In recent months, there has been a resurgence of diets I had long thought were old, buried news.
I am speaking specifically of ketosis and of fasting. In ketosis, the goal is to eat so few carbohydrates that the body produces ketones as an alternative fuel source. In fasting, you simply stop eating.
Both of these dietary practices are aimed at reducing insulin and blood sugar levels as much as possible. This is supposed to predispose the body to “fat burning mode.”
These methods appear to actually be helpful to some people. There can be substantial health benefits to both ketosis and fasting for certain groups of the population. People who have very high body fat percentages and are insulin resistant may benefit—at least in terms of their body fat percentages–from fasting. Ketosis may also benefit people who have dysregulated insulin levels, but it also has the unique benefit of being able to help people with certain kinds of cancers and neurological conditions. I do not deny the potential potency of either of these diets, given the right clinical needs and application.
(You can read more about the physiology of ketosis in this post here.)
But I would here like to address the concept of freedom.
I do not mean to detract from the worthiness of each of these people and what potential they have to offer many people. But I do wish to shed some light on this whole “freedom” thing.
Two ways to define freedom
There are, so far as I can best tell from my philosophical training, two primary ways to define freedom. One is as freedom from something; the other is as freedom to do something.
Freedom from something is what we find most common in discourse about restrictive diets.
In talk about ketosis, fasting, and other kinds of dietary (including paleo) freedom, advocates walk around talking about how great their freedom is. People are sometimes confused. The word “freedom” is very appealing. Yet what kind of freedom are the gurus talking about? When pressed, they typically that their diets enable them to achieve freedom from some symptom. (Sometimes they say the diets provide freedom from negative body image or disordered eating, which while not impossible is also kind of ludicrous.)
Ketosis is “freedom from blood sugar swings.” Intermittent fasting is “freedom from obesity.” Paleo is “freedom from gut distress” or etc.
These are all important points. It is great to finally be liberated from health concerns that have dogged you your entire life. I know this quite well, as I have suffered from many chronic symptoms such as generalized anxiety disorder, insomnia, acne, PCOS, and migraines throughout the course of my life.
But this concept of freedom is actually not the most popular one. It’s not the one that makes immediate sense to people.
The most popular idea of freedom is the one in which we have degrees of freedom with which to act. For example, most people intuitively understand that people in the USA have more freedom than people in North Korea. People who are not incarcerated have more freedom than those who are. People who have so much money they don’t have to work are more free than those chained to minimum wage 9-5 jobs. This is because they have more options and abilities due to their circumstances. They are more free.
If we analyze diets in terms of this kind of freedom, we come up with a spectrum. On one end – the most free end – people eat whatever they want, whenever they want. On the other far end are highly restrictive diets, ones that require a lot of control and very few options.
I would argue that there is almost nothing less free than ceasing to eat for several days or periods at a time, as is what people do when they fast.
Perhaps worse, and more importantly, there is almost nothing less free than ketosis. There is almost nothing less free than having to pee on a stick to determine if your diet is “pure” enough.
Any time you go on a diet, and deliberately restrict the kinds of food you can eat, you limit your freedom.
If you give yourself a rule that you cannot break, you limit your freedom.
If you give yourself a set of acceptable foods and feel guilty if you eat outside of it, you limit your freedom.
If you struggle at all with your body image, your self love, your sense of self worth, or your love and forgiveness for yourself as a result of the diet you’re on, you limit your freedom.
Yes, I believe there are psychologically healthy ways to limit the food groups you eat. Yes, I think focusing on whole, natural foods is probably best for health. Yes, I do think certain health conditions such as leukemia and neurodegenerative disease (both possibly helped by ketosis) can call for severe measures. Yes, I do think weight loss is an acceptable goal given that it is done well on both physical and psychological levels (as I attempt to do here).
But I do not think we should ever make the mistake of calling a diet freedom – unless of course we are very clear from the outset that it is freedom from, not freedom for. To call a diet “freedom” is to do psychological health and real honest-to-god freedom a serious disservice.
If you seek any of these things:
Overcoming an obsession with food
Then I would never recommend a set of diet rules – and again, especially one where you can’t eat for days or one where you have to pee on a stick — to help you.
I would recommend instead doing the hard, psychological work of sitting down with a friend, a therapist, or a pen and paper and digging deep into your heart. I would recommend discovering and deconstructing the demons that haunt you. I would recommend learning to embrace body fat as a natural part of what it means to be a human being – of what it means to be an animal – of what it means to be you, in your skin, nourishing your body the best way you know how.
Ketosis and fasting may be many things. They may even liberate you from serious health conditions. But if we want to have an honest discussion about what these kinds of diets can do for us, we need to stop calling them “freedom.” They are pretty much anything but.