Why do we eat?
The Pyramid of Eating
A few months ago I did a 4.5 day fast. Since them I’m usually doing one 24 hours fast every month. Sometimes I do two, but this post isn’t about fasting, although fasting actually got me thinking about this topic. It’s about the opposite. It’s about eating.
More specifically the question: why do we eat?
Why do you actually eat? Have you ever thought about that?
The simple answer is, because you are hungry. No argument there. But is it really the only reason?
I don’t think so. I don’t think there is just this simple answer.
There are many other factors and reasons for why you eat and while hunger should be the most basic and most important one of them, a few other of them include: habitual eating, boredom, emotional eating, pleasure, nutrients, as well as taste, although that falls in the same category as pleasure.
Eating has gotten more complicated, but I don’t want to join the people that say “In the past everything was better”. It wasn’t better, it was different.
Maybe those people didn’t have so many choices to choose from, which makes some of us unhappy today, but they also probably didn’t have running water or a fridge. We’re humans. We adjust to our surroundings, but we also like to see the things we don’t have.
Back to eating.
Why do we eat.
So why do we actually eat? As I said there are various reasons but I couldn’t find a proper model that combined all the different factors. So that’s what I’m trying to build. I don’t know if you agree with this model or not, but you don’t have to.
At the moment it’s just an idea. Nothing more, nothing less. Let me start with the different reason why we eat.
The most basic function for eating is to satisfy hunger. It’s really simple and there is not much to add here, except that fact that most of us (at least in the western world) probably have forgotten what real hunger feels like.
Over the last couple of decades our food environment has changed drastically. Research also has changed drastically and we found out about vitamins, minerals and other phytonutrients. We still don’t know everything, but at least for the most basic parts like vitamins and minerals we created a RDA (recommended daily amount). This is the amount of vitamins we should get every day.
Our ancestors didn’t think about nutrients, but I believe that their body still steered them into the right direction. Some experiments from the 1930s that were done on toddlers, revealed that when they felt sick, they seemed to self-medicate with food, meaning that they ate the food with the “right” nutrients.
For example, when they had a cold or some sort of flu they ate more foods rich in nutrients that we know today are good and even essential for treating illnesses.
Society tells us to eat 3 meals a day because “it’s healthy”. Who says? I don’t know. Romans and Greeks ate probably only once a day, anything more than that was seen as gluttony. Why should we eat three times?
We’re told that we need to eat breakfast, because it’s the most important meal of the day. Is it? Who says? It seems like this saying came from a health magazine which was published by John Harvey Kellogg the inventor of the cereal flakes. He definitely had an interest in promoting breakfast as the most important meal of the day. Seemed to work out for him.
Society also demands us to eat even if we’re not hungry. Imagine the following situation. You’re going out to lunch or dinner with your friends, but for some reason you’re not hungry at all. I bet that most people will still eat something, even if it’s just a small salad or snack. It’s the societal pressure.
Now we’re getting closer to modern reasons for eating. One of them is boredom. Unfortunately when most people they think they are hungry, they’re bored instead. Again, most people have forgotten what real hunger actually feels like.
Think about the last time you were watching TV and felt bored by the program that was on. Chances are that you started eating something. Not because you were hungry, but because you were bored.
This leads me to another reason.
Let’s stick to the TV example. Sometimes the program is good and we’re not bored, but we still start to eat. If eating in front of the TV is already a habit for you, every time you will sit down and watch TV you will start to eat.
The same is true for breakfast. If you’re not hungry in the morning, why would you eat? It’s because eating breakfast is already a habit for you. There dozens of other examples, a few of which are lunch, snacks or eating in the cinema.
Instead of seeing eating as an activity to stop hunger, some people see it as an reward or something to stop bad feelings. There is an actual emotional eating disorder, which can get dangerous, especially when the person is already suffering from a health condition.
While pleasure is also an emotion, I’d like to distinguish between emotional eating and eating for pleasure. While the first one is often already an automatism, meaning as soon as you feel bad you turn to food, the second one is still under your control.
It’s the loving to eat good food. I guess most people that enjoy homemade food understand what I’m talking about. It’s not only the pleasure from eating the food, but the whole cooking or baking process, as well as enjoying the anticipation of eating it.
In my opinion it’s a much healthier approach, first of all, because this kind of eating usually consists of healthy items and practices (such as home-made food), in contrast to emotional eating, where people usually rely on “quick fixes” such as fast food.
Of course, eating for pleasure can get out of control as well.
Those are some of the most common reasons why we eat or should eat and I was looking for a model to combine them.
THE PYRAMID OF EATING – the ideal version
I’ve been thinking about what the best way is to put these different aspects into one model. Maslow’s Hierarchy of needs came to the rescue. The “Pyramid of Eating” was born.
Although this article will be too short to explain all parts of this concept, which are still under development, I still like to present the core concept.
Similar to Maslow’s pyramid, the pyramid of eating consists of different layers, which represent the reasons for eating. In layman terms: why we eat.
In order to make the concept as simple as possible I was looking for suitable main phrases. I came up with the following:
Hunger – Nutrients – Society – Habits – Psychological reasons
I already explained all of them except for the psychological reasons. This is simply a compilation of all the other reasons mentioned above: psychological hunger, boredom, emotional eating & pleasure. Of course there might be still reasons to add, but I guess you get the idea.
In total it looks something like this:
Now that’s what I personally think this pyramid ideally should look like. It doesn’t only list our needs for food, but also presents them in a certain order.
At the bottom there is hunger. As I already mentioned this is the most basic need that we satisfy with eating. Afterwards there is the nutritional need. Although this won’t apply for most people, especially in western countries, but our bodies should be able to tell us what we need to eat in order to get the nutrients we need.
I already mentioned the experiments with the toddlers in the 1930s that seemed to self medicate, but we could also take a look at native tribes. There are still some groups spread around the world that live and eat like hundreds, if not thousands of years ago. Those people are often healthier than most of us and part of it is probably due to their nutrition, which is pretty good, despite their lack of knowledge about vitamins and minerals.
The seem to know which nutrients they need and where they can get them.
After satisfying our hunger and our need for nutrients, society is the next need we have to satisfy. It sounds counterintuitive, that we can satisfy our societal needs with eating, but as a matter of fact we can. For example, why are you eating breakfast or why are you eating 3 meals a day? It’s society that tells us to.
We’re social animals and we need social connections to thrive. In order to belong to a certain group we often adjust our eating. Although you might think that we are able to eat all the foods we want wherever we want, it’s not so simple.
Take the cinema for example. Have you ever eaten an salad in the cinema? Probably not. Society tells us that we “need” to eat popcorn and sweet snacks in the cinema.
If you want to belong to the group of movie goers, you can’t eat a salad.
The next stage in the pyramid of eating is habitual eating. As of the moment there is no strict line between the top three parts of the pyramid. Let’s stick with the breakfast example. For some people, eating breakfast is already a habit, because they’ve been doing it for so many years.
It’s not society that tells them to eat breakfast but their own mind. Once something becomes a habit, especially when it comes to eating, it’s really hard to undo, which can be detrimental for many people, who are eating junk food out of habit.
The top of the pyramid is a compilation of different “needs” for eating. For reasons of simplification I summarised them under psychological reasons.
Psychological reasons covers everything from boredom to pleasure. Some people get pleasure from preparing a 7 course menu, other people experience pleasure when they eat two big fast food burgers. The psychological reasons we eat for are so various that compiling them was the best solution.
Emotional eating is also a huge part of these reasons, which again summarises a lot of these needs.
Now all of this would be fine, if we would eat according to this model. Most of the time we would eat because we a hungry and need the nutrients. Then societal, habitual and psychological factors come in, but not too often.
First you need to satisfy your hunger and get the nutrients you need. Afterwards you can include the other reasons for eating.
Don’t get me wrong, I love to eat as well, but if I would ignore my hunger completely and only eat because I love it, I will be in some big trouble. Unfortunately some people already are in this kind of trouble.
The reason is that we don’t act according to the “ideal” pyramid of eating.
THE PYRAMID OF EATING – the actual version
Today, in my opinion, the pyramid is turned upside down. Like this:
This leads to trouble.
Most of us have forgotten what real hunger feels like. We have lost any feeling for what nutrients we need. We mostly eat out of pleasure, habits and due to pressure from society.
I don’t say that this is completely our fault, since food produces contributed their share to this dilemma, but unless we go back to the original pyramid, we’re in for some trouble.
You probably already read it somewhere, so I don’t need to provide you with all the facts, but civilisation diseases like diabetes, heart failure and Alzheimer’s disease are on the rise and scientists agree that our nutrition is a major contributor to this (global) epidemic.
The newest trend is to blame our microbes for making us fat, but that’s not “fair”. Yes some people might be cursed with “bad” microbes, but researcher also found out that the diet over one year is one of the factors that influences the microbes the most, because they only adjust to whatever we feed them.
There will always be something or someone we can blame, but in the end we’re responsible for what we eat.
I’m pretty sure if you think about the last 10 times you ate something you will discover that you often eat for reasons other than hunger.
Another good question to ask is “when was the last time you didn’t eat for a full day or even only 12 hours?”
I know those things are not comfortable or fun, at least not in the beginning, but in order to be healthy you need to learn to listen to your body and discover your real hunger again.
You don’t have to start a 30-day fast tomorrow, which might be even dangerous for most people, but you can pay attention to how you feel when you’re about to eat.
Are you really hungry or do you just eat out of habit?
Do you decide to eat or is society pressuring you to eat?
Remember, the food you eat is largely determining how you feel, both physically and mentally.
It’s your choice. You can either eat out of boredom or you can choose to satisfy your hunger.
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