[What I had for breakfast today: so-so scrambled eggs and potatoes at a very early breakfast meeting. After which I felt...not ill, at all, but just not as great as I usually feel after breakfast. So after the meeting I came home and fixed--you guessed it--an egg and rice and beet greens. And then I ate it and felt MUCH, much better.]
When I tell patients my Healthy Hedonism philosophy, it usually begins with talking about food. I'll encourage the patient to eat exclusively for pleasure, and suggest they never eat anything unless it feels good. This is almost always met with incredulity: Just eat for pleasure? But...you mean, like, German chocolate cake? Baked brie on fresh sourdough? Holy smokes, biscuits and gravy?
Well, yeah. You should eat things you like. But (shoot, says the patient's expression here, I knew there'd be a "but") when I talk about pleasure and feeling good, I mean all over, and all day. German chocolate cake, for example--it brings my tastebuds pleasure. It zings little happy neurotransmitters all over my brain. But ten minutes after eating it, my brain gets sluggish and a little morose. My digestion slows down, which makes me feel bloated, which means I feel physically uncomfortable. While eating the cake and for those first ten minutes, I felt good. Great, even. But after that short interval, I feel bad. I don't feel as glowy and healthy and happy as I'm accustomed to feeling. What I am feeling is definitely not pleasure.
And after having eaten German chocolate cake several (*coughcoughHUNDRED*) times and consistently getting the same result, German chocolate cakes don't look as appealing to me as it used to. This isn't to say I'll never eat it again, because that sounds really sad. But I know it's not going to make me feel good, and I know it's not going to bring me pleasure beyond a tiny short-term fix, so it's not that hard to opt instead for things that will.
The foods that do make you feel good don't have to be on anybody's list of "healthy" foods. I mean, white rice, along with a protein and a vegetable, is what makes me feel good. It's a refined grain and a simple carbohydrate, which from an objective nutritional standpoint is not so great--but I know I feel pleasure when I eat it, and I know I feel good all day when I eat it, so I keep eating it and feeling good. (For a more in-depth defense of white rice, read my article here.)
Everyone's right foods are different, and nobody but you can tell you what yours are. I haven't met anyone who can honestly put German chocolate cake on their own list of right foods, but I wouldn't be terribly surprised to learn that such a person exists. Jealous, for sure, but not surprised.
So here's how you can find your right foods: Pay attention.
It really is that simple. Eat a thing. Notice how you feel while you're eating it. Are you feeling pleasure? Great. Check. You're halfway there.
After eating the thing, notice how you feel. Do you feel content? Do you feel energetic? Could you go for a walk right now? Is your mind clear and focused? How do you feel about heading in to the rest of your day--are you looking forward to it? Or: Are you sleepy? Do you feel too full? Do you have a headache? Do you feel more overwhelmed about the rest of your to-do list for today?
Notice how you feel ten minutes after eating, then thirty minutes, then an hour, then a few hours, then the next day, even. Because you're going to be eating a bunch of different things over the course of 24 hours, you might not know which foods you ate the day before that cause you to feel good or not-so-good--so it's okay if this practice of noticing takes a while. It should take a while--but it could also be helpful to look back over your history and notice things that have never agreed with you.
Lots of people come to see me saying "I know I'm supposed to eat salad, but every time I eat it I get indigestion." It's astounding, how many people eat salad even though it makes them feel bad, especially when there's a world of sauteed greens and vegetable stir-fries and all sorts of things as healthy as a salad that are much easier to digest. If something makes you feel bad, don't eat it.
And if something makes you feel good--and you're really honest with yourself about what "feels good" means, both in the short and long term--do eat it.
And if you want to talk more about this, you know you can ask me anything. I love talking about what you eat, and what I eat, and how we can all feel way, way better, starting right now, by eating delicious things all the time.