25 Jul 2022

The stories we tell ourselves about food

From Afternoons, 3:10 pm on 25 July 2022

We know we should eat more fruit and vegetables and less refined sugar, but taming our appetite isn’t easy, and that's even true for doctor Raj Telhan.

So, he set out to figure out why he felt so powerless and ashamed about his inability to control his appetite for sweets.

In an article for The Guardian, Dr Telhan writes about giving up sugar in the middle of the pandemic and what it has taught him about habit, desire and how he learned to say no.  

13149285 - chocolate ice cream scoop

Photo: 123RF

Studying about the impacts of sugar wasn’t enough to change his behaviour, Dr Telhan tells Jesse Mulligan.

“I experienced that in very real terms studying for this board examination on dietetics and metabolism and struggling to avoid the biscuits and the sweets, even as I'm flipping through my medical textbooks.”

Dr Raj Telhan.

Dr Raj Telhan. Photo: UNC School of Medicine

So his first attempt failed and he turned to literature for answers about this conundrum.

“I realised I had many more questions about my relationship to sugar than when I started, and I started asking myself was sugar really a problem? Or had I just internalised hang ups about desire from the culture at large?

“Why did my soul feel so inexplicably sick and so unsatisfied with the outcome of my first effort to quit sugar that I tried it all again?”

Some philosophers like Plato linked appetite to the notion of a good and virtuous life, Dr Telhan says.

“Plato had this map of the soul in which the stomach was the dwelling place of desire and reason resided in the head, and this was a very hierarchical map, and the third part of his map was courage, which rested in the chest.

“In this tripartite model, it was up to reason with the help of courage to subjugate appetite and elevate the individual.

“The thinking went that if we could just rule our stomachs, we might be able to hold our heads up high and our chests out wide.”

Decoupling that sense of self-worth or moral worth from what is mostly a medical or physiological issue is a step in the right direction, he says.

“I think that map is tied so closely to values, right? This idea that what you eat or how you eat, or whether your appetite is under control or not is a reflection of your moral character.

“I think that's been a problem for medicine which has been tradition bound and has had a long standing history of framing appetite as a moral problem and that's been demoralising for patients who often felt, and I think still feel, objectified, policed maybe even discriminated against by institutions that sermonise about it.”

For him, quitting sugar was also about having the power to say no, he says.

“Increasingly, during the pandemic, I felt like I was powerless in the face of my cravings … and this felt particularly shameful and I couldn't say no and I wanted to know why I couldn't say no.

“Every time that I gave into that craving for sugar, it very much felt like the triumph of the mere memory of pleasure over real satisfaction in the moment and so saying no to that memory, that neurological underpinning of craving, became very important to me.

“As I developed the ability to refuse to reach for the cookie, I also felt like I was developing the ability to break free from the impulse to reach for patterns from the past.”

It was freeing to be able to say no, he says, and he believes circumscribing yourself in some way can actually give you an expanded sense of selfhood.

Wisdom from novelist Toni Morrison, who wrote “everything depends on knowing how much and good is knowing when to stop”, struck the right balance of understanding this struggle in life, he says.

“Morrison wasn't talking about eating, of course,” Dr Telhan says. “But she could have been talking about that among so many other things in life which depend on this knowledge.

“I believe she was saying that the denial of hunger risks becoming a costly exercise in self-abnegation.

“I think she's aware that we're straddling a risk of both self-destruction that's posed by contact with what she calls in her book 'the original hunger' and also the anguish of self-denial that's created by leaving that hunger unrecognised.”