September 24

You Are What You Eat: In More Ways Than You Think

After religion and politics, food is probably the most contentious subject out there. The truth, though is, you are what you eat. Not just literally, but metaphorically too. We are influenced and molded by what we ingest and imbibe. What we watch, who we spend time hanging out with, the content we read —all add up to define who we are.

This is not a post about dietary recommendations. Experts have dedicated entire lives to writing about nutrition. Far be it for me to offer advice on that front. That said, there are some universal principles on food listed in this article; objective facts and guiding principles that won't stretch our imaginations. I'm confident we can all agree on these. Just like we can agree to disagree on whether keto, paleo, 5:2, charcoal (bizarre!), or cotton ball diets work.


When I watched the documentary film Super Size Me, released in 2004, I recall being jolted by the movie's drastic message. For those of you who haven't seen the film yet or weren't even born then (really?), here's a summary.

Super Size Me follows Morgan Spurlock, an independent filmmaker, as he embarks on a quest to only eat fast food for three meals a day for 30 days. Spoiler alert: the results are dramatic. In an awful way. Spurlock gains almost 25 lbs over the month, decimates his lipid profile, and develops a host of other physiological and mental health issues. All this just after 30 days of poor eating.

The film's purpose was to highlight the rising obesity crisis in the US (and elsewhere, especially first-world nations) and how commercial interests and the laws of the land help fuel the problem. But the film helped make one fact painfully clear to the general public: you are what you eat.

Old news

The message wasn't new by any means.

Study after study has shown how poor dietary choices impact our health more than any other factor. And yes, I acknowledge the irony of the previous sentence, given this is a written article. However, the truth is we are much more likely to get our newsfeeds from the entertainment industry than through reading.

In our quest to increase lifespan, it appears we are simply growing our disease span.

Here are just a few examples of published research on how nutritionally deficient diets impair our lives and how they make us much more disease-prone.

You are what you eat. Even quite literally.

You are what you eat

Our human bodies are nothing but warehouses of constantly replacing cells. For instance, the cells in the intestinal lining get replaced every 2-4 days, infection-fighting white blood cells renew 2 to 5 days, skin cells are swapped every 10 -30 days. This means, in the time span of just a month, you could have an intestine and skin layer that's different from the one you had last month. Fascinating.

But, the composition and nature of the new cells depend, to a considerable extent, on the nutrients you feed them. Garbage in, garbage out (GIGO) is a computer science concept borrowed from nature. The human body is proof. You are what you eat.

Most of us know this intuitively. We feel good and nourished when we've eaten balanced, good-for-us meals. On the contrary, junk foods, while fun to eat, make us feel crappy and bloated. There's enough anecdotal evidence in each of our lives on how calorie-dense but low-nutrition foods feel in our bodies.

Yet, why is it still such a struggle to eat right?

The everchanging diet rules

It's not practical anymore to eat what your grandmother ate fifty years ago. The apple she ate is chemically so removed from the one you're eating now, thanks to our interferences with agriculture and crop cultivation. So, in that sense, you are not really comparing apples to apples.

Also, it's not an exaggeration to say that pretty much all the foods we consume as a human race is/has been/or will soon be on the list of avoidable/forbidden (not great for you) foods. Every 25 years or so, we seem to make a 180-degree turn on what's good for us and what's not.

What you eat

Then: Carbs are good; Now: No, they are not.

Then: Fats are bad. Now: No, they are not.

Earlier: There's not enough protein in your diet. Now: Maybe you're consuming too much protein.

Salads (and raw foods) are great…but, aren't you risking E-Coli and salmonella poisoning?

How much salt is too much salt?

Don't even get me started on sugar (apparently ten times as addictive as cocaine.)

If, after all this, you have somehow (miraculously) managed to find the "right" foods to eat, let's see if you pass the how you eat test.

How you eat

You are not just what you eat, but how you eat matters too.

Are you chewing your food enough? Do you drink water with your food? 20 minutes before? 20 minutes after? (The correct answer? Well, it depends on who you ask.)

The nutrition police don't stop with how you eat. How about where you eat?

Where you eat

Are you scarfing your food down in your car on your way to the kids' soccer practices? Do you dare eat in front of the TV? Is it even a meal if you simply drink your calories as you walk to work?

I don't know about you, but I'm hungry, tired, and cranky. Now I know why. Can this be any more confusing?!

After religion and politics, food is probably the most contentious topic out there. That said, there are a few universal principles we can all agree on.

8 universal nutrition truths

In the early 17th century, astronomer Galileo was accused of heresy when he dared to suggest (based on evidence he found through his own telescopes) the heliocentric theory—that the sun (and not the earth) is at the center of our solar system. It took the church about 300 more years to fess up and admit Galileo was right.

It's now an established fact—an incontestable truth —that the sun is indeed at the center of our solar system. On a similar note, there are some facts and principles about nutrition that are universal and undeniable. We'd do well by incorporating these principles into our lives.

Because, after all, you are what you eat.

1. Moderation (some Vedic wisdom)

The ancient Hindu scriptures contain this Sanskrit verse on how to eat moderately

poorayedh ashanena aardham truteeyam udakena tu
vaayu sancharanna-arthaaya chaturtham avasheshayet

Roughly translated, this means: Fill half (of your stomach) with food and a quarter with water. And to allow air to move, leave the remaining fourth quarter empty.

The point here is that moderation in how much you eat is key. So are proportion and balance.

2. If it comes in a box with a label (or a can or a package), treat it with suspicion

Avoid processed foods as much as possible. When stuff (preservatives, chemicals, additives) is added to food, it usually makes it shelf-stable. Your stomach is not a shelf for things to sit on forever.

Be kind to your digestive process by feeding it stuff that's easy to break down.

3. A calorie is not a calorie

Technically all calories have the same energy content—4.18 kilojoules in every calorie.

However, this does not mean a 200-calorie can of soda has the same effect on the body as a 200-calorie salad.

The body is a highly (and I don't use the term lightly here) complex system of biochemical pathways. The body metabolizes and treats foods differently based on the biochemical composition of the food. Sugar eventually gets stored as fat. Salads get chewed up for their nutrients, and the waste is disposed of.

The kind of calories you eat matters way more than the number of calories you eat.

4. Fast periodically

Imagine a workweek that never ended. No Sundays off ever. What a sad existence that would be.

Constantly feeding our bodies multiple times a day with no breaks and expecting them to perform in peak condition is like removing all weekends and holidays off your calendar and expecting your work output never to suffer.

A little fasting never killed anyone. When food was scarce, fasting wasn't necessary. But now, with food being ubiquitous, the onus is on us to turn away periodically from the excess food around us.

5. Eating isn't entertainment

Every time you eat, you are essentially putting your body to work. Multiple processes get set in motion to digest the food, absorb the nutrients (hopefully, there's some there), and eject waste. When you eat because you are bored, just remember you are deploying a whole army of soldiers within your body to deal with the stuff you just sent them.

Don't be surprised then if they get mutinous one day and rebel or go on strike.

6. Don't always socialize around food

I love Julia Child. I know she said,

a party without cake is really just a meeting.

But sometimes, it's okay not to center all socializing around food.

Food is a magnet to attract people to events. If you've gone to breakfast meetings at 7 a.m., you'll know that it's more about the breakfast and less about the meeting. It's not unusual for people to gorge on the breakfast and skip the meeting.

Making food the centerpiece for all gatherings isn't necessary. If you're meeting up with friends, try to do the park or a hike instead of around food and drinks.

7. Eat mindfully

Instead of chowing down food as you scroll through your insta feed, or watch TV, pay attention to the meal in front of you. Eating is a sensory experience that involves not just the taste buds but all of the other senses. Instead of simply tasting the food, notice the dark hue of the greens on your plate, listen to the celery crunch in your ear, appreciate the smell of pineapple in your dessert.

Eating with all the senses makes you feel much more satiated and ultimately causes you to eat less.

8. Stay away from the latest fad diets

Chewing tobacco was encouraged in the 1600s as a prophylactic for the plague. That's until they discovered the connection between tobacco and cancer. When new fad diets crop up, they usually don't have the benefit of hindsight.

Best to stay away from such fads to avoid unforeseen harm.

It isn't just food, though

You are what you eat is also a metaphor. What you watch, the stuff you read, and the people you hang out with all influence the person you are.

You are what you watch

It's official. Television has earned its reputation as the idiot box. According to a recently published research study, the impact of TV viewing on cognitive health, the more television (or, for that matter, any streaming devices) you watch in your midlife, the greater risk of mental disease such as dementia in later life.

The study showed that a 1% increase in TV-viewing time correlated with a 0.5% reduction in brain volume. You are what you eat can thus be extrapolated into you are what you watch. It doesn't take an Einstein to predict what being glued to the idiot box will turn you into.

You are who you hang out with

You're the average of the five people you spend time with—Jim Rohn

You've probably heard many variations of this theme.

"Birds of a feather flock together."

"Show me your friends; I'll show you your future."

Essentially, we are a social species and do well when we conform to group rules. A whopping 67% of all human conversation is about people and relationships.  Our need to belong and our quest for social validation drive our behaviors to a large extent.

We cannot choose the family we are born into (for the record, I'm very pleased with mine), but we do have the power to choose our friends and who we interact with socially. Choose wisely.

You are a reflection of your friends.

You are what you read

Bad news sells. Psychologists have proven that we tend to have a "negativity bias"—we are collectively wired to pay more attention to and retain bad news. After all, as hunter-gatherers, our very lives depended on how quickly we responded to threats. Bad news traveled fast. The good news could wait because survival did not depend on it.

The job of the news media is to hype up and focus on death and destruction. But being inundated with bad news isn't doing us any good. Also, what's the point in knowing what a drunk celebrity did?

If you don't want to be a Negative Nancy, then be intentional about the stuff you read.


I could go on and on, but I think the point is clear. The food you ingest, the company you keep, the content you consume make you who you are.

One of nature's ironies is that the best-tasting stuff is likely to be the worst for your longer-term well-being. So, before you reach for another slice of pizza or a handful of chips, remember that they last
a minute on the lips, a lifetime on the hips.

You are what you eat. Literally and metaphorically.



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