How to Eat
Just like life, your food deserves a philosophy. Here’s mine.
We think a lot about life. Or, to be more precise, about how to live it.
Whether it’s just a pursuit of happiness, or a journey to fulfilling your purpose. Whether it’s about living in the present or living for others. Whether it’s about what you do today, or about what you achieve before you die.
Whatever be your take, I’d argue you’ve spent considerable time thinking of ‘How to Live’.
It’s only recently, that food, life’s fuel, has started receiving similar treatment. In a way, Paleo and Keto and Vegan are to food, what Stoicism and Existentialism are to life. A way to eat. A formalized philosophy of food.
Unfortunately though, since Food-Philosophy is in its nascent years, it’s nowhere near as nuanced as its life counterparts. Also, since it’s so under-developed (we haven’t really found our Freuds and Jungs yet) it allows novices like me to take a shot at it.
Now, a philosophy isn’t the subject of a 6-min article. Not when one has spent 15 years discovering it (and has still just scratched the surface). But this Diwali (Hindu festival of lights), I thought, let me try and shine a bit of the light I’ve gathered.
For the last 45 weeks, every week, I’ve written about some micro-issue concerning food and health. From Keto to IF to Coffee to Chocolate, we’ve been through a lot, in a lot of detail. But this week, allow me to take you 30000ft up, and give you a bird’s eye view of how I see food.
A small glimpse, a sneak-peek, into my food philosophy, and its three basic tenets.
I was home last week for Diwali. I knew there’d be Poori (deep-fried wheat-bread) & Aloo (Potato) for lunch and heavy, Indian sweets after dinner. So I fasted during the day. Broke the fast with a small salad. And then enjoyed small portions of all these things that I so dearly love to eat.
As you’ll notice, it all started, not with knowledge, but intent. And you can’t intend sub-consciously.
The single biggest, most profound change you can make to your diet today, is to start eating consciously. Don’t let another drop of beverage or morsel of food enter your tummy, without you noticing.
Yes, it’s that simple.
Just notice. No need to act. Just observe what you’re consuming. Observe what it’s made of and how it makes you feel.
Don’t be lost in conversation as that cookie sneaks into your body alongside that coffee. Don’t be lost in your phone screen as that small, mayo-laden side salad enters your tummy alongside that sandwich. Don’t be on auto-pilot mode as your hand rises involuntarily and orders a Coke to go with your fries.
Get that coke. Have that cookie. Just do it consciously.
Here’s an exercise.
Think back to yesterday. Can you recall everything you ate? Everything? Including the few sips of a friend’s coffee and bite of chocolate post dinner?
Make sure that no day passes when the answer to that question is No.
Know your Why
As you start observing what you eat, start asking yourself this question.
Why did I eat this?
Was it for its nutritional benefits? Was it for taste? Was it for how it makes me feel (Ice-cream=Happy; Coffee=Up)? Or was it because I was famished?
Consider this. You’re at a movie, and they’re serving coke, and popcorn and sweet corn and hot dogs at the counter.
You’re sure Coke is bad, and you couldn’t care less for hot dogs or popcorn. But what about that sweet corn — should you have it? It looks healthy. Maybe ask them to go easy on the butter. That should seal it. Right?
Wrong questions. Instead, ask this.
Why do you want that cup of sweet-corn? Is it because you’d skipped lunch, and hence are famished? Is it because you love sweet-corn? Or is it because it’s a habit. You always get something to nibble on at the movies.
Only someone who is eating consciously can even get to this question. And the beauty of questions, is they get you answers. And tough answers, unlike tough questions, can’t be ignored.
Now that you know why you want this food, you can start answering whether you should have it. Whether it’s beneficial, or detrimental to your health goals. Whether it is ‘Healthy’.
This is where I have a simple rule.
Nutrition trumps Taste. Calories trump Everything.
It’s funny. Food is for the tummy. But more often than not, we let the tongue decide what gets in there. The tongue, which has no stake in Health. The tongue, which is just a taste-whore that salivates at the sight of sugary-carbs and unhealthy-fats. It’s like making Deadpool the gatekeeper of Asgard.
Here’s a simple 80:20 that I apply to my ‘Why’.
80% of times, I eat for nutrition. I eat to meet my protein or carb or fibre goals. 20% of times (that’s roughly 1 meal in 2 days), I allow myself to eat for taste.
Two things to note here. One, that nutrition and taste aren’t at loggerheads. Infact, over years, they’ve become quite synonymous for me. So when I state this 80:20, I mean food eaten primarily for taste vs nutrition. Deserts would be a good example of the former.
Two, none of what I said applies, if you’re not meeting a base condition.
You must keep under your calorie limit
The most nutritious salad is a NO, if you’re working with a caloric limit and it pushes you beyond.
I meet so many people who tell me that they’ve left sweets and stopped having rice and switched to healthy alternatives, and yet they can’t seem to lose weight. If that’s your story too, then count your calories. I’d bet you’re ‘healthy-eating’ your way past your quota.
Don’t eat what you don’t know
Do you really know what you’re eating? Do you know your food?
When you start eating consciously, and when you start trying to figure out the nutritional benefits of the food you’re putting inside your stomach, you’ll be hit with a very harsh realisation.
We barely know our food
What constitutes that Chicken Tikka Masala you ate the other day? That chocolate flavored, natural sounding, healthy protein bar you picked, has something called ‘Dark Compound. What exactly is this Dark Compound? That ‘no-sugar-added’ juice you drank instead of a cola, how do they make it so consistently sweet? And what the hell, will someone please tell me, is Red Velvet?
Once I started researching my food, I realised that outside of what I made myself, I barely knew what I was consuming.
How could I gauge the nutritional benefits, and how could I count my calories, if I didn’t even know what constituted my food. It was a debilitating discovery. And every time I turned a pack to read its (deliberately) obfuscated list of ingredients and nutritional information, the paralysis grew.
So I made a pledge. As far as possible
I wouldn’t eat anything I couldn’t, atleast, de-construct into it’s constituent elements
I know it sounds like an extreme, harsh rule. Don’t worry, start with a middle-path.
Less is More: Start by rejecting foods that have too many ingredients. The lesser the number of ingredients in a food, the easier it is to understand, and in my experience, the more nutritive it usually is.
If you see your mom or grandmom’s cooking, you’d notice this philosophy isn’t anything new. Spices and condiments apart, our elders have been cooking and eating with this minimalist philosophy, forever. Just a handful of good quality, nutritious ingredients, cooked slowly and spiced to perfection. That’s the picture of good food.
Note: If you pull this philosophy to the extreme, you’d end up with raw foods. Singular items like raw veggies and fruits and nuts and meats that don’t have any constituent elements. Maximise these.
To end with where we started
Eating consciously is how health starts
It’s this one behaviour that separates the ‘Fit’ from the ‘I wish I was Fit’.
For the first 18 years of my life, I don’t remember ever thinking about what I was putting inside my body. What went into my tummy was, at best, decided by my tongue. And at worst, by nothing at all.
Now that I’ve spent the last 15 years correcting that, I’ve re-discovered my food. And fallen in love with it all over again.
When I ate whatever I felt like, whenever I felt like it, I’d stopped appreciating my food. Sounds counter-intuitive, but un-constrained abundance of anything, makes it lose its charm. Its meaning. Its special-ness. Its value.
Eat consciously, with intelligent, self-applied constraints, and I guarantee you’ll enjoy your food more than you do today.
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