Is food fuel?

My relationship with food is not and never has been easy; I have been aware of my weight for more than half of my life with all the guilt, shame and desire to change that such an insight entails. I know I should change, eat less, eat differently and finally win this battle. Guilt and eating go hand in hand for me, I know I really shouldn’t but in the moment of truth, it is hard to resist.

Always finish your plate and eat as much as you can if food is free are two goals I almost always fulfill, especially when I am not actively being observed. Isn’t it fun to see how much easier it is to signal the virtue of self-discipline when surrounded by others?

One way to view food is to ignore taste and the pleasure of eating entirely. It’s all about the nutrients and energy content, to live and be active you have to eat. We digest what we eat and convert it into brain-function, movement, heat and our continued metabolism.

What we eat and how much of it has a large impact of how we feel immediately after and what kinds of health outcomes we can expect long term.

Eating and the suffering of others: the supply chains of food are rather obvious, having bacon for breakfast means that a pig had to die after having lift a pitiful life of incarceration and forced feeding. Should I really value my short-term enjoyment over the the suffering of a socially aware and intelligent being? The answer seems rather obvious.

The trouble is the eternal battle of the mind between instinct and automaticity. We have to catch ourselves in those situations where we rely on our mental auto-pilot while deliberate thought is required. Weight loss is not an intellectual challenge; most people know what is good for them and what isn’t. Knowledge detailing why „veggies are good and hamburger are bad“ is not the limiting factor here. The difficult part is to continuously act rationally instead of giving in to short-term desires. It’s tough emotional challenge to properly weigh future states of consciousness against the present. The future is uncertain, vague and abstract, the cookie is now. Lying on their premature deathbed, the full weight of the sum of their decisions will become apparent to a „sinner“ in full-force; but in the moment it is all too easy to give into that urge to take another bite. One pizza cannot hurt, can it?

The power of mediation lies in the ability to take back executive function in moments when the subconscious has taken over, when the rider has lost control.

Eating poorly means treating a few minutes of pleasant sensory experience for negative long-term outcomes. Being too fat, having cancer or suffering from arthritis is a lot worse than eating ice cream is good. The pleasure of eating is ephemeral, it fades within minutes of consumption. The price for a such a fleeting source of pleasure is high: long-term disease is an unstoppable descent towards death. Eating is an apt illustration for countless other decision-making challenges everybody encounters in every moment of their lives: should I treat my hedonic pleasure in right now for long-term suboptimal outcomes? Who says what is optimal? As is often the case, I believe a path of moderation to be an ideal to strive for. Slow and deliberate consumption, not blind gluttony.

The sexual marketplace of the modern metropolis was hyper-competitive before the advent of international air travel and the rise of Tinder, now it is just brutal. The bottom of the hierarchy goes hungry while winner-take all dynamics dominate at the top. Humans cannot help themselves, we naturally compare and order what we see: Having Instagram engrave highly idealized beauty standards into our minds is recipe for disaster with statistical certainty: We cannot all have a partner in the top 1% range. Eating well can get us from inescapable solitude and frequent rejection to a fighting chance on the quest to find love.

Then again, a human life is the integral of the moments we perceive as the present over a few decades – if anything matters it is how we feel right here, right now. Our past decisions have a large influence on the future state and how we behave now is a strong prediction for how we will behave in the future, anything we do becomes a habit and that is why change is so difficult. It requires a reprogramming of our mind.

A fit body is a powerful symbol, it signifies mastery of the self and victory over the demons of modernity: The triumph over ice cream and curly fries is absolute. Overcoming the maladaptation of the human body to the environment of the the 21st century is a chasm only the determined are able to cross.

Companies in the food business continuously exploit the vulnerabilities that have been built into the core programming of homo sapiens: our species was molded in an environment of caloric scarcity and extensive physical exertion. Modern life in a large city is the exact opposite of our ancestral home, for the knowledge worker movement is not a necessity and fatty or sweet food is both abundant and aggressively advertised. I have a few principles about what constitutes healthy and maybe even ethical food choices: It should be low in sugar, so any sweets or white bread is out of the question, alcohol is poisonous and lowers my will-power, cheese is too fatty, meat requires industrial-scale killing, food should have a low level of processing – you see what I how this list can be extended: I sometimes imagine myself walking through a supermarket and excluding all the categories above. Something like 80% of the inventory would disappear. When I do my shopping round I have to say „No“ hundreds, maybe thousands of times to all kinds of clever temptation traps. It’s the marketing department of Nestlé against my hungry monkey brain after a long day of work.

Building up the willpower or ingraining good habits are not solutions that scale well, obesity afflicts billions and the numbers only go up. There are only two possible paths out of this conundrum: change the human DNA in a way that is adapted to modern life, e.g. make carrots as desirable as chocolate cake or make food that is both healthy and as tasty as a Big Mac.

Maybe the „food is fuel“ bros are onto something, forgoing short-lived instant gratification for longer-term accomplishments is the path to an easier and fuller life. Discipline is the foundation of freedom.