Diet Mentality vs. Fuel Mentality

We have contradicting mindsets about food. On one hand, we think too much about it. We’re constantly judging food as good for me or bad for me. That is modern dieting culture. On the other hand, we don’t think about food enough. We stare at our phones and forget to pay attention to what we eat, not noticing  how our bodies respond, treating food as fuel to be guzzled. Some “solutions” have arisen as a result of this, like tasteless Soylent.

This isn’t surprising. We know a lot more about nutrition, genetics, the environment, and our bodies than we did 100 years ago; this allows us to make supposedly “smarter” choices as evidenced by the barrage of corporate ads. We also live in a fast-paced world and are always on the move, so food falls into the “I can optimize this” category, much to the satisfaction of our bosses. While this may be the pattern we’ve fallen into, I’m willing to bet that this has not made us healthier nor happier.

The flaw of dieting is the all or nothing nature of it. We chase after diet as if it’s the answer to our lives, but it often turns into the problem of our lives (we focus too much on food), even though it’s as natural and necessary as breathing. It’s the mindset that “I want to have the optimal body/health”…but this comes at the expense of my social life, self-esteem and happiness. By being too rigid, our psychological health suffers.

The flaw of seeing food as fuel is that we lose touch with the food itself, and in the process let the food consume us. When we don’t pay enough focus on what we’re actually eating, we scarf down anything and spiral into unhealthy patterns without realizing it. By not noticing what we eat, well, we might eat garbage, not enough food, or too much of it.

Cues

How in the hell do we think about food, then? I believe there’s a balance of self-education and experimentation.This requires a degree of self-awareness about what we’re actually eating. The ultimate cue is your own body; not a preconceived image of what’s ideal, or a reactive response to a rushed world.

This is a lot easier than it sounds, but it all starts by listening to your bodily cues –– like we’ve been doing for ages. Perhaps you go vegan for ethical reasons and then get deftly sick; listen to your body, it’s screaming at you. You get sleepy every day after eating noodles for lunch; that’s a cue, try something else. You’re not hungry in the morning but eat anyways. Or maybe you are hungry, but are you hungry because your body is begging for nutrients, or is your social conditioning telling you to eat?

Now, we’ve been conditioned to think about food a certain way (three meals a day, yada yada), so this all requires a degree of mindfulness. But keep in mind that the more you stop evaluating food as “good” or “bad” based on what you have been taught, the happier you’ll be. Instead, replace the social and moral questions with the purely physical questions, i.e. how the hell is your body actually responding to the food.

Here are some experiments you can do to jumpstart your awareness/mindfulness and techniques I’ve used personally:

What does true hunger feel like? Skip a meal or go a couple of days without eating — when’s the last time you felt this? (Keep in mind there’s an adaptation period while fasting; you’ll feel bad before you feel good). Do you get progressively hungrier, or does it come and go around the same times you typically eat? Do you feel sleepy/awake when you haven’t eaten? How are your energy levels? Do you need as much food as you think?

What does 80% full feel like? In Japan we have the concept of “hara hachibu” which means “only eat until you’re 80% full.”  That requires you to think about what you’re eating and take count of your feelings in the moment — you have to gauge your fullness and make a conscious decision to stop eating. No phones, slower bites, and more attention to what’s in front of you.

What the hell is happening inside of my body? Take note of what you ate the day before and that day; what has that food made your body feel like? Sluggish? Energetic? Nervous? Bloated? Groggy? Experiment, play around with foods.

Eating alone vs. eating in a group. Food plays different roles in our social lives. Studies have shown that eating alone allows us freedom to choose more healthy foods; yet other studies contradict this and say that we tend to eat more/unhealthy in social groups. So, which one is it? There’s no verdict, but both sides agree that if you’re feeling lonely, then you’ll tend to eat less healthy foods. Try eating alone, in groups or one on one with a friend; take note here. How does your behavior change in these situations?

It’s a journey  

To see the clear advantages of one way of eating over the other, you would need a side by side comparison of how you feel right now vs. how you will feel in several months. Since this will differ from person to person and takes time, that could mean trying out a lot of different variations of eating styles.

I enjoy seeing how different foods make me feels, improve my focus, and yes, hopefully increase my lifespan. But here’s the key…I don’t have a dream of becoming immortal (well, at least not through food) or having the ultimate body. Rather, I try out stuff and pay attention to how I feel — that’s it. I enjoy my food more when I’m not on my phone and when I cook myself. The ketogenic diet makes me feel good, for example, but can be limiting socially. Chocolate cakes are good, but I have to stop on my third one.

Rather than trying to control every aspect of your diet (or ignoring it), you’ll be a lot less stressed when you pay attention to what’s happening but at the same time don’t get too attached to the outcomes. You can see food as more of a journey; there’s a lot to learn along the way, and we all have the ability to take conscious actions to assess and explore what we’re putting in our bodies, and most importantly, how it makes us feel.


 

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