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Food for thought

About a year and a half ago I changed my eating habits rather fundamentally. My eating habits have since been difficult to define and oftentimes people have asked me whether I’m a vegetarian, vegan, or follow any other standard diet. I woke up this morning with an image in my mind about what truly drives my food choices, so I’ll try to explain it concisely in one blog post. A word of warning: It will be long.

Objectives

Why do we choose certain foods to be part of our diet? What are our objectives in relation to eating, apart from staying alive? For some people, perhaps staying alive is the only objective that drives their choices. I happen to be in a lucky enough position to be able to reach for more than survival. My objectives in relation to food and eating are the following, in order of priority.

  1. Happiness about my mind, body and life in general

Okay, that list was maybe a bit short and incomplete. Let’s break that rather vague objective into more concrete ones.

First, my primary objectives. These are rather general in nature, difficult to measure and not very directly related to food choices. However, they are supported by the more concrete, diet-related, measurable objectives below.

  • Tranquility (peacefulness; avoiding stress and personal drama)
  • Clarity of mind (mental alertness; avoiding headaches, drowsiness, mental performance blocks)
  • Enthusiasm (eagerness; avoiding laziness, depression)
  • Sensitivity (using the five senses to their fullest potential; appreciating odors, flavors, textures, music, art, sex etc.)
  • Productivity (being able to do a lot of things)
  • High performance (doing things quickly and efficiently)

Then for objectives more directly related to food choices. These are also a bit easier to measure or directly feel.

  • Healthiness (being well; avoiding disease)
  • Fitness (feeling fit; avoiding obesity, heart problems, low aerobic performance)
  • Vitality (feeling physically alert, alive; avoiding numbness and laziness)
  • Satiety (feeling full, satisfied, sated)
  • Clear conscience (eating ethically, respecting life, supporting sustainable living)

Finally, one limitation that affects every other goal that I’ve defined.

  • Reasonable simplicity (not going to extreme lengths to fulfill every concrete goal)

In other words, I don’t want to make my life too difficult trying to achieve those concrete goals, thereby missing out on my primary goals of tranquility and productivity. I specifically don’t want to enforce my diet in every situation because that makes social situations difficult, leaves me hungry when there are ”attractive” choices available, makes ”hunting” for the right ingredients cumbersome, and finally… I’m just not that fascinated with preparing food myself. :) And that inherently limits the choices that I can make.

Philosophy

Alright, my goals for eating are defined. What beliefs do I base my choices on, then? What philosophy drives my diet? Here are a few thoughts about it.

The body converts food into energy. Whatever we put in our system becomes fuel for all the complex processes that take place inside our bodies: muscle growth, the immune system, hormone production and regulation, blood circulation and so on. There are a number of important organs to protect and develop, such as the brain, heart, lungs, liver and so on.

My first thought, then, is that such a complex system cannot be supported by anything too simple. One or two or ten ingredients won’t be enough to provide all necessary nutrients to function in the best way possible. My guess is that we need a few hundred different food sources to get all the vitamins, minerals and amino acids the body can utilize.

My second thought is that all bodies do not work the same way. There are general guidelines to nutrition brought on by evolution, but the rest of the ”rules” have been defined by geographic location (what foods have been available in the past), culture (which of those foods have been used and how) and family tradition (which specific foods have prevailed over others due to personal taste). In other words, the same rules simply cannot work for everyone. Everyone must find their own personal food truth, even though it may be quite similar to many other people’s diets (at the time; see the next paragraph).

My third thought is that bodies change, and therefore diets must change as well. No one diet will be optimal for a person’s entire lifespan. There are changes in the environment, in the foods available, in your physical condition, and these changes must be reflected in your diet as well. Every now and then the diet has to be adjusted. This means that even if you find another person that enjoys the same diet, this connection might not hold for more than a few years (or else both suffer from a sub-optimal diet).

Tactics

So now you know what my choices are based on. I’ve defined the goals I aim for through eating. I’ve explained some of my attitudes toward and beliefs about food. Now I can go into specific tactics that I use to achieve my eating goals. In other words, what do I eat and what don’t I eat? What does my ”diet” consist of? In which situations do I follow my ”diet” 100% and when do I make compromises?

Let me start by saying that I don’t want to use absolute terms. These are guidelines. These are things I strive to but don’t enforce. You can make life a lot easier for yourself if you do things with a ”best effort” attitude instead of an ”all-or-nothing” attitude. You’ll probably be more successful in your goals, too.

What I strive to eat a lot of

Generally: Food that tastes good; makes me feel sated, alive, vibrant and sharp; aids in digestion.

  • Superfoods
  • Raw foods
  • Organic foods
  • Foods with high nutritional value vs. energy value
  • Foods with a high energy conversion ratio
  • Vitamins
  • Minerals

Specifically:

  • Vegetables
  • Fruit
  • Nuts, seeds
  • Beans
  • Eggs
  • Fish
  • Oils and fats, both vegetable and animal
  • Quinoa, spelt
  • Soups, salads, smoothies, juices

What I strive to avoid

Generally: Food that is tasteless; makes me feel heavy, numb, slow, phlegmatic; gives me indigestion.

  • Genetically modified food
  • Nutritionally empty foods
  • Chemically manipulated foods
  • Industrially engineered foods
  • Additives
  • Toxins (pesticides, herbicides, heavy metals, etc)

Specifically:

  • Fast food
  • Convenience food
  • Refined wheat (white bread, white pasta, etc)
  • White rice
  • Refined sugar
  • Refined salt
  • Artificial sweeteners

What falls in between

  • Meats
  • Whole grains

Exceptions and limitations

At work I want to be a part of the community. In a hectic IT world the community building is oftentimes restricted to lunch. Since I’m not a big fan of making my own food, I try to strike a balance between eating well and building relationships with my colleagues (no matter how they eat). As a result, I sometimes bring my own food to work, sometimes get something from the local supermarket, sometimes eat out. I usually try to get the healthiest choice available, although sometimes I just eat whatever tastes good.

Eating out inherently puts me at risk of ingesting a lot of the ingredients I don’t want. But I try to choose my restaurants based on the quality of their food. I try go for fresh and organic whenever I can. I have felt much better eating soups and salads and avoiding the steak + mashed potatoes + gravy combo after which I feel heavy, have indigestion and feel sleepy. The area where I compromise the most is eating pizza and sandwiches. They are pretty high on refined wheat… But they are just so abundantly available and good to carry around for eating later. I do still try to find the darkest whole grain bread possible.

Examples

So what, specifically, have I changed in my eating habits?

  • I haven’t eaten at McDonald’s or an equivalent in 1,5 years.
  • I’ve cut down candy consumption about 95%.
  • I’ve given up soft drinks and energy drinks 1,5 years ago.
  • I now drink a green smoothie for breakfast 9 days out of 10.
  • At work I mainly eat soups and salads for lunch. No more convenience food. I almost never eat meat and starch (potatoes, rice) during the same meal (or else I drowse off after lunch).
  • I’ve cut out most deep fried foods, although I still enjoy crisp deep fried potato wedges sometimes. :)
  • At home I seldom eat any meat, apart from ordering pizza or nepalese food every now and then with meat in it.
  • I now drink less (and better quality) coffee, more tea.
  • I now drink more water than before.

Conclusion

I still surprise some people at work with constant salads and soups. Many people ask whether I’m a vegetarian and many wonder what kind of restrictions I impose on my diet. I want to stress that it’s not about restrictions – it’s about better choices, every day and every meal. It’s about investing in quality nutrition so I can lead a healthy, vibrant life and focus on my work which I greatly enjoy. I eat out a lot because I never learned to especially like preparing food myself. I’m pretty impatient when it comes to preparing food, and for this reason I used to eat a lot of convenience food.

In general I feel that my current diet keeps me healthy and alert, even though I could improve by miles still. It would, however, require that I start preparing the majority of my meals myself. But… I’m just not that enthusiastic about learning food preparation at this point in my life. I want to move around a lot, have a free schedule, and focus on getting work done and studying. For many people food preparation can be a meditative activity, but I’ve never gotten there myself.

That’s pretty much it. I mostly wrote this post to clarify my own choices to myself. It’s easier to stand behind your choices when you know why you’re making them, and being an extroverted person I like to write about it and share my thoughts with others. :)

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