I love the variety of people who come to our open water swim camps. We spend several days together, swimming, hanging out and of course, eating. I get to observe and interview so many different people who clearly have preferences for certain kinds of foods. I’ve been exposed to new viewpoints, and received valuable recommendations to new knowledge and experts on the topic. I can even point to a particular swim camp that was the tipping point for my current nutritional journey.
However, if the personal nutrition topic comes up in conversation, I do struggle to agree on any particular label for myself. Am I a vegetarian, and pescatarian, a nutritarian, or a ‘vegan after lunch’? Or is the new trend ‘vegan on Mondays’?
None of the labels fit well because my approach to nutrition takes into consideration not just nutrition, but also economy and the social context of eating. So, I’ve developed my own way to explain my nutrition strategy that allows me to make decisions that honor this complexity while permitting me some flexibility.
I have a bullseye which organizes how I aim to eat.
In the center of my bullseye are the kinds of foods I would most like to fulfill my nutrition from: basically, I want to take in whole-food in the form of plants.
As I move away from the center toward the periphery, I move towards less and less ideal food sources. They are still food with value but there are more and more liabilities attached to those.
The only thing I would place off the bullseye – for reasons I may explain in another post – is refined sugar in all its disguises, which I regard as a metaphorical poison now.
Several Dimensions To Score By
As I noted in Food Provides Nutrition and Causes Stress there are many dimensions to food that I want to consider when evaluating how close it is to the center of my bullseye:
How nutrient dense is it? Does it have more micro-nutrients per calorie or less than other foods?
How efficient is it for my body extract those nutrients? Are the nutrients in that food in its most bio-available state – easy for the body to convert with minimal energy cost?
How clean and stress free is it? How much less metabolic stress would this cause to my body compared to other foods available? How many other destructive stuff is attached to it, like pesticide residue? Does it produce less metabolic waste products, is it less taxing on the immune system, does it cost less energy to expel that waste from my body?
To make it as simple as possible to choose foods that have these ideal features I aim for plants, as close to their natural state as edibility and bio-availability permit.
This means plants are towards the center and animal products – like cheese in the middle range, and animal meat toward the outside. The only meat I eat is fish, on occasion.
The less processed foods (the more it is close to its natural or harvested state) are closer to the center while the more processed foods are toward the outside.
Decisions Of Economy
If I can find it with reasonable effort I will choose to fill needs from that bullseye or as close to it as possible.
Economy does play a factor because we are 6 people living in a home and the monthly food bill is quite high. I acknowledge that eating with higher standards can be a bit more expensive in money and time (preparation of whole foods) – but it is a very calculated trade-off we decided to make as a family. I buy all the groceries and manage the finances so I have to make decisions about what more expensive items are higher priority in terms of nutrients, efficiency and cleanness, and which are less.
One more thing to note about economy – although at a restaurant a fancy salad seems to cost as much as a meal loaded with animal products and processed food, the interesting thing that I’ve found since going plant-based, is that once the nutrition density of my plant diet went up, my hunger for more calories went down. My body becomes satisfied sooner, and I don’t need to eat as many calories to feel full. I might graze on nuts and fruit more often, but overall, I believe being plant based is less expensive and one requires less calories to get the body replenished.
Decisions Of Social Consequence
When away from home, where ever I may be, I look at the selection of food available to me and I aim for those items that are as close to the bullseye, as possible. If I need some macro-nutrients that I can’t get from the center, I will pick what’s closest to the center.
And, of course, I can always choose to fast (not eat), if what’s available is too far from my bullseye, and I feel I can make it without. I have fasted for 21 days straight before, and used to fast 1 day a week for some years with regular multi-day fasts. So I am pretty confident that I can pass on food for hours or days and be quite OK in many situations. You may try this too.
However, people will notice if I am not eating meat, and they will notice if I am not eating at all. In some cultures that is hard for the host to accept. This almost always requires some explanation. I don’t mind to talk, but I don’t care to preach to anyone not asking questions or showing curiosity.
Because I travel and visit people in cultures not so similar to my own, occasionally I have to weigh my nutritional preferences against the immediate social consequence of not eating something offered to me by a generous host who has different perspective about cuisine and hospitality. Though I ‘don’t smoke’ I am willing at times to ‘smoke the peace-pipe’, to keep the peace, so to speak. In these cases, I have eaten the cake or sipped the coffee… and I suffer for it later with some satisfaction that I did it for a good social cause.
But once we get past the first date, regardless of the culture, I quickly train my friends to not bother to offer me sugar things and caffeine because I will rarely accept and will always suffer if I do. If they really care about me, they will agree to this.
Basically, I make the best choices I can with what food is available, and try to minimize discomfort for my host. Yet, I don’t mind having an opportunity to briefly explain the physical and cognitive benefits I enjoy from making more mindful, more principled choices about the foods I eat. My change did not come about suddenly from the powerful persuasion of some food preacher, but from the many conscientious people I’ve met over the years, each one nudging me a millimeter closer with their positive example and attitude.
Eating For Performance, Not For Comfort
I admit that I don’t have much of an emotional attachment to food. I don’t eat to comfort myself. I choose foods mostly by how it is going to make me feel and perform in the hours ahead, and its cumulative effect over days. So, I don’t struggle to make myself eat from the center and its not difficult to avoid the periphery of the bullseye. The stuff in the center quite simply, quite clearly makes me feel and perform so much better so I feel consistent motivation to eat there and the stuff on the periphery makes me feel and perform worse. When good food is scarce or inconvenient and I am really desperate for some calories, I do feel temptation to eat some junk nearby, like anyone would. But again, I am one of those people habituated to delayed gratification and so I probably don’t suffer as much to forgo the dirty calories in front of me when I easily anticipate how unpleasant those will make me feel an hour ahead.
I realize some are wounded and so eat to comfort. Many (too many in my home country) are wired by culture and habit to have strong cravings for less ideal foods. But I am aware that there is healing for those wounds and the brain – and more importantly, the gut – can be retrained to crave what’s much better for the human body and its longevity. It takes a little time and a good process and it really helps to be surrounded by a community that shares the same value, but it is quite possible. I am just throwing that out there for anyone who would like to write me off as a nutrition freak.
The human body and brain are quite trainable, even for better nutritional cravings. More on that later…
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