By Basil Gala, Ph.D.
In Search of Meaning
Why we eat? What kind of a question is that! Why, we eat because we’re hungry! Nothing drives us to food with as much alacrity as hunger pangs. Hunger is strongest in childhood when the body most needs nutrition for growth and energy; hunger is an instinctive response of an animal to bodily needs. A classic psychological experiment put infants in front of a large variety of foods (bread, fruits, ice cream, candy, meat, vegetables, cake, cheese, milk), letting them eat what they wanted. At first, the infants went for the candy, cake, and ice cream, but soon they chose to eat what a nutritionist would have prescribed for their bodily needs. Infants behave naturally to boost health, just like other animals; yet, as you grow older and enmeshed in culture, hunger cannot be your sole guide to eating right; you could end up fat, with diabetes, arthritis, and heart disease.
Besides hunger, other reasons why we eat may also lead us to gain ungainly weight instead of good health: eating for pleasure, for a birthday or other celebration for feasting; eating because it’s time to eat, or because the food is there in front of us on our plate; eating food offered to us by someone we like or love, someone like our mother, wife, friend, or a movie star, cleaning our plate and the plates of our children so the food doesn’t go to waste; eating while watching television or a movie to relieve our tension from the drama; eating to relax from the stresses of work, family, or social connections. The reasons for eating are endless, but none of them is sufficient by itself to fully justify eating, except one.
The only sufficient reason that justifies eating is: to give our body the nutrients it needs for healthful living.
The other reasons why we eat are good too; but hunger, convenience, celebration and so forth should not divert us from the objective of giving our body the very best nutrients in the right amounts; having picked food which satisfies our body’s needs, then we may seek pleasure, etc., in what we eat.
Hunger is good; when we go to our meals with a strong appetite, we smell and taste acutely the deliciousness of roasts, baked dishes, and fresh fruits, or vegetables. We eat well, we are satisfied; we digest better. If the food is nutritious, we don’t want more, we stop eating when we had enough. Nutritious food is chockfull of proteins, good fats, vitamins, minerals, fiber, anti-oxidants, and phytochemicals, yet low in calories. Good foods satisfy us for several hours; but if we eat sugary snacks, white-flour products, white rice, potatoes, and other denatured, high-glycemic foods, hunger returns soon with a rebound, pushing us to eat more of the same junk. Thus we take on more fat, while our body starves.
True, the body’s primary need is for energy, glucose released slowly in the blood stream from good foods, to operate the brain and other organs, especially our muscles; about 70% of the calories we take in are used that way, even without exercise. Adults need surprisingly small amounts of protein for tissue repair and fat for vitamin transport: daily 50-60 grams of protein (unless you are building muscle exercising hard), and 35 grams of fats: that’s three ounces of protein and two tablespoons of oil, from all food sources. Any more protein or fat we may eat is burned for energy, excreted, or converted to body fat. Burning protein or fat produces toxic ketones; with water as byproduct, burning complex carbohydrates for energy is healthier, provided we eat whole grains, fruits, and vegetables.
Having regular meals is fine too; it’s a good discipline. Body and mind get ready for food at a habitual time, assisting digestion, elimination, and energy production when needed. My dad always ate at 7 am, 1 pm, and 7 pm–if he could help it. He never admitted to being hungry, considering that a weakness. His breakfast was oats and milk, lunch a cooked protein meal, usually fresh fish, and dinner, a salad; he lived to a hundred years. Start your day, then, with a rib-sticking whole-grain breakfast, and end your meals with a light dinner, early. If you eat too close to bedtime, you will convert more food to fat, because you will not use your muscles much during sleep.
Celebrating life with food in the company of family and friends is also pleasing and beneficial. A little wine helps lift our mood, as well as satisfy the palate. We should not eat in the presence of people who upset us. I never complain about the food or service in a restaurant; I just go elsewhere for a meal. It is better for our health to skip a meal than eat one in a sour, unhappy, frame of mind.
There is nothing intrinsically wrong with convenience or economy in food preparation, if the nutrients, quality, and quantity are also there in our servings. Our problem is often in the quantity of food we consume.
People in rich countries eat too much, unless they are models or desperately want to look like movie stars. Studies with animals and humans show that a low-calorie diet promotes good health and extends the life span 30-80% through the activation of the SIRT-1 gene, nature’s way to get animals get past food scarcities. That’s a diet of 1200-1500 calories a day for the average adult, but containing all necessary nutrients. Ah, there’s the rub! If you want the benefits of a calorie-restricted diet, you have to be very careful about what you eat. Some people follow the rule of eating a little bit of everything, including sugary and fatty foods. Well, this rule is okay as long as you are very active, eating enough to get the necessary nutrients and using the extra calories for energy. For the rest of humanity, a misstep in downing a drink, a sweet, or a piece of meat could derail a healthy regimen. It is vital that for all your meals you choose food high in nutrients but low in calories.
High-nutrient content with low calories are found mostly in low-starch, low-fat vegetables; breast of chicken or turkey, fresh fish, egg whites, non-fat dairy (cottage cheese, yogurt, milk), are fine in small amounts, but have no fiber, a very important nutrient for good digestion and hunger control. I prefer whole grain and bean products as sources of protein for good health, including tofu and other soy milk products, eggplant, dark green leafy plants, and mushrooms. Get your antioxidants and phytochemicals from tomatoes, carrots, peppers, berries, and fresh fruits. If you slip up and eat something like French fries or onion rings, marbled meat, pastry, ice cream, or whole cheese, you will likely end up with two problems: you’ll take in more calories than you are able to use for energy, turning those extra calories to fat; or skimp on your next meal or two, depriving your body of essential nutrients.
When planning, preparing, ordering, and eating meals, first think of needed nutrients. Still, since infancy you and I have developed certain preferences in food. We have our habits for over eating and wrong eating. We have grown up in a family with its own peculiar eating culture; we have matured in a particular ethnic cuisine, American, African, Asian, or European. Inevitably, unless we consciously intervene, we continue behaving according to personal and social habits, even though this way we damage our health.
Consciously intervene in the process of eating; exercise mindfulness (concentration) before eating and during eating; after eating allow some time for the food to leave your stomach, then seek means to exercise. Plan your meals to make them right for you and your family. Use small plates; serve small portions of protein, carbohydrates, veggie fiber, and fats; avoid buffets. Take small spoonfuls and forkfuls of food, chew well, and enjoy the flavor and aroma of each bite. Set your fork or spoon down while chewing. Count calories or portions consumed each day to stick to the longevity diet, because you want to thrive and prosper.
Remember again, to exercise before and after meals regularly. Exercise depresses hunger, while burning calories. If you have reached your calorie limit for the day, drink something with fiber such as psyllium husks, exercise, get busy with something to get your mind of food, or go to sleep. If you can’t keep your mind off food, sleep depresses hunger. Try prayer or meditation at bedtime. Next morning you’ll have a lovely appetite for a hearty, nutritious, and delicious breakfast.
Why you eat what you eat is dictated by your background; don’t take dictation which harms you, whatever its source: personal habits, family, ethnicity, or religion. It is all right to discriminate against what’s destructive to your life. Be your own person, directing your actions after conscious thought to a better life with vigorous body, mind, and spirit.