In addition to learning how to swim myself across an ocean, the past four years have afforded me many life skills.
One of the ongoing challenges has been nutrition. What began as a month long experiment fast became an exploration of food in general. I dove head first into understanding nutrients, exploring the emotional and intellectual facets of my appetite, and learning about where food comes from and what it actually is supposed to do and be.
The most important revelation for me was understanding the purpose of food. I can remember my nutritionist asking me what I thought that was and my reply;
“Spoken like a true athlete,” he replied. “Food actually has four purposes.”
Food has FOUR purposes.
Goodness… four purposes. Four of them. For really real. And I know one.
But the truth is – I’m a good test taker. I can answer questions on tests and get high scores and never ever actually understand the subject matter. This trait has frustrated me from time to time over the years when I wanted to understand things but didn’t – trying to tell my teachers that, in fact, I didn’t quite get it and having them looking at my straight A’s with question marks in the bubbles over their cartoon heads.
So even though I got one out of four correct – I didn’t even understand that one.
But the good thing is that I’ve learned a lot about food’s purposes since then and I’ve learned a lot about navigating it based on those things. I decided to share some of what I’ve learned with you for your education and betterment.
Food is for Energy, Medicine, Social Connection, and Pleasure.
Energy – As everybody knows, you need to eat to keep going. Athlete or not, if you don’t eat, you can’t do stuff. And there is STUFF to do! When I think of energy, I think of heating my house. I think of my body as a furnace, consuming fuel to convert to heat. I want a consistent, efficient, all day long burn that can ramp up when I am exercising without taxing my systems too much. The key to that consistent, efficient burn is what kind of food I eat, not how much I’m eating. Culturally, there is a lot of focus on calories and calorie intake and women should only eat 1200 calories a day if they are going to lose weight. Back to that furnace, if I try to burn the wrong kind of fuel, no matter how much I might restrict what I put in there, it will not work optimally or maybe not at all. Likewise, I’ve had a focus shift in my diet from how much I eat to what kind of things I eat. It’s about the quality of your food, not just quantity. When I began to focus more on eating organic, nutrient dense, wholesome foods made with ingredients as close to their natural state as possible, I could feel the difference in my energy level.
Medicine – This never occurred to me until some farmer friends of mine floated the concept. I’m not saying that modern medicine isn’t great, because it is. But I am saying that it makes sense that there are nutrients available to you in food to fortify your body’s natural defenses. Hand in hand with that, food is the one place where we directly invite our physical environment into our systems. If it’s medicine, it can also be poison. There are so many things out there that are labeled as food and are just not good for you to eat, contributing to health problems and ongoing issues. When I’m eating the right things to get optimal energy, it usually takes care of any signs of sickness. Two for one! I know a lot of people who have had success managing, fighting, and even curing diseases through their diet.
Social Connection – Guess what? Everybody has to eat! As a result, many of our social events are characterized by food. Even my Sunday morning swims are topped with the best oatmeal ever at Bob and Deb’s house! I can’t think of many social settings that don’t involve food in some way, shape, or form. We connect to each other over food. And it’s great! But it also can be hard to navigate the social pressures of food when you are trying to watch the quality of the food you intake. For instance, at work, we have a longstanding tradition called “Pizza Thursday”. If you don’t participate, you are coerced through various methods of persuasion and heckling. What I have been realizing over the past few months in particular is that this is one of food’s purposes – to facilitate the connection of people to each other. It’s okay to decline the food, as long as you don’t decline the people. I’ve watched my co-workers alienate each other over diet differences and it’s just not necessary.
This tends to be a huge stumbling block for me and I’ve taken to the following procedure to combat it:
- Be the instigator! Don’t wait for bad food to find you, make good food and bring it instead. My nutritionist always tells me I don’t have to tell people it’s ‘healthy’. They won’t know the difference, anyway. And it’s true! (…as I get better at cooking)
- Choose restaurants that you know can offer you what you want and need to eat.
- There are people out there who are trying to watch the quality of their diet, too. Hang out with them! Plan connections with them! Get together and cook or swap recipes!
- Eat right 100% of the time you’re alone, planning for the social connections to be the times you cheat. Hand in hand with that, I limit the number of social situations each week where I don’t have control over the menu.
Pleasure – When I heard this, I thought that that what was my problem was- I was enjoying food too much. I ate because I had to or because I wanted to. I never thought about the quality of it or how it came to be or what it was for. I rarely made anything for myself, eating out of boxes and bags and pre-made items – the cheaper, the better. It never made me satisfied or happy or healthy. What I have since learned is that I had never, in my entire life, enjoyed food at all. It was more like a drug and I an addict. It didn’t satiate, made me more hungry, made my body perform like sludge and perpetuated a cycle for needing more of it.
Food is supposed to be something you enjoy – from the experience of creating something from a handful of awesome ingredients, to all of the flavors there are in this big, wide, beautiful world, to sharing something you’re proud of with good friends and family.
You can enjoy the food that is medicine for your body. You can enjoy the food that gives you the great energy you need. The best tasting foods out there are the ones that do all of the above and are tasted around the laughter and communion with friends.
So why don’t you try it? Try eating organic. Try making all your meals with a grand total of only seven ingredients. Try more vegetables. Learn to cut an eggplant or a butternut squash. Try going back to the basics. It’s been a huge adjustment in my life, but I wouldn’t trade this experience for anything in the world.