Food Is Not a Number
A look at our relationship with food.
Food is a beautiful thing.
It gives us pleasure, life energy, and serves as a wonderful social lubricant.
Cuisines from different cultures offer an avenue through which we can experience people and places in new ways, explore physical sensation, and revel in the type of enjoyment that unique to munching on something scrumptious.
Yet when we have more food than our ancestors could ever have dreamed of, as we see so many countries facing obesity epidemics, and as mindfulness around eating is becoming largely non-existent, our relationship to food can quickly become toxic and debilitating.
As so many try to navigate the dietary landscape, trying their best to fix their relationship with food and make healthy changes, it is easy to start seeing food as a number…quantifying, regulating, and categorizing the wonder out of food.
Our society loves control, and control over food is no exception.
Food is becoming increasingly categorized: the healthy and the unhealthy, the good and the bad. Much of this tends to be unfounded and radically generalized.
It’s difficult to navigate an intuitive approach to eating in a world where we are bombarded by psychologically triggering marketing campaigns, information overload, and a lack of a centralized, trustworthy resource for nutritional education.
I’m inspired, however, by the change that’s taking place.
More and more people are speaking up, sharing their stories (here are some inspiring ones on Medium) of how their habits and patterns around food and eating are no longer serving them.
As these stories are being exposed, so too is the unsustainable nature of our current food culture. We’re helping each other overcome our issues, igniting a remembrance that we intuitively know how and what to eat.
It’s a matter of inner-listening; this is simple, but not particularly easy.
Calories, percentage of daily value, macronutrient content…
The science of food is a useful tool. It can help us better understand our bodies, determine both the causes and cures to illness and disease, and optimize our well-being.
But it can be overwhelming.
The diet culture that’s erupted over the last several decades has given many of us the view that food is a number.
This is a subtle perspective, one that is difficult to be conscious of as we carry on in our day-to-day.
I started tracking calories when I was in high school. I was fed up of being fat, and believed that abs would be the solution to all my problems (hint: they weren’t).
My knowledge of food was rather limited. I had a conventional understanding of what was “good” and what was “bad”. I hadn’t an inkling of an idea that there was no one-size-fits-all guide for eating.
I had neither the presence of mind nor the conditioning to simply trust that my body would tell me what it wanted for nourishment.
How could I?
I was fed processed foods from the time I was a child and I had an unknown addiction to refined sugars that many of my contemporaries shared.
Our intuition is only so strong…so this is where self-education becomes immensely important.
My understanding of healthy eating was, in essence, boiled down to a number. It turned out that viewing food as such wasn’t the friendliest of paths down which to walk.
I saw my parents and their friends going to programs like Weight Watchers, which merely represented a different iteration of quantifying food intake.
So when I decided to try and ‘get healthy’, I used traditional assumptions as a basis for my game plan.
Access to the internet wasn’t as ubiquitous as it is now, and so I trusted the common knowledge of government mandates and school cafeteria signs to inform my lifestyle shift.
That meant adhering to a 2000 calorie diet, one that failed to consider my size, age, and lifestyle.
As a 6’1” adolescent playing hours of sports every day, you could probably intuit that I was, in essence, starving myself.
I scarfed down raw vegetables, having been led to believe that salads were the cure to fatness.
Herein lies another reason we owe it to ourselves to become better educated when we have the means available to us.
Raw vegetables aren’t “good” for everyone. I, for example, struggle to digest them properly.
So for many, forcing down a bag of kale is doing no favors. Instead of feeling light and energized, we can be left with indigestion, constipation, and a general feeling of sluggishness.
Not a bad reason to forego veggies you don’t like, eh? (Side note: just cook them)
In Comes Food Tracking
Under-eating saw me lose a lot of fat (as well as muscle), and the clean foods I ate helped get me in good shape and a reasonably healthy sense of self.
But I wasn’t satisfied.
I started eating lots of protein and lifting weights, assuming that would be best. I ate more to gain muscle mass.
When I later discovered portion sizes, and realized I was, in fact, eating way more than I thought I was, I took to weighing and tracking all of my food in an app on my phone.
As an obsessive compulsive individual, a trait shared by many people who go to the gym or religiously track food, this was a dangerous road to travel.
It gave me the feeling of control, and also created an obsessive habit around food.
Despite being someone who has had a tremendous love of food and an equally tremendous appetite, this new obsession trumped that love.
Every time I was around food that I wasn’t cooking myself, like in a restaurant for example, my heart rate would increase. I’d go through the numbers in my head, trying to figure out if it was ‘good’ or not.
‘Good’, in this case, was determined by whether I could fit said food into my daily intake.
I was asking my mind if I was hungry, instead of listening to my body.
Years later, this meant I was often still eating when I wasn’t hungry and my digestive system was silently screaming for respite.
But because I had the calories ‘left over’ for the day, I reveled in the glorious feeling of allowing myself to eat.
It led to constipation, forced eating, and a desire to run away from otherwise enjoyable social situations if my caloric allowance was done for the day.
Counting calories inherently requires dedicating a tremendous amount of energy towards thinking about food every day.
As human beings, we do this enough already.
This again goes back to values. It is the decision to value counting calories more than, for example, enjoying yourself. Or focusing on work. Or time with the family.
A daily intake also imposes yet another metric by which we judge ourselves by. I think most of us are already far too hard on ourselves as it is.
If we go over our limit, we can feel that we are bad.
Being mindful of what and when we eat is important in moderation. The tools available to us can help us make lifestyle changes, bring more awareness into our lives, and give us data that may help to determine why we’re feeling good or weak and in need of a dietary tweak.
But we must be diligent and discerning because they are ultimately just that: tools.
And like all tools, they’re not useful in all situations.
Take, for instance, a hammer. It’s great for putting nails into a wall. Yet try knitting a blanket with a hammer, and you won’t have as much luck.
While I wouldn’t recommend it in perpetuity, tracking your food intake can teach portion control and may be necessary to elicit the change that we need in combatting the obesity epidemic.
They can teach portion control, and help us with the self awareness of when we may be eating to, for example, suppress uncomfortable emotions or to stifle boredom.
You can eat intuitively. If you’re reading this, you have access to the resources and support communities to make this a reality.
It’s okay to have something that tastes good, and that gives you joy.
Give yourself a massive break. The food in front of you is not a number. It’s a gift.