I often wonder about how we relate to our food. Is it just fuel and calories? Do I have a deeper relationship with my food than just ensuring it’s low carb and fat-protein heavy?
Here are a few common and not so common ways to think about the food.
3. How chewy is my food
5. Whole foods vs processed foods
6. Biological information
Calories – At the first glance, calories sounds like a great way to think about the nature of food when you get interested in health or trying to lose weight. The reason it sticks is because it’s simple and everyone appears to get it. Just read the energy chart and as long as you get X calories in a day and you can burn Y calories in a day and X < Y, you are sorted. This concept is so dumb and so incomplete on so many levels that books have been written about it.
The reason calories-in-calories-out is dumb is because it’s just restating the first law of thermodynamics or primary school arithmetic. Consider this analogy. Bill Gates is rich because he makes more money than he spends. You see X – Y > 0. Or our team lost the match because opponents scored more points. You are restating the problem in another way without understanding or explaining “the why”. Do you see the stupidity of this system? So, calories-in-calories-out claims that if you want to lose weight, then you should spend more calories that you should eat. At the level of physics, it makes sense. You see emaciated kids who get very little or nothing to eat and they are starving and they sure look like that. You could also argue that I will only eat 500 calories every day for next 60 days and I will lose weight. Yes, you will but this is impractical and will not work 99.9% of the time for normal people in normal circumstances. You basically won’t have normal levels of energy on a 500 calorie diet and eventually, you wouldn’t have any will power left to carry out this task. On the other hand, let’s talk about all the lean people who appear to eat well. Are they always ensuring a caloric deficit? It’s almost impossible to measure the calories flowing into the system and even harder to measure the calories you are burning. You say, look at my tread mill or fitbit device. In truth we expend most energy on a 24 hour period in activities like sitting or sleeping or basically when you think you are doing nothing, that’s your basal metabolic rate.
Leaving the dumbness aside, this concept is a bit dangerous in my opinion. It sets up a very superficial relationship with the food you eat and is quality agnostic. It doesn’t differentiate between 100 calories from sweet potato vs 100 calories from beer vs 100 calories from steak vs 100 calories from french fries. In this system, there is no difference between a meal of salad and grass fed steak vs meal from a fast food joint as long as they both are giving you 500 calories. It equates junk processed food with natural whole foods. You may want to precisely track calories if you are preparing for the upcoming summer Olympics though. It’s really hard for me to tell the calories in my spinach-avocado-berry smoothie and it doesn’t matter because it nutrient dense and made from whole foods. Calories-in-calories-out is like measuring the quality of your relationship with your spouse in terms of how many times you go out to party.
Macro nutrients – Another popular way to look at our food. Macros come from macronutrients – that is proteins, fat and carbohydrates. The focus here is fuel partitioning. So a person trying to get rid of excess body weight (fat) is recommended a high protein diet and that is why chicken breasts are so popular. We have all seen health-conscious folks having protein shakes. You see cyclists carrying gels – basically dense and processed carb sources. You also see schools of low carb high fat (LCHF) and of course low fat is a pretty old fad now. 2 things are still missing here. The awareness of quality of macro-nutrients and hormonal impact of macro-nutrients. If you are trying to lose excess body weight (fat), a high protein diet will work initially but not all proteins are equal and it’s also important to understand what is this high protein doing to my hormones. Does it matter which kind of protein I eat – processed Whey protein vs pastured chicken or pastured eggs? So, they tell a very important story about the nature of the food you are eating but it’s not the full picture. When you combine quality with macronutrients that’s a much better picture.
|The 3 amigos. Green for fats and orange for carbs is coincidental 🙂
Chewy – Sounds a bit odd at first but it’s an interesting way to think about food. How much would I need to chew the food to get the energy out of it. Saliva has your DNA and food digestive enzymes. As you chew, the food mixes with your DNA and becomes self, a part of you. Chewing also sends a signal to the gut to get ready for incoming food. It’s interesting that starchy foods tend not to be chewy – rice, kumaras\sweet potatoes (which I love just for the record). Processed high-carb foods like chips, cookies and breads require very little chewing, they just melt in your mouth. Vegetables, salads, meats, nuts and seeds definitely require ample chewing. I like to eat food I can chew.
Colourful – It’s impossible to look at a salad of colourful vegetables and fruits and not think of it as healthy. Everyone intuitively understands that. Colourful veggies and fruits represent richness of phytonutrients or plant chemicals. Now unlike vitamins and minerals, they are not essential to keep you alive but they are extremely important to prevent diseases. Look at carrot – you can tell by its colour that it’s rich in beta-carotene which our body can convert to Vitamin A. The redness of tomato comes from Lycopene. Look at blueberry or any berries for that matter. Sometimes I eat a piece of fruit just because it’s got a bright colour (and hopefully that’s not poison). If anything, I am a bit guilty of not making my salad colourful enough.
Whole foods – I love the concept of whole foods. Doug McGuff, the author of Body by Science was asked about what kinds of food does he eat and what he said has stayed with me. He talked about eating foods that lie in a straight line between us and the sun. So get sunlight (vitamin D). Eat plants and vegetables for the same reason. And eat animals that eats those plants. So simple. Basically you can eat all the veggies and salad, fruits, meats, nuts, seeds, eggs etc. Another way to think about whole foods is if someone from 50000 years ago recognize it as food. If you eat from a variety of whole food sources, you are eating a nutrient dense diet by default and your body, brain and cells will thrive. It’s natural food and your body exactly knows what to do with it. You don’t really need to know the science and bio-chemistry or hormones or what goes on inside our cells or how to regenerate the mitochondria just like you don’t need to know what’s under the hood of your car. It’s like black-box testing in computer science. You put in good stuff (input) and you get the right output. Use food as medicine and exercise as preventative medicine.
Quality matters here too and it will be wise to ensure the quality of meat you eat. Pastured eggs, pastured chicken, grass fed lamb, grass fed beef. I have no doubt that gaining optimum health on a diet of whole foods will work for 99% of the people. You can of course tweak the macro nutrients to achieve your fitness goals whether it’s gaining more muscle (up the proteins) or losing weight (high fat or low fat depending on who you believe) or managing pre-diabetes (low carb).
Yet you don’t often hear this message because nobody stands to make money off broccoli, kale and steak. Or at least not the 700% profit you can make off the chips, cookies and cereals.
Biological Information – I remember Arnold the Terminator talking to Tim Ferris about meditation and mindfulness. As Arnie would work on his biceps, he could feel himself in his biceps. Awesome right? That he could relate to his workout at such a deep level. So we put food into our mouth and it sustains us and hopefully we thrive and not just survive. But if you look under the covers as to what’s going on – the DNA or bio chemical information in what you put into your mouth is going to interact with your SELF DNA and eventually it will be absorbed by you. At the end of the day, all food is bio chemical information for your body. It prompts the body to behave accordingly by release right hormones and digestive enzymes to make this outside food part of us.
If we were just heat engines, calories would suffice. We are bio chemical electro magnetic beings.