This topic is absurd. Such are the days.
Eating used to be easy. I didn’t think about eating except when I was hungry. I knew what to eat. I ate till I was full and then stopped. That’s it. And then I went about my day doing other things in life.
Nowadays, eating has become a hugely unsatisfying endeavour. At one point, I found myself eating stuff I didn’t recognize. More often than not, it didn’t hit the spot, either because the “chocolatey” taste was not chocolate enough, the texture was oilier than I like, or other, vague but real impressions that this so-called food didn’t quite do it. I was left feeling hungry and with a sense of incompleteness. I also found myself eating at all sorts of weird times as food appeared before me in different settings or was temptingly available in easy ways. I was eating for reasons other than hunger, oftentimes, boredom.
When did I forget how to eat? It’s one of the most basic functions of being alive, and yet I had screwed it up, losing sight of something that came naturally at one point. I don’t think I am alone in feeling this way. It doesn’t seem possible, but it’s true: we don’t know how to eat anymore.
So, I thought, it’s time to relearn how to eat. I went back to how things were in my childhood, before body consciousness and body shaming registered in my nascent brain. I also reflected on pointers from Michael Pollan’s incredible book, In Defense of Food. I mulled over the gentle urgings of various religions to be aware and mindful. Here are the 5 guideposts that helped me get back to eating the right way.
- Eat food. This might sound silly, but it warrants stating explicitly. We have a lot of options these days to put stuff in our mouths and bellies, and much of it is not actually food. It simulates food in the way it looks, but it’s a weird concoction of chemicals that doesn’t resemble anything that Mother Nature could have come up with. Pollan brought my attention to this first when he notes, in his book, that we have fruits that don’t spoil for weeks and months and we have yoghurt and cheese that come in a tube. Is this normal? As he explains, read the ingredient list, and if you can’t recognize what’s on the list, it’s probably not food. The other way I look at it is, if my mum can’t make it, it’s not food.
- Eat fresh. Everything can be bought in a packet nowadays. We look at expiry dates that are months out. It used to be that we had to consume food the same day or the next at the latest, because it would spoil otherwise. It’s a good rule. Fresh means natural, and natural means we are getting the nutrients our body needs. Plus, and this isn’t a small thing, it tastes great. I don’t need to explain the difference in experience when we’re eating freshly made aloo parathas versus pre-packaged or frozen equivalents. In India, as in many other places, hot is also a proxy for fresh. Not re-heated, though. This is the original hotness, coming off a griddle or straight out of a pot. First time cooked is different from re-heated. It can’t be put into words, but we sense it in every bite.
Maybe you’re thinking this is not practical in today’s harried times. It’s far easier, and sometimes the only option, to pull a pre-made meal out of the freezer and warm it up. It is easier, yes, and I do it sometimes too. It’s just not good as a regular practice. I had someone once ask me, why do you bother cooking just for yourself? Amused, I responded, why, don’t I count? The most practical thing I could do is to take care of myself, and this means eating fresh and giving my body the best chance to keep functioning well.
3. Eat on time. In other words, eat when hungry. Not any other time. I trust my body to tell me when it needs energy. There is a rhythm to eating. This knowledge, which was intrinsic once upon a time, has now become a science to study. It’s why there are nutritionists and scientists putting forward theories of the optimal number of meals – 3, 5, 7, or more. Instead of eating when hungry, we’re eating whenever we see food. As we bounce from meeting to meeting, or we go out on social calls, we drink those cups of tea and consume the accompanying biscuits and snacks. Social norms are hugely guilty of perpetrating bad eating habits – we can’t refuse food offered because it is seen as rude and even hostile to the host.
This is one of the most difficult minefields to navigate. Over time, I’ve found a few tricks to preserve my health without totally offending someone. I take a bite and put the rest away “for later consumption”. I ask for a half cup of tea, and if a full cup is still brought out, I make a fuss about sharing it with the host and pour it into their cup (this fuss is socially acceptable). I also beg out by sharing my susceptibility to migraines if I eat and drink out of my schedule – when it comes to a health impact, I’ve found, people will quickly back off, they’re very considerate in this case. Of course, the health risk has to be real. Finally, I communicate my focus on health and fitness, which also takes the pressure off. People don’t want to get in the way of your laudable journey, even if they’re not too bothered themselves, and they’ll become your champions in fending off others that are imposing food and drinks on you.
4. Food is not a boredom filler. It used to be straightforward to answer the question, why do you eat? Because I’m hungry, I would say. Now, I eat for other reasons, emotionally-driven a lot of times. A common emotion seems to be boredom. It’s understandable. We don’t know what to do with ourselves because we’ve built machines to do a lot of our tasks. What’s more, I’m not living in a joint family set-up, or even in the same city as many of my near and dear ones. The social network is frayed, and food has become the solace. As attention has dwindled and we seek stimulation in quicker and quicker succession, we’re turning to food to keep us interested.
There isn’t much to do here except to recognize why I’m eating. If it’s because I’m bored, that’s a red flag. It’s also a good signal to find a hobby. After all, if I’ve got time on my hands, I should do something productive with it, isn’t it?
5. Eat, only. This brings me to my last point. Many times, I am guilty of eating with the TV on or while scrolling on my mobile. I don’t just eat; it is no longer the only activity I do when I am doing it. It’s like the mind’s hunger for stimulation requires top-ups to what food can offer; flavours are no longer enough.
So, I started an experiment, to see if I could just eat. I started paying attention to the food on my plate – what it looked like, the different textures, the way I mixed and matched food items to create my favored taste profile. And then I observed my chewing – how much I chewed before swallowing, what were the sensations releasing in my mouth. It is actually an interesting and engaging activity. It’s amazing how many different things are going on if only we pay attention. I’m doing nothing new, actually. Mindful eating is a new thing now, but it used to be the only thing we did once upon a time. Regardless, it’s a good thing. I enjoy each bite, I eat more slowly, and as a result, I allow my body to tell me when it is full, stopping just in time.
Eating is not so simple anymore. It is almost like a maze, trying to steer away from the plethora of unhealthy yet easy-to-find options and balancing when and how much to eat so that we reach the golden destination of healthful, sufficient food. For some, it is a science, calculating calories and macro-nutrients; for others, it’s an art to be indulged in. We are in a world of too much and too little at the same time. Eating is now something about which we need to be conscious and choiceful.
Like all things in life, if we pay attention, we will know how to eat once again.