor—non-cancerous, thank goodness. An acupuncturist told me that dairy was the cause of my tumor. I didn't believe him, but I went vegan anyway. My allergies disappeared and my sinus infections became occasional, not chronic, so I stayed with it.

In 2010, I began studying the UUA's national Ethical Eating program. I'd been vegan for 17 years then, but  the food and nutrition research I undertook revealed that I wasn't eating the healthiest vegan diet. So, in 2012, I nearly eliminated the grains and potatoes to make room for more non-starchy vegetables. Next, I cut all sweeteners except fruit. And for a year now, I've also been off all oils. I now have no sinusitis, lost weight without trying, and have memory and other health improvements. I love what I eat, and meals are easy to prepare. Next month, I'll turn 62, and I'm healthier than ever. So these changes over the last 4 years have been just what the doctor ordered. Well, they're what the doctor *would* have ordered if the doctor understood nutrition!

My research helped me make these changes by showing me how we're being tricked and robbed of choice by external & internal forces. And understanding the neuroscience and psychology of food also helped, so I want to share these with you today.


Some  internal pressures are biological, others are psychological. Let's start with biology.

Addiction Biology

Our DNA places us in the Great Ape family.  That DNA plus human breast milk analysis suggest that we're probably designed for about 5% of calories from protein, 6 to 15% of calories from fat, and the rest from carbohydrates. Even the leanest cuts of land or sea meats are high fat for us and thus quite addictive.

Fats, concentrated sugars, and salt are rare in the natural Great Ape diet, so our brains are hard-wired to eat as much of them as we can find. Fats, sugars, and salt trigger all the reward centers in the brain and stomach, much like any other addiction does. Not everyone has all three addictions because the reward centers are wired differently in each unique brain, but most people have two of those food addictions and some are hooked on all three.

You can't trust your body to tell you what you need to eat because your body prefers habit and can be addicted or experiencing unpleasant detox symptoms. For example, many people who increase vegan meals miss the heaviness in the stomach after eating, feel that the new diet is too light. Many think they miss meat for the protein, but it's really the fat and the stomach heaviness they miss.

Dietary changes would be fairly easy if we weren't addicted. We even use the language of an addict: "Oh, I could never give up my ..." steak, cheese, yogurt, sodas, and so on. It's hard precisely because we are addicted. Knowing this explains a lot and shows the way out.

When I quit sweeteners, what helped me was being honest with myself about what I was really “giving up.” I was giving up an addiction, health risks, a lower quality of life, yo-yo weight, and lack of control. But what 12-Step Programs call "Stinkin' thinkin" would have me believe that I was losing my best friend; the truth is that I was being liberated from an enemy that had taken me hostage and was harming me.

Food now tastes better than ever, my health, energy, sleep, and quality of life are better than ever. And I'm a control freak, so I love feeling in control of my diet.

What also helped me quit sugar was the realization that I truly was a sugarholic, that the food industry was happily throwing the health and lives of me and my loved ones under the bus. Once I fully got that insight, I was beyond angry; I was enraged. My stubbornness stopped saying "I want my cake and cookies!! Give me sugar or give me death!"  and instead began to swear, "I'll show them. Boycott!" My stubbornness now found it important to *not* eat cake and cookies.

Brain Learning Preferences Biology

In addition to addictive tendencies, the brain favors not having to think too much.  The brain grows when it learns or does new things, but it can feel "tired" from rewiring new neural pathways--that's one reason stroke victims need so much sleep. Familiar, default settings also save us time.  We know how to cook our favorite meals, we can do them while multi-tasking, talking on the phone or listening to the radio. But learning to make a new dish requires focus, as well as time. And we don't like the uncertainty—will I even like how it tastes? Will it turn out right?

The familiar is also comforting; it has the weight of tradition behind it. My grandmother's butter and sugar potato salad dressing delivers more than just the addictive fat and sugar; it reminds me of my grandma.

Psychology: Cognitive Dissonance & Confirmation Bias

Yep. Now we're leaving the biological pressures and getting to some of the food psychology. Emotions drive our decisions, even when we are certain that our choice was a rational one. We decide, then we seek out reasons to justify our decision. It's human nature to take in or "see" only the information that supports our decision.  We are certain that we have heard and weighed both sides equally, but we have often heard only or mostly one side of the story. Psychologists call this "confirmation bias."

When we're presented with evidence that contradicts a strong core belief, the new evidence cannot be accepted. Doing so would create a feeling that is extremely uncomfortable, called cognitive dissonance. It is so important to protect the core belief that we will rationalize, ignore, and even deny anything that doesn't fit in with that core belief. (Frantz Fanon)

Immediate Gratification Wiring

Another issue is what some psychologists call "the pleasure trap."  We all have times when we have conflicting desires: we're at a great party and want to stay out late, but we also want to get a good night's sleep because we have to get up the next morning for church or work or school. We want to eat a big piece of cake, but we also want to lose weight.

When two outcomes are desired, the outcome that supplies pleasure right now is often preferred over the one that rewards us later. If you are addicted to a food or simply have not trained your brain to pick the delayed gratification, the immediate pleasure--the cake--is going to win. You can rewire these neural gratification pathways by practicing delayed gratification, also called "Surfing the Urge." It's neither hard nor complicated; it requires only awareness and practice. Most cravings last only 4 minutes.

Being in the now and living in the moment is not about immediate pleasure or addiction but about awareness and conscious choice. Immediate gratification is the antithesis of awareness and conscious choice.


As if these internal twins of biology and psychology weren't enough to deal with, external pressures also push us away from healthful foods. I've found that the two most important external pressures are cultural dictates and food industry marketing. Let's start with cultural dictates.

Cultural Dictates

If you're like me, you take a certain pride in your individuality and free will; you insist on freedom of choice.  But unless you've consciously changed your diet, you did not choose the diet you now eat.

Our parents and the culture we grew up in passed on their food habits and addictions, and we pass them on to our children. We don't usually challenge what we experience as normal.

But although most of us didn't choose our current diet, we usually believe that we did. By the time we were old enough to choose, we were already addicted to those foods, so true choice and any desire to scrutinize it was already gone. And our brains are wired to give extra credibility to cultural norms and to be hyper-critical and suspicious of anything that goes against those norms.

Behavioral psychologists know that external factors, especially what others around us are doing, are the #1 driver of human behavior. The more friends you have who don't smoke, the less likely you are to smoke or to quit if you do. Having more gay people out of the closet makes it easier for others to come out. Having more anti-racism friends makes it more likely that you will speak out against racism. The more vegan people you know, the more likely you are to be or become vegan. This "peer pressure" cannot be explained away by our seeking out others who share our preferences or values.

Social psychologists also know that social change requires a few brave souls to speak out first, then to have early adopters join in until critical mass is reached. At that point, middle and late adopters join the trend, and finally the change settles in as the new norm. I will proudly say that Unitarians have for centuries often been among those first few brave souls who are the cutting edge of social change. But if you are a middle or late adopter rather than an early adopter, please cut yourself some slack; you may need to wait until those ahead of you have adopted the change.

Many here thought the kids would prefer Tang to water and processed Goldfish crackers to low-oil popcorn. Many of you probably can't see yourself ever eating or liking my all-vegan, low grain, moderate fat, no oils or other extracted foods, only whole plant foods, no caffeine, no alcohol, etc.  Until recently, I never thought I'd be eating this way either. But if we'd all been raised on my current diet and were trying to switch to any other diet, we'd resist making that transition even though the new foods are addictive and the ones I eat are not. And so often, as with the popcorn, the change is enjoyable.

Cultural Norms & Science Lag
Cultural norms run 30 to 50 years behind the science, even in our age of Internet and Instant Messaging.  We still wouldn't know about climate change if honest organizations hadn't spread the word. Similarly, it's taking a while for science's general understanding of healthful foods to spread and be accepted.

2. Marketing

Cultural norms are heavily influenced by marketing. We’re being led to believe that scientists haven’t made up their minds about most foods, and we’re told that unhealthy diets are healthy. Milk is said to be good for your bones, yet it’s highly correlated with osteoporosis and Type 2 diabetes. Bill Clinton thought switching from beef to fish and poultry was healthy, but it just got him more stent surgeries. We’re told that olive oil is “proven to be healthy” but every study shows that it is simply less damaging than animal fats. By the way, we've been so conditioned by marketing to believe that oils are essential that people often become alarmed when I tell them I don't eat oils. Relax! I eat plenty of fat, it's just in raw seeds and nuts and avocado, not extracted oils.

The food industries’ goal is for us to be confused. Get wise to their tricks. Assume that your dietary choices have been manipulated until you've tested them yourself. My food website has  a whole section to help you understand the difference between marketing myths and good science. It's easy once you know the ways the food manufacturers are manipulating the science.


So what's the pathway to freedom? Remember that external and internal forces affect our choices. Question cultural, familial, and personal norms.

The external environment for healthful food choices is not ideal, but it's much easier now than it used to be.

And we know plenty about getting your internal factors working in your favor. Have a plan, and try it for a limited time. It’s easier to say “I’m joining a 21-day plant-based kickstart transition program” than to say “I’m going to go vegan forever and never going back.”

Many are pleasantly surprised at the benefits of going cold turkey: you get the addiction behind you instead of dragging it out, you get health benefits faster that motivate you to keep going,  and your taste buds adjust faster. Here are a few more key tips:

The biggest secret to unlocking internal obstacles is in the children's story, The Little Engine That Could. It's about a little engine that succeeds at a climbing a very big mountain by saying, "I think I can, I think I can, I think I can" as it chugs along.

The stinkin' thinkin' voice says "I can't give up sugar" (or oils or cheese or whatever you're working on. That's not the real you talking -- that's the addict. A lot of people think that, with my "restrictive" diet, I must be suffering. That's just more stinkin' thinkin, because the opposite is true: I have more joy and freedom than ever. So when you hear your inner addict saying "I can't", remember the little engine that could: I think I can, I think I can, I think I can. And if you fall down momentarily, just pick yourself back up, get back on track, and keep going.

I hope this has been helpful. If you want second helpings, sign up in the lobby for my free tipsheet or come to the special Reverberations today in the Kelley Room.

We are indeed hungry for change, and a fierce unrest helps us claim the growing light, just like the Unitarians and Universalists who came before us. How happy are they who do not blindly serve a culture's norms. How happy are they who are not ruled by their own habits. How happy are they who live freed from industry's manipulations.  How happy are they whose awakened conscience is their strong retreat. Ours is not a caravan of despair. Come, even if you have broken your vows a thousand times. Come, yet again, come.

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