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fitness and relationship with food

july 21, 2023

Food is a tricky subject. What is a good relationship with food? To be honest, I’m not really sure. Maybe a good relationship with food can mean different things for different people. I don’t claim to have the perfect relationship with food, but here are some of the things I’ve picked up thus far.

To preface, there are many ways to enjoy life. Some people like eating whatever they want whenever they want, and that’s completely valid. However, personally, I realized this wasn’t realistic if I wanted my physique to look a certain way, or if I wanted to achieve certain fitness goals. Taking care of my body and improving my fitness has forced me to shift my perception of food, opting for foods with less fats and sugars. You can argue that this is a loss in some ways, but when I compare both my lifestyles, one prior to fitness and one after, I will never go back to my pre-fitness life.

Modern society has discovered ways to hack our dopamine receptors. TikTok, Instagram, and algorithmic feeds tailor content to release the most dopamine in its users. Another way these dopamine “hacks” have manifested themselves is in food. Highly processed foods such as Doritos are engineered to have the optimal amount of fats, acid, and sodium such that each chip releases as much dopamine as possible. McDonald's fries have an equilibrium of salt, sugar (dextrose), and fat that puts it in the “goldilocks” zone of tastiness. These foods are tasty because our brains crave fats and sugars, which makes sense. In our hunter gatherer days, fats and sugars corresponded to more calories and thus more fuel, which was important if our next meal wasn’t guaranteed. However, in modern society, most of us are neither hunting nor gathering, yet this outdated instinct for fats and sugars has stayed the same.

Frankly, I’m shocked that junk food is legal but cocaine and heroin aren’t. Yes, the damage of hard drugs are fast acting and are more irreversible than eating garbage, but the premise is the same. In the book How Not to Die: Discover the Foods Scientifically Proven to Prevent and Reverse Disease by Michael Gregor, which partially inspired this blog post, Gregor opens with an anecdote of his grandmother who almost died of heart disease. She miraculously recovered to live another 31 years after transitioning to a plant-based diet, even though she was supposed to die at 65. The toxins in processed foods is analogous to a drug: food that is delicious in the moment, but slowly destroys your body over years of abuse. To a lesser degree, even restaurant food can be damaging in excess, due to added fats and sugars. On an unrelated note, Gregor also described an instance of a smoking patient dying as his lungs filled with fluid, and with that, I immediately threw away my vape. Regardless, at the very least, junk food in America should be regulated far more.

So what is the solution? If many good tasting foods are poisonous, should we never eat them?

While the take above is scientifically accurate, this overlooks the nuance that food is not purely sustenance. Cultural food, for instance, is a reminder of heritage and family. Mooncakes are eaten during the Lunar New Year to celebrate a bountiful harvest. Radish cakes are consumed during Chinese New Year for good luck. These cultural foods are delicacies that underwent centuries of refinement. And in addition to culture, food is a medium for socializing, such as hotpot for a cold winter night, potlucks for a housewarming, or cake for a birthday.

This begs the question - how does one stay fit in a society so centered around food?

Firstly, I think being fit admittedly forces an individual to shift their perception of food to a more sustenance based approach. While you can make delicious macro-friendly meals, they obviously won’t taste the same as the original recipes that have higher levels of fats. Consistently viewing food purely as a source of enjoyment may not be the most productive, if you have fitness goals. Not to say that you can’t enjoy eating healthy foods, because you should! But I think the primary thought should be “mmm! I’m fueling my body with a fillet of baked fish, which will fuel my body for its next workout.” I actually really like counting macronutrients, because I like knowing how much fuel I should put in my body such that it functions to the best of its ability.

Another aspect is focusing on how you feel after you eat a certain food. After reducing your fat and sugar intake, your body will adapt, and you’ll crave whole foods. Being active helps too, because I could not work out with a burger sloshing around in my stomach.

Finally, it’s important to know the difference between being mentally hungry and physically hungry. I have trouble differentiating between the two, which is why I track, so I know I am never physically hungry if I hit my macronutrients for the day. There’s nothing wrong with eating when you’re mentally hungry, but again, if you have goals, perhaps it’s important to keep in mind.

As with many things, I think the answer is balance. With everything, there is good and bad. With every decision comes an opportunity cost. Depending on the physique you want, you may have to be picky with when you eat for enjoyment.

Your body is a machine, and food is the fuel. You only get one, so take care of it.