On the Nature of Nutrition, and an Experiment

The article today is an opinion piece. It is based on my own thoughts on how and why we eat, and what the action does for us physically, emotionally, and socially. It should not be taken as nutritional advice, but rather an (hopefully) interesting look into the nature of ourselves and why we eat.

Physical Hunger

Everyone knows what it is to be hungry, right? In general, you feel a slight emptiness in your stomach, your energy levels might feel low, and strange gurgling noises from your abdomen may be scaring small animals nearby. These “symptoms” are common, but why is it that so many people spend time overeating? Physical symptoms of hunger are a low-level, baseline feeling. I would estimate that not everyone really understands what “hungry” and “satiated” feel like. We speak in expansive terms like being “starving” or “stuffed”, despite the fact that 99% of us have never experienced actual starvation. Most of us, though, have experienced being over-full, which is a symptom of eating well past satiation. It seems that our physical signals are getting crossed somewhere, and that’s where emotional and social hunger come in to play.

Social Hunger

I think that just above physical hunger, we have social hunger. This is that time where you eat because other people are eating. You may remain at the family dinner table after eating your fill, snacking on additional helpings or even loading another whole plate (especially on holidays) simply because you are conditioned to remain eating until everyone is finished. Happy Hour with co-workers is another such circumstance where we’re conditioned to consume food or drink so as not to appear “rude”. It would be an interesting sociological experiment to compare the health of two equal cultures, one which encourages “Happy Hour” style food gatherings, and one which encourages non-food gatherings. I estimate the “non-food gatherings” culture would have significant changes to health risk factors, simply by helping decrease opportunity and motivation to consume in excess.

Emotional Hunger

At the next level of the hierarchy I place emotional hunger. We’ve covered the physical needs our body gives us that we misread, and we’ve covered the physical (partially emotional) needs we get from outside ourselves, but now lets jump into our own minds. Physical sensations are often complicated by emotional sensations. We’re not hungry, but we eat while stressed or upset (or happy, for that matter). But why? Emotions aren’t a natural trigger for us to resort to food to provide comfort. It’s a learned behavior. When you were a kid, what made you happier than getting a snack or treat that you normally weren’t allowed to have? How often do we (meaning American culture) throw food at kids so they’ll give us some peace and quiet? We have an institutionalized training program for associating both negative and positive emotions to food.

Tying it All Together

So why does it matter? Who cares?

Well, you should care. We know that the U.S. population is getting too fat. Even with the more recent years of physical fitness coming back into popularity, the obesity and overweight issues in our country (and world-wide, lets not be completely Amerocentric with this) are still running rampant. For every one person hitting the gym regularly and eating okay, there’s another two or three holding down the couch every day with their remote and a box of Cadbury Creme Eggs on stand-by.

One of the top U.S. Army generals recently said that about 70% of the young people in the U.S. in recent years are unfit to even attend training, let alone serve in the military. Think about that for a second, and weigh the consequences of a worst case scenario.

Terrible things have happened. Russia, Iran, ISIS, Canada…whoever it is, we are launched into a World War II level conflict. Now assuming that nuclear weapons don’t atomize us all anyway, what recourse will be likely? The Draft. Young men (because ladies are still exempt) will be called to war, with only a couples months of training between them and an enemy intent on shooting them in the face. As society, we are unprepared for this emotionally and physically. In any conflict requiring the physical preparedness of a good portion of our population, we would lose.

But lets dial it back from “world ending” worst case, to just personal “worst case”.

Terrible things have happened to you, specifically. You are in a car accident, with a large piece of wreckage weighing you down. You have never lifted more than a few grocery bags off the ground, you can’t do a push-up, and God forbid you need to pull yourself up with just your arms and back. If you had spent time actually practicing and training functional movements, you’d probably be okay. As is, not so much. Or maybe it’s your spouse, or child, or pet, or sibling, or parent caught under or behind something. Are you physically prepared to help? About a 2/3rd chance says you’re not.

Thanks for the Pep Talk! Now What?

We need to start thinking of food more as nutrition and less as social or emotional baggage. Most of us enjoy eating, and there’s nothing wrong with that. Until there is. Until you start eating so much, for the wrong reasons, that you start seeing significant health issues. Now, eating for pleasure becomes a problem. We’ll probably never develop to the point where we don’t, as a species, enjoy meals as bonding moments, and that’s okay. But what if we could develop to the point where we did the social eating on purpose, cut down the emotional eating to nothing, and focused the rest of our eating on nutrition?

An Experiment

For two weeks, I’m going to do just that: reduce my intake to nutrition only, and cut out the rest.

I was recently approached by the people at Soylent to review their product, using it as a replacement for my daily meals for two weeks, and then reviewing my experience for them. I’m going to go one step further and keep detailed daily logs of my biometrics (weight, etc), physical state, emotional state, and thoughts on the test.

I will begin posting my thoughts here a few times per week from Day 1 until Day 14, so you can follow along. I will do my best to maintain every other aspect of my health lifestyle, including exercise frequency and intensity, to see how the Soylent meal replacement holds up as a nutritional support to CrossFit-level exercise.

Stay tuned. We’re about to get funky up in here!