THIS: Fifth article in a series on Rebooting Your Way of Eating – Why I eat and the need to know yourself
COMING: My basic KISS (Keep It Simply Sustaining) rules
If you ask someone the question, “Why do you eat?” – the answer you are most likely to get in return is, “We eat food for the nutrients we need to keep us alive”. For some that might be quite true. But think about the last time you went to your local café with a friend for a coffee and something to eat, and consider why you did that. Was it because you were merely thinking of fueling up with a good supply of nourishment to keep alive to the next day or was there a more nefarious reason? Of course there was. You went there to enjoy eating the food!
Most of us generally eat for two reasons, and in the main, a third that has nothing to do with the food. Firstly, when we feel hungry, we need to sate this hunger, and will therefore search out something close at hand to do this. The second reason we eat is that we like to experience the pleasure and enjoyment of food itself, although this does not always result in eating the most nourishing or beneficial food. Often it is the tastiest item nearby with little thought to its nutritional value. Thirdly, we often use meal times as an excuse for a social occasion. This promotes a feeling of sharing and community, and often gives us a reason to eat cake! In truth the only time we really think of eating in nutritional terms is when we are either watching our diet or have a health problem.
If we back track several thousand years to our evolutionary beginnings, we’d find that our ancestors would have been much more in tune with what they ate and why. They would not have known why they ate a particular way but the food that they did eat would have been beneficial to their well being. Without getting in to a debate on Paleolithic Nutrition, we can agree that these days we’re spoilt for choice in the food available. From sushi to burgers, enchiladas to souvlaki and all manner of out of season fruits, within ten paces of each other.
For many, this ease of eating, and the accessibility to low nutritional, convenience type foods, puts us out of sync with what our bodies really need; we have lost touch with what our genetics say we really need. Not only do we eat incorrectly, we have also lost touch with when we should eat and our innate knowledge of what hunger signals really are. Often the purpose now is not to sate hunger but to avoid hunger signals altogether.
This has resulted in many of us overeating due to having lost contact with our natural drive to eat only when hungry. Instead we tend to eat to the chime of the clock – 12 midday, it must be lunchtime – rather than by listening to our own circadian rhythms. These natural rhythms are inherent in our genetic makeup. If you take away all external stimuli, these rhythms still persist. It is only when we make a conscious decision to listen to them, that we can make connections between when and what we eat and start thinking more about the food we really need. By thinking mindfully we can eat both health giving food and the food that should be enjoyed only occasionally – no matter how convenient it may be. It is a skill worth perfecting.
If you asked me the same question, I would admit to eating because I enjoy the taste of different foods. I love sampling “unusual” foods – not all enjoyable – but worth the effort to see how they “dance” on the taste buds. Food palatability varies greatly between people and cultures, and some of the more unusual items to have passed my lips are: huhu grubs from New Zealand, crocodile steaks in Australia, boiled chicken feet in Malaysia, 100 year old “tar” eggs in China, deep-fried crickets in Laos and wok fried wood-lice in Korea. These “delicacies” may appear more than unusual when viewed from a Western perspective but turn the tables and many will also turn down the chance to sample the haggis I tried in Scotland, the pigs trotters at an English pub and the liver, tripe and onions from home.
Nevertheless, no matter how much I enjoy it, I don’t only eat exotic foods! I also enjoy eating finger-licking chicken, lamb rogan josh, seafood pizza and the decidedly yummy Oreo McFlurry. I am also very aware of the calorie richness of these and that is the reason I limit these to treat foods.
Eating a well-balanced range of food should be both physiological and psychological satisfying but for many, a daily diet of this kind is the cause of various food related problems. Eating commercially produced fast foods is a normal, daily occurrence for many, but can lead to binge eating for some, and cause a loss of control over of eating habits for others. The food is tasty and addictive – it is designed that way!
Eating, in its simplest form, is the straightforward consumption of a basic boiled potato, fresh from the pot. It can also be a more complex affair with the potato served up in a melt-in-your-mouth fondant dish, with its creamy inside texture and crunchy brown crust. Both are meals consisting of a basic starch, both will satiate, both will give you energy, and both will supply the same nutrients, but only one will give you that taste and enjoyment of an indulgent meal.
Being non-obsessive about how I eat, I see nothing wrong with eating tasty, treat foods as long as I balance them with the more wholesome type. I call this “compensatory eating”, and is a mainstay of mindful eating. It is about considering each meal in relation to my overall way of eating, by taking control and being accountable for the food that I consume. There is no rule to say you have to eat blandly to eat healthy.
Having just come off my reboot, and the reassessment of my eating style, I am able to recognise that I had allowed diet creep to set in with some of those extra treats becoming habitual. Dining on the occasional fast-food meal or having that extra muffin as a snack, occasionally, will do little harm if balanced with good healthy meals. But because I am human and like my food, the treats started to become the mains, and being aware of my own fallibility, a reset was in order to bring about change.