NUTRITION > The how and when to eat

What to Eat, When to Eat


Breakfast, lunch, snack, dinner... there it is, the daily intake of an average Westerner.
Breakfast between 7:30 and 8:30am, lunch between 12 and 1pm. It's as if it has always been this way, written into human genetics, intrinsic like a mathematical equation.
Beyond all doubt, nutrition is at the root of man's survival. Life requires activity and activity requires a source of energy so an absence of nutrition means an absence of life. We structure our days around our meals following a certain schedule that no one ever seems to doubt because it has always been this way.
Or has it?

The History of Mankind

The history of mankind should be seen in its entirety taking into account all its evolution. Modern man represents a tiny, infintesimal speck on this timeline. The contemporary man, the renaissance man, one of culture whose intelligence survived ancient times, industrialization, modern trends – all this is merely one instant in all of history, nothing more.

The Paradox: Diseases Caused by Well-Being

If we stop to think, today's eating habits are organized around society and not around our biological needs. These habits have very little to do with nature. We eat in a certain way due to logic that is structured around social customs, around our work days, around our desire to be in the company of others. Meals are often seen as a moment for relax, for conversing, unwinding or at times, even for consolation.

Nowadays, hunger is decided by the hands of a clock (I'm hungry because it's already 1 o'clock), by a daily ritual (a coffee break) and by visual stimuli that surround us (advertisements). In other words, our eating habits are artificial, especially those that are based on the time of day. They are decided by reason and thought and are often far from our real needs as primitive beings. And these artificial habits also have their share of conseguences on our health.
Here's a hypothesis: our eating habits are fabricated and in changing these habits our lives would improve. Possible?

When to Eat

So when should we eat? It's simple: when we are hungry. How do we know if we are hungry? When our body is in a balanced state, it is able to correctly signal hunger. When are our bodies in a balanced state? When we eat properly. How do we know if we're eating properly? We can be sure we are eating properly when we eat the foods that our bodies, over the course of evolution, have been designed to assimilate.
Man no longer evolves. Science and medicine have somehow taken the place of genetics. It is possible to eat incorrectly and yet continue to live, although it is our health that is sacrificed. The feeling of sluggishness after a meal, alarming glycemic excesses, soaring blood pressures, dental decay all of these can be kept under control with the use of drugs or with the proper medical intervention. But it is the quality of our lives that pays the price.
Studies seem to show that our prehistoric ancestors did not have cavities. They defended themselves from predators that were more frightening and ferocious than man himself. They were able to live longer lives if the meteorologic conditions were favorable. Yet they did not have neither modern medicine nor toothpaste.

The first step towards gaining control over our health is to realize that many popular ideas related to diet and nutrition are completely false or inaccurate. In order to follow a correct diet, we have to take a step back, stop and listen to our bodies, tuning into those fine signals that exist on a much more subtle level.
During pregnancy, many women surprisingly modify their diets, adapting them to the new situation often with no regard to previous habits or tastes. Often these famous cravings are precisely those fine signals. Her body knows what she needs. The important thing is that she trusts in her own inner perceptions and allows the innate mechanism of adaptation to lead her, not old wives tales about what to eat or having to eat for two. Our bodies instinctively know everything but in this modern day, it is difficult to know how to listen.

In his astonishingly long history, man has always fed when he could. Gatherers ate slowly and they ate often. If they managed to hunt and capture an animal, even better, otherwise they could stay for long periods without feasting on a complete meal, eating whatever small plants and fruits they found and collected. This was their only way of maintaining a constant supply of energy. It's true, man later became farmers and breeders but this wasn't until much towards the latter part of his history! Sunday brunches, abundant family dinners were just not immaginable. So from this we can deduct a first truth: that the complete meal as we have defined in our modern societies has no foundation. Instead, our genetic foundation is based on a dietary rule of eating often and moderate amounts.

Eating Smaller Quantities But Often

To maintain our glycemia at a constant level, we should eat more or less every three hours. It is important to eat often because this is the way we guarantee a constant supply of energy. If we ingest larger quantities and less often, this energy must be stored away for later use. But this weighs us down. Just imagine the difference for a race car if speeding with a full tank of gas or one that is half full.

Of course our ancestors could have also chosen to fast for longer periods of time and then feast when they were finally able to catch a large prey, but their metabolism was active and had a different ability to draw from the energy reserves (through a more efficient mechanism of transferring the stored fats in fatty tissues, what metabolic dietary regimes seek to achieve). They didn't likely have any highly glycemic foods available. They were people who lived out in the open and were in constant motion. The Natural Body Building theory talks of the natural tendency and predisposition of man to be constantly engaged in physical activity, not necessarily intense activity but constant: hunting, moving from one place to another, keeping warm.

Today, the average Western man eats too much and not often enough and moves too little perhaps in part because his dietary regime does not motivate him towards much physical activity. An excessively large meal requires much work from the digestive system which in itself requires much energy, directs blood flow towards the intestines (while physical movement directs it to the periphery, towards the muscles), creates favorable conditions for accumulating instead of burning and discourages physical movement which instead would be advantageous for his metabolism.
If we perform little physical activity, an unbalanced metabolism can alter even a normal perception of hunger of when and what to eat through, for example, the vicious cycle of insulin that leads to glycemic excesses and to peaks in hyperinsulinemia, problems that often are at the core of excessive weight, fatigue and a troubled immune system.

The ideal situation is to eat little but often, to tune into our bodies and our instincts and to complete this with constant and correct physical activity. If one of these aspects is not balanced with the others, then it is easy to fall into the usual problems: eating too much, eating incorrectly, laziness caused by heavy digestion. This in turn can lead to any number of complications: headaches, heartburn, a weak immune system.

The first step is to discard all the things we believe we know about nutrition and to start from scratch, learning the basics. I did mention before that our bodies know everything, our bodies know when and what to eat. It knows that it must move and keep itself active. But this instinctive and innate knowledge gets lost under the bombardments from advertisements, fads and other cultural fabrications. To re-educate ourselves we must realize that a lot of our ideas have no factual foundations. To do this we need to re-examine our habits and to understand certain basic biological and chemical mechanisms. Not that we all have to become doctors or biologists. But it is time to keep rationality in its proper place and leave space for our instincts to freely express itself.

If we make the effort, we will discover many other truths regarding our dietary habits.

For example, we would discover that coffee is not considered a real food and a minimum of exercise (30 seconds perhaps) in the morning is a better and healthier way to wake up. Caffeine creates a crash-effect on our bodies from an outside source. Exercise creates a complex and harmonious effect originating from the inside, balancing our hormonal responses with or bodies' natural biological functions. Why not try some stretching exercises in the morning together with some coordinated breathing, or try doing a couple of sit-ups?

We would discover that when we're feeling fatigued due to a hypoglycemic effect, the solution to this isn't to wake ourselves up by eating something sweet. Perhaps it would have been more ideal to eat a better balanced meal that would have made more efficient use of the calories!

We would discover that sleepiness after a meal is not at all natural and is the first sign that you did not eat properly. After a meal you should be feeling energetic. The sense of fatigue is due to an unnatural glycemic variation and your body goes into standby while waiting for the effect to wear off.

We could go on and on, talking about weight management, hunger management, even controlling our mood, gaining self-confidence and maximizing our intellectual and creative potentials... all of this by correcting our lifestyle which begins with a correct diet and proper exercising. It all begins with what to eat and when to eat.

Much of our beliefs regarding food and diets is based on the messages we receive from advertisements created by the food industry. In school we learn very little about nutrition. Our doctors often only have time to prescribe the proper medication for whatever disturbance without investigating the actual cause, and he often does not even have detailed knowledge about nutrition. And even though studies continue to show that our state of well-being depends greatly on our eating and exercising habits, Western medicine still concentrates on fixing problems simply by removing the symptoms. Traditional Chinese medicine takes a different perspective on health, but by working through metaphors it sometimes loses the connection between the representation and what is being represented, concentrating more on the metaphor than on the reality that the metaphor describes.

It is interesting to observe a newborn child's behavior. If a schedule is not forced upon her, she will adjust on her own, she will eat the right amount when she needs to. She will sleep if and when she needs to. She will move within her limits, kicking her legs and lifting her head to try to sit up on her own. She knows exactly what she needs to do. Many parents and pediatricians don't understand this approach even if nowadays, it is widely recommended (e.g. feeding whenever the child requests it), perhaps because when you live inside a set of rules it gives you a sense of rationality that makes you feel safe. It is normal to be afraid of leaving these rules behind since, through all this rationality we have lost trust in our own instincts, the very instincts that have allowed our species to survive for millions of years! The expecting mother knows just what her body needs, so does the newborn. In the end we really don't have much to teach to a newborn: she knows what she needs and she learns on her own, the real work for a parent is to offer her a supportive environment. This is something that many find difficult to accept, many don't trust in a knowledge without verbal exchange that is instinctive, primordial, perfect. Many parents alter their newborn's natural rhythm by forcing schedules onto them schedules that, if you take a hard look at, you'll realize have been structured around our adult needs. And if, when and how a child should be weaned to a bottle or on to solids has also been structured to fit into a schedule based on the parents' workday. In this way we begin to confuse our children's perceptions right from the first months of their lives.

We should all take a step back, back to when we were children, to recall our innate ways of learning and perceiving the things around us. We should look to nurture ourselves with natural foods but most importantly, we should learn to recognize what is natural and what isn't. We should eat in smaller quantities but more often. We should exercise more. We should seek both physical and mental health and learn to think of a bountiful table as a tool for achieving health and well-being, and not a stress-reliever or consolation for our woes. It is a tool towards living life to its absolute fullest.

30/08/2007