Monday, July 21, 2014

“There’s nothing to eat” - the first-world problem with a real-world solution

Like many people, especially those people who claim to live a healthy lifestyle, I have opinions on what people should eat. I can never be sure my opinions are certifiably correct, but I make an effort to read and research things, experiment on myself, and attempt to draw conclusions based on a sample size of one. But I also realize that there is very little consensus on what one should eat, regardless of whether we are talking about the population of dieticians, doctors, scientists, or laypeople.

But I do think I can propose a concept in eating that fits regardless of whether the diet one follows is Paleo, Whole 9, Mediterranean, Zone, low-fat, low-carb, low-sodium, alkaline, vegan, vegetarian, pescatarian, or holds no label whatsoever. The proposal is: when there is no food that is good for you, you should not eat anything at all.

As I compose this post, I’m at 30000 feet. I’m presently in the midst of a 13-hour flight from Vancouver to Hong Kong, which door-to-door is closer to 17 hours. To help my circadian rhythm adjust to the new time zone, I requested that my dinner and breakfast be served together. I’ve eaten the fish, chicken, vegetables and fruits, but skipped the bread, rice and dessert. Without the “filler”, this really only constitutes one meal, especially for a big eater like me.

I will be hungry when I land. My hormones will surely express the desire for food by the end of this flight. I’ll be uncomfortably hungry.

But in the end, I will be fine. In fact, I would say I’ll be much better off than those filling up on the provided meals. Skipping the bread and the desserts means I’ll be operating on a short-term caloric deficit. But unless I hit the one-in-a-zillion parlay of: 1) this plane going down, 2) surviving the crash, and 3) ending up in a place where I do not have access to food, I won’t really miss those bread and dessert calories. In all likelihood, I’ll get them back when I land safely. (Spoiler alert: I landed safely.)

It may feel very “first-world” to have the luxury of casting aside the grains and sweets. I see it differently. I think the first-world attitude is the idea that people should never go hungry. I used to subscribe to the idea that people - especially athletes - would waste away if not constantly nourished; that muscular hypotrophy and fat storage would quickly ensue if a person did not get five small meals a day. But I think in the first world, the opposite is far more of a problem: the abundance and ease of food is too great.

We have food whenever we want it. If you are reading this and you have $10 in your pocket, I’ll bet you can get some kind of food within 15 minutes. But we don’t always have good food available. Sometimes we are on a plane and at the mercy of the airline. Perhaps it is 3am and the only thing open is McDonald's. Or we are at a restaurant that someone else chose, and absolutely nothing on the menu is conducive to what we think we should eat. Too frequently, I hear people rationalize their poor choices with, "well, I don't have time, and I have to eat something." I write this post to challenge that idea. You don't have to eat "something" at all.

Beyond the direct health benefits of intermittent fasting and consuming fewer empty calories/bad things, I think there are some second-order benefits to the “don’t eat when there’s no good food” approach as well.

1) You will make better meal-planning decisions. If you know that you will be “punished” for a failure to prepare your meal in advance (whether that means grocery shopping, cooking food in batches, or even intelligently planning your restaurant choices), then you will teach yourself to make better decisions.

2) You will appreciate food more. We in the first world are very fortunate to have access to very cheap and very available food. I am not a hippie liberal by any stretch of the imagination, but I think it is important for us to feel some gratitude towards the availability of our food.

To be clear, I don’t think that you need to do this often (especially athletes and active people). Once a week or a few times a month is likely enough to enjoy any health benefits.

If you live in the first world, then you should eat well. You should eat enough to satisfy your caloric requirements and to meet your physical goals. But you should also be choosy in what you eat. Being choosy doesn’t mean simply substituting the fries for the salad (and the ranch for the balsamic). It means throwing out the idea that you will eat something from the vending machine simply because you were too busy to eat lunch. If you didn’t eat lunch, too bad. You should have planned your day better. So you end up going from 1pm to 6pm (3% of your week, mathematically) feeling like you're "starving". Well, suck it up -- you'll live.

Actually, you'll live better.