Sighhhh. Eating. Overeating. Undereating. Nourishment. Junk food. Dinnertime. Breakfast. Why does eating have to be such an emotional struggle? The formula seems so simple. Hungry? Eat. Full? Stop eating. Wondering what to eat? Food. Mostly plants. Wondering what not to eat? Things in packages. But the reality is that the relationship between food, nourishment and satiation is a complex equation often laden with conflicting information.
I know that I’m not alone in my feelings of animosity against food. Why do all the office donuts surreptitiously disappear when nobody is looking? Why, after parties, do we throw away half finished bags of salad but we never seem to have a problem finishing bags of chips? Furthermore, why do cookbook titles include phrases like “eat clean,” “detox diet,” “keto calories,” “super foods,” “gluten-, animal- and dairy-free fare.” On the one hand, we crave the worst possible replacement for food, and on the other hand we’re being told how to avoid all of those things by eliminating dairy, meat, gluten, salt, nightshades, carbs, fat, sugar, even cooking (see: raw food diet). It seems that we’ve given up cooking food in favour of consuming nutrition (and lack therof). We follow restrictive meal plans but crave everything we’re not “allowed” to have.
Food is allegedly a source of pleasure, nourishment and energy. Yet somehow the junk food and fast food industries paired with the diet and healthy living industries have created despair and anxiety around food. We’re being sold shiny packages of jujubes and bombarded with images of frosty ice cream cones. Meanwhile, the healthy food camp coldly informs us that all that shiny sugar is bad for us and that instead we need to follow the latest fad diet. All of this to say that the information that is available on nutrition is conflicted, to say the least.
I have a veritable canon of literature on cooking and healthy eating. Books and notes and magazine articles that I’ve amassed ever since I was a teenager and first became interested in healthy eating and cooking. At the time, the ideal diet was purported to be low in fat but I remember when the Atkins diet appeared on the market, touting the benefits of a high-fat, high-protein, low-carbohydrate, low-sugar diet. I also remember being a young athlete in my early 20s and strictly following Robert Haas’ “Eat to Win” program. Haas’ advocated for a diet high in complex carbohydrates, with attention paid to vitamins and minerals. Diets such as the Zone, and the Macro diet emphasize attention to consuming certain percentages of fat, protein and carbohydrates. Plans that include meal replacement shakes such as SlimFast and Soylent operate under the premise that calorie-control is the only way to manage weight.
While all of these diets propose reasonable premises, the most glaring omission is the acknowledgement that food, nutrition, cooking and eating are central to most aspects of our lives. We gather together to dine at restaurants; we celebrate milestones with cake; we drown our sorrows in beer; we eat for energy and we eat for pleasure; we wake ourselves up every morning with coffee and we look forward to glasses of wine at the end of the workday; we pack picnics and we seek out snacks. Our living spaces are designed around “entertaining,” which is almost always focused on lovely kitchens.
From a social perspective, eating is a cornerstone of community. But from the perspective of an athlete, eating is a source of energy and sustenance. Attention must be paid to nutrition and daily caloric requirements. A prescribed meal plan is normal. But what happens when eating and food preparation becomes a chore, another thing that has to be accomplished in the day? For an athlete, food has to promote athletic endurance. But to ignore the social aspect of eating, the sometimes celebratory nature of meals, not to mention the sensation of delicious food is missing a large part of how food contributes to our well being. To view our bodies as little more than a science experiment where portions and macros are carefully monitored and ingested at prescribed intervals seems a heartless and overly clinical way to live.
So what’s an athlete to do? How to find a healthy relationship with food? How to avoid processed foods and nutritionally-void items without obsessing about what is or isn’t “good”? How to socialize while simultaneously excelling at athletics?
First, don’t reward good behaviour with food. Don’t punish bad behaviour with deprivation. Don’t justify eating a bag of chips because you ran 10km earlier in the day. Let go of any guilt associated with food. By letting go of the guilt, you might ease the suffering that comes along with indulging in “bad” food. By doing so, you may find you’re able to escape the reward/punishment cycle.
Next, don’t create impossible restrictions for yourself. “I’ll never eat another cookie!” To do so is setting yourself up for failure. Just make choices at every meal that make you feel good about yourself. And if you notice while on a run that you’re feeling slow because you just ate two cinnamon buns, rephrase the statement. “I won’t eat sugar-laden treats in the five hours before a run.”
Third, learn to cook something. You don’t have to prepare from scratch every dish for a dinner party or BBQ, but teach yourself to create something that you enjoy eating. Contribute your masterpiece to the buffet table so you know there’s something at the party that you can feel good about eating.
And finally, read up on nutrition. Learn about the different diet philosophies. Understand their premises and then notice how your body reacts to certain foods and the timing of meals. But don’t commit yourself to one overly-restrictive plan. To do so will be social suicide and also completely unnecessary. As long as you understand what makes you swim, bike and run your fastest, you can adapt your meal choices to that information.
If we look at all the diets from a a first principles perspective, the premise is usually good. Beware of eating too much (calorie control), consume an appropriate amount of protein, carbohydrates and fat for your exercise level and pay attention to all six of the food exchange lists: vitamins, minerals, protein, carbohydrates, fat and water. Keep track of what makes you feel good (and fast) and let go of the guilt when you eat something that makes you feel uncomfortable and slow. With practice, the emotional attachment to food and the feelings of guilt will give way to the simple formula. Hungry? Eat. Full? Stop eating. Eat food. Mostly plants.