Why do we eat?
My last article had proposed, as a New Year resolution, that, in order for us to lose weight and keep it off, it is important that we learn to change our food environment. I had explained, citing the mismatch hypothesis, how our ancient survival circuits are unable to cope with an environment of food abundance. If you can choose satiating foods over the long term, you can hold on to the new, improved you.
This begs the question: how can we change our food environment? Sure, it is one thing to know what is satiating and what isn’t, but given our busy lifestyles, how do we keep at it? More importantly, why is it so important to change the environment — why not just discipline ourselves about our food choices?
The answer lies in an altogether different question, which is: why do we eat? The answer will surprise you. It will also help you grasp why changing your personal food environment is the first step to making ‘healthy food choices, before your willpower kicks in and converts it into a habit.
First, let’s get the basics out of the way. What do we mean by something satiating? Any food that makes you feel full sooner than the other option. There is a whole neurophysiology of satiety, so allow me to use a proxy to keep things simple. All food can be viewed from the lens of energy and nutrients. Proteins, fats and carbohydrates are the macronutrients, while the whole army of vitamins and minerals constitutes micronutrients. To stay lean and healthy (please note that the two can be different), you need to consume a diverse and abundant range of nutrients from foods with a low energy-load (calories). As an example, a single chocolate doughnut offers your body nothing more than fats and carbohydrates (sugar) with 280 calories of energy. A 250-gram serving of steamed broccoli provides dietary fiber and protein, with Vitamins A and C, along with calcium and potassium, at only 85 calories of energy .
You will struggle to have more broccoli but won’t hesitate to grab another doughnut due to its lack of protein and fiber (two nutrients that add significantly to satiety and less so to energy retention). That doughnut is what some would refer to as ‘empty calories’, a term first popularised in the 1950s by a Cornell nutritionist. Our current food environment is awash with such ‘empty calories’.
As Bee Wilson prologues her book: “Our food is killing us, not through its lack but through its abundance — a hollow kind of abundance.” It is killing us not because of lack of trying, but because we are up against three strong adversaries: an ancient fat-preservation mechanism, an equally old brain system, and a savvy marketing-industrial setup.
Willing but Powerless
The set-point theory of body fat/weight stipulates that evolution has set up unique fat reserve points in all of us. So any time we try reduce weight, our body fights back with a complex interplay of hormones to bring us closer to the set point. That’s the reason why even those who succeed in losing weight end up regaining it. Or that people hop from one diet to another, or one exercise fad to another, in search of the weight-loss elixir. Powerlifter and nutrition researcher Layne Norton advises ‘adherence and sustainability’ as the first — and most important change in lifestyle — before even discussing food, exercise and other steps.
This requires — you guessed it — willpower and discipline. Is willpower something that is genetically fixed, or can some of us lazy ones hope to gain it over time? The unambiguous answer is the latter, according to Stanford University psychologist Kelly McGonigal . She tends to liken ‘willpower’ to stress, as a mind-body response to an internal conflict in the brain: burger or broccoli? But unlike stress that acts out as a fight-or-flight response, strong willpower gives you a pause-and-plan response. So what helps build strong willpower? Exactly the things that help us adapt better to stress. You guessed it: food, sleep, exercise.
So if the way to get and stay lean is to choose salad over savouries over the long term, and that requires willpower which is strengthened by eating more salad and not savouries, how do we start? How do we take that first step that successfully breaks this chain to start our own virtuous cycle of nutrient-rich food, willpower, more nutrient-rich food, leading to a perennial lean look? This is where we must ask ourselves: why we do eat? Ask yourself this: how often have you lately eaten when you were hungry; I mean really hungry? Do you recall your hunger of youth, or for those of us who grew up in modest homes or hostels?
As the agriculture and industrial revolutions rolled in, we transcended Maslow’s first-level physiological need for food. Social and emotional reasons explain more of our eating behaviour today, than hunger. Look at the number of festivals we celebrate in India. Add to that the mini festivities for birthdays, anniversaries, promotions and the like. Now add to that the eating routine at your workday — meetings, power lunches, networking drinks, and the like. Sweets, sweets, sweets, snacks, desserts, alcohol all the way. The home environment again revolves around morning and evening teas (of course, with something/s to nibble on), and designated meal times, irrespective of hunger levels.
Emotional eating is a topic by itself and opens up the disturbing trends not just in clinically depressive conditions, but even everyday moods of feeling low, tired, stressed, cold, hot, and the like. Is it a coincidence that there is a food ‘created’ for every mood? The smartest food marketers create those ‘happy moments’ that are mostly surrounded by food and drinks. They encourage you to gift a chocolate for every small reason; or to dip a biscuit in tea in multiple ways; to cook up something in just 2 minutes; or to consume sugar alternatives if you have diabetes. Most such processed foods are high on energy — something that isn’t available in nature save for perhaps honey. How could any hunter-gatherer, faced with such an attractive environment, say no to such energy dense foods?
These foods are created and marketed so effectively that they begin to dominate your brain’s reward center. Like our fat reserves have evolved over millennia, our drive for food is controlled by a similarly ancient piece of our brain: the basal ganglion. It comes in a pair and is part of our limbic system, often referred to as ‘reptile brain’. It is what Daniel Kahneman refers to as System 1 in his award-winning work. So before your System 2 brain can think rationally and plan for your future health, System 1 has already reached out and made you grab that kaju katli. Of course, one won’t do, so you had two. And then because it left a rather sweet aftertaste, you munched on some fried namkeen. Which left a sticky tongue, so you washed it down with some Coke.
This food environment is being created and managed by some of the savviest minds with limitless cash. It is meant to seduce you into eating at every occasion, for every mood, basis enticing sensory stimuli. And now we are in the next stage of this cultural evolution. Where you don’t even have to expend any effort besides pressing some keys on a phone to have these mass-produced foods delivered to you. You save time and effort. And, equally importantly, money, through cashbacks, BOGO and various monetary offers. What you are paying with is your long-term health.
So if you have to silence your limbic brain and beat the best marketers, why not learn from the best? Remember that oft-narrated story of Steve Jobs denying tech gadgets to his own children? You get the point.