A couple of years ago, I was blessed with a sweet landlord. And when I say sweet, I really do mean sweet: she was (and is) completely adorable. She was 83 (now 85 I think), petit in stature, with fabulous wrinkles and bright blue eyes. Her name was Ingrid. Ingrid would often stop by the house to tend to her garden (tomatoes, carrots, and an apple tree) and would often leave us tenants little gifts of food outside our doors: a package of organic goat cheese, for example, or perhaps some Japanese tea. And if you went to visit Ingrid (which you did every month to pay rent), then you were most undoubtedly going to be fed. Beet soup. Potato and onion casserole. Hazelnut cookies.
I would often ask Ingrid about her eating habits, and we’d spend the few hours I was there discussing the benefits of organic vs. non-organic, vegetarian vs. non-vegetarian (among other, non-food related things). I don’t tell you this story to try to convince you to eat only organic or become a vegetarian (even I don’t do these). But rather, I want to pass on a piece of a conversation we had on one of those evenings, sitting at her table, discussing food. We were nearing the end of the conversation when Ingrid paused and said something so matter of factly, yet so simple and thought provoking, that I giggled in awe and memorized it for later use. This is what she said:
“I eat to keep body and soul together, I don’t live to eat.”
I love Ingrid. She managed to sum up in one sentence what I had been trying to define my entire life.
…Why do we eat? For some, this question will seem obnoxiously simple, while for others the answer won’t come quite so quickly. What is the point of having a breakfast, a lunch, a dinner? What is a square meal, anyway? As I’ve thought about this series on nutrition, and tried to nail down exactly what should be brought forward and what should stay inside my head, I’ve concluded that what we eat and why we eat it all have to do with what we know about food. It all comes down to Education. So this is where I’m starting: at the very, very, very beginning. I’m starting with why we eat.
At the very base of our reasoning for why we eat, we find the word ENERGY. We eat because our bodies need the energy, and our bodies get different types of energy from what we eat. Energy = calories (to burn), Energy = nutrients (essentials for survival), Energy = proper function (organs, muscles, brain). In other words, we eat to keep body and soul together.
Many people think of the human body like they think of a car: food is like fuel, we put it in and we use it up, we put it in and we use it up. But actually, the body is unique from vehicles in that it will still continue to run even when it is deprived of its fuel; and don’t we all know it. Think about it: if your car runs out of gas, it stops; you can’t make it go unless you put more gas in. But if you haven’t eaten since breakfast you are still alive at bedtime; your stomach may be churning and your head may be light, but you are still alive. Your body doesn’t stop they way a vehicle does. So what does this mean? This means we can “get away with” skipping a meal, or eating less than we should, or eating nothing but empty calories (think: fast food). This means our body will still ‘go’, even when we deprive it of its fuel source.
Why can we do this? Why does the body still function? Your body still functions, sans food, because your body is forced to take energy from another source, and it does. What source? Your body. More specifically: your muscles. When your body is deprived of a good fuel source (food), the first place it goes to get that fuel is from your muscles (another word: muscle tone). The energy that your body takes from your muscles is “good” energy – it feels good. The second place your body goes for energy, once it realizes that ‘hey, we’re still not getting enough food/nutrients, we must be in a famine’, is your fat stores. So dieting does take away some of your fat. But the energy that you get from your fat stores (ketones) is “poor” energy – the point in your diet that you feel tired is the point when your body has made the switch. But Ashley, if it takes away my fat, what’s wrong with a diet? Read on.
This is the pattern: you notice a few extra pounds and you decide “I need to diet”. You then diet (or cleanse, or cut back, etc) and you lose 10lbs. But what you’ve lost, essentially, is your body’s ability to create muscle over fat (because you’ve already taken away muscle; you did that first). Once you’re at the desired weight and you start to eat again, you will gain the weight back. But you will gain fat first, because your metabolism is at a slowed rate. Your muscles now have a lower capacity to tone themselves and your fat stores have increased. In other words, if you were 140lbs before your diet and you lost 10lbs, and after the diet you gain the 10lbs back, you are still 140lbs - but now your % of body fat has increased and your muscles have deteriorated (as has your muscle’s ability to rebuild). So the pattern, in a nutshell, is: Cut back, lose muscle tone, gain fat. Cut back, lose muscle tone, gain fat…you get the point.
Truthfully, this is something that is not immediately visible. It may take years for you to notice, but dieting actually changes the composition of your body. Starving your body of the energy that it needs to function means that over time, you are completely deteriorating your muscle (muscle tone) and replacing that muscle tone with fat. Look at the shape of someone you know, late 40’s, who has eaten healthy/maintained a healthy lifestyle. Not bad eh? But look at someone you know who’s been dieting their whole life who’s the same age and you will see that their body shape is…less shapely. It is because this person has destroyed their muscle tone by constantly taking energy from it.
The last thing I want to do is make this series on nutrition all about weight. The way I see it, what people weigh is irrelevant. But what I do want to address is that for many people, weight is their first concern when it shouldn’t be. I want to point out that healthy eating habits (complete with a healthy lifestyle) are far more important than any numbered scale will ever be. In the next few posts (how many will there be? I have no idea!) I will address some diets directly (and why they are unhealthy), but I will also address the good habits, too. My goal in this is to re-educate or remind all of us what means to be healthy. Also, there is a comment function* on this blog, and I’d be happy for you to contribute at any time – do you agree with what I’m saying? Why not?
Finally, and most importantly, I want to reiterate (did I mention it already?) that one of the main reasons I am so passionately blogging about nutrition is because I am saddened that for many people, the only thing they ever see about themselves is how much they weigh. Self worth is not defined by a scale. NO IT ISN’T.
Diet is a four-letter word. And if it's not, it should be. Next time you get that urge, re-train your brain instead to say "I need to eat healthy." BIG difference.
Coming Up Next Time: Who is Nurse Rita?
*Comment rules (yup): please do your best to remember that for many people this is a personal discussion, even when it’s not a personal discussion. Be gentle.