The Philosophy of Food
Why the unexamined meal is not worth eating
What would it mean to eat philosophically? That’s the question for this week.
Eating is a fascinating act. Thoreau talks about eating as the only activity humans have to do. “There is…but one necessary of life,” he says, “Food.” We can live without cars, houses, and iPods. But we can’t live without food.Read the original post
Throughout most of the world, people struggle to find food. But in the developed world, food just seems to appear. It shows up, almost magically, in grocery stores, fast food joints, and restaurants.
Food comes to us so easily that we tend to lose consciousness around it. We get lost in habits that leave us eating in a trance-like state. Some of us over eat. We just can’t stop mid way through a pint of Ben and Jerry’s Ice Cream. Some of us under eat. We starve ourselves for beach season or get so busy that we forget about food altogether.
I’ve noticed that unconscious eating comes in two styles. The first is hedonistic eating. This style is all about finding short-term pleasure through food. In fact, I’m engaged in a bit of hedonistic eating as I write this post. I’m sitting at an airport bar in Detroit, waiting for my half-pound cheese burger and French Fries to arrive.
I don’t need the burger. It’s probably not all that good for me. But my flight just got canceled and, with a four hour layover looming, I’ve given myself a free pass for a bit of hedonistic eating.
Another style is pragmatic eating. This is what happens when food becomes the bodily equivalent of gasoline. In this style, food becomes little more than fuel to keep the body and mind running. When I’m running out the door late for a meeting, this is my default eating style. I grab whatever I can get my hands on. There’s no conscious pleasure. It’s just a way to fuel the body for the day ahead.
In this week’s experiment, let’s explore a third way: eating philosophically. The goal is to see what happens when we bring conscious attention to what we eat and how we eat it.
What does it mean to eat philosophically?
The key move is to bring consciousness to eating. To eat philosophically is to break out of the trance of habit and routine that most of us fall into around food.
Here are a few key principles of philosophical eating to play with throughout the week:
1.The Simplicity Principle
One of Thoreau’s most provocative ideas is to “simplify, simplify.” Most people talk about simplicity in the realm of things but what about the idea of minimalist eating? Michael Pollan’s In Defense of Food gives us a perfect first start. He shows just how complicated food has become over the last fifty years. Food used to look like – well – food. Now, our foods are so heavily processed that you need a PhD in nutrition to read the ingredients of an average product. According to Pollen, all this complexity in the form of additives and processing appears to also play a role in rising rates of cancer, cardiovascular disease, and obesity. So here’s the key idea for this week: “Simplify” by only eating food. Pollen offers two ways to do this:
- “Don’t eat anything your great grandmother wouldn’t recognize as food.” In other words, if it didn’t exist fifty years ago, don’t eat it.
- “Avoid food products containing ingredients that are a) unfamiliar, b) unpronounceable, c) more than five in number, or that include d) high-fructose corn.” For more on this, I highly recommend Pollen’s book.
2. The Awareness Principle
Eating philosophically isn’t just about what you eat but how you eat it. Habit and routine leave us rushing through meals. Eating becomes like background music at a restaurant – it’s there and it’s happening, but we don’t pay much attention to it. To bring awareness to the act of eating, experiment with two practices:
- Gratitude – Most spiritual and religious traditions begin the meal with an expression of gratitude. Even if you have no interest in religion, the simple expression of one thing you are grateful for each time you eat can have profound effects.
- Presence – In the Eastern tradition there’s an old expression, “energy flows where awareness goes.” As you eat this week, see if you can do just that. See if you can energize the process of digestion by bringing your awareness to each bite. Focus your attention on the taste and texture of the foods you eat.
I’ll be living these principles for the next week and checking in on Thursday with my experiences. But I’m also curious to hear from you. What is your experience with eating philosophically?
In preparation for a week of eating philosophically, I took my camera with me to the grocery store. The goal: to buy only foods with ingredients I could actually pronounce. It turned out to be quite an adventure. Along the way, I ran into a couple that runs a website called SayNotoMSG.com. Enjoy!