Food is the greatest vehicle through which we expose exogenous (outside the body) substances to our body. What we ingest is no more than chemical information packets that direct our cellular machinery to behave and operate in specific ways. Food is the primary language we have to communicate with our body, and communication (information exchange) is key to a thriving ecosystem.
Everyone has dieted and everyone has failed. Food choice is a psychological game that we are not well equipped to deal with. Unless we educate ourselves on what is really going on, we are severely disadvantaged in an unfair fight. A big part of this is changing the language we use to describe the food we eat. This is not a diet. Diets are temporary and don’t work. We must focus on small changes that can be implemented for the rest of our lives. We wont’t be listing foods you “can’t have.” When you mentally tag a food as something “I can’t have,” you have just lost a battle in this realm of psychological warfare – there is always that small part of us that wants only what we cannot have. This is not about counting calories or joining a Facebook group for the newest fad diet. Food can get complicated and even tribal, so we will attempt to remove the extraneous information and focus on the things that actually make a difference. These are a a few simple rules to help you change your relationship with food.
Rule 4: Food is more than taste
Unfortunately most people think the taste of food and its usefulness are inextricably linked. They are one and the same, and food’s utility is solely determined by how we perceive the taste. This is a regretful perspective and the reason we need to shift the way we think about food. We must fundamentally change the meaning of food. Yes taste is a part of food, an important part, but it is by no means the sole or even primary characteristic. That would be selling food far too short.
Food is a connector of people. Food marks special occasions, like birthdays and holidays. Food changes how we perceive the world. It is the thing that connects you to nature. Food changes how we physically function. It is quite literally the fuel our body uses to move through the world. Food changes how we function mentally. I think most people have experienced what is called “brain fog,” or even generalized fatigue, and it’s certainly no way to experience your day. Therefore when we allow food to be completely characterized by taste, we are doing ourselves a terrible disservice. It is so much more, and in order to change the way we eat, we have to change the way we value food.
This is not to encourage complete disregarding of taste. There are certainly times when the hedonistic value of food should be welcomed. Sharing that piece of birthday cake with your daughter or splitting a dessert with you significant other is a special part of of our human experience. You shouldn’t skip out on your favorite dishes at Thanksgiving because it doesn’t fit your new diet. There are many times in our life when the health consequences of food should not factor into our food decisions, and we should simply enjoy the fleeting pleasures it may bring. But the fact is, most meals do not do not carry the emotional valence of a birthday, Thanksgiving, or some other special occasion. No, most of the time its Monday and its lunch time.
This idea is an extension of Rule 1. You cannot restructure your value hierarchy around food if you do not acknowledge the other characteristics associated with it. If you do not connect the feeling of needing an afternoon nap after you eat a big plate of pasta for lunch to the plate of pasta itself, then the pasta remains unblemished, tasting just as fantastic as always. If you fail to realize that the gas and bloating you feel after dinner are connected to the food choices you made, then the food choices don’t change and neither does the gas and bloating. So of course there are tangible examples like these that we must begin to incorporate into our valuation of food, but there also exists a less tangible aspect in the chemical composition of foods.
Many of the foods easily accessed today are calorically dense and nutrient poor, and the fastest way to gaining weight and feeling shitty are to eat more calories than you require, while failing to get the proper vitamins and nutrients from your food. Most people could probably use more protein in their diet. Most people could probably get by with less carbohydrates. Most people could use more fiber. This isn’t the place to dive into your specific dietary needs, as we are still setting the table. However, it is calling your attention to the nutrition labels of food. Start reading them, even if they don’t make sense. Try to understand that everything your eat is composed of fats, carbohydrates, and proteins, and those components are what give the food caloric content. If you have never looked at nutrition labels before, it would be a tremendous benefit to start tracking what you eat, at least for a few days. Right down everything you eat (or use one of the numerous food tracking apps) for the day. Track total calories, fat, carbohydrates, and protein. You do not have to know what a carbohydrate is, or how it is metabolized in the body. Just get an idea of what you are consuming.
Once you have a handle on what you are consuming, on a macronutrient (fats, carbs, proteins) basis, you now have another metric to value food. No longer are your eating a slice of pizza, you are eating 350 calories composed of 35 grams of carbs, 16 grams of fat, and 17 grams of protein. You have an objective metric with which to compare and value foods. You have an abstracted set of data that allows you to attach a different dimension to food. A numerical representation of what you may be gaining or losing when you sacrifice or indulge in the taste of food.
This will conclude our initial Food Rules. Hopefully it gives some mental structure on how to approach food. With the cognitive framework out of the way, we will turn focus to the biochemical processes associated with food. We will try to understand how food is working inside our body and what aspects of food are driving the epidemic of chronic disease.