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.

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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?

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Update: The Challenge of Finding “Food” at the Grocery Store
posted July 21, 2011 by Nate

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  Enjoy!


  1. Devon Walker says:

    Thoughtful post Nate!

    Having been raised by a professional dietitian (my mother), and trained from a young age to eat consciously (in order to manage hypoglycemia). I feel as though I should have something to offer here.

    My thought is simple: Eat Slowly.

    To this day, you can count on being told to “slow down” at my family’s dinner table. My mother always taught that the habit of eating slowly offered many benefits, physically and mentally. Here are a few:

    1. Your average bolus becomes smaller.

    From Latin for “ball”, a bolus is a portion of food that has been chewed at the point of swallowing. A smaller average bolus allows your digestive tract to tackle food in smaller doses, which can actually improve its efficiency. (Think bout the reason a line is more efficient than a mob). This efficiency can have a stabilizing effect of other food factors like metabolism and blood sugar levels.

    2. Slowing down should allow the hunger hormones being released by your hypothalamus to “catch up” to the actual amount of food you have eaten.

    Sometimes we eat faster than our bodies can register. Eating fast can make us think that we are hungrier than we really are. This means that eating slowly may help your appetite more accurately reflect your body’s naturally desired quantity of food. As Nate hinted, eating too fast can be a common cause of overeating. (This should shed some light on the concept of “Fast Food” and why it’s such a successful business model.)

    The point is that your body typically knows how to take care of itself better than you do. All we have to do is take the time to listen!

    3. Eating slowly can increase the quality of your day.

    It’s time consuming! But in the case of food, that can be a great thing. Taking 45 minutes out of your day just to eat, can be a great refresher.

    For example, simply by removing you from the hectic work atmosphere, the time you take off for food may provide the clarity you needed about what to “do” with your “to do list”… It is easy see how taking a meal naturally fits into Thoreau’s idea about taking breaks and being more productive. Also, if you remember last weeks post, you’ll recognize that setting aside time to eat consciously, especially when outdoors, can allow for a ‘taste’ of the infinite to keep you sane.

    Lastly, eating slowly opens up time for other people in your life, maybe even people you rarely get to spend time with. Some of my most rewarding relationships exist primarily over lunch. A one on one conversation can also be a great way to slow down the rate at which you eat… So if you are going to eat philosophically, invite a friend!

    All in all eating slowly, can be a simple and practical step towards living a healthier, happier life.

    • Nate Klemp says:


      This is great stuff! I love the idea of placing attention on slowing down, and I think you are right to suggest that the benefits of this practice extend far beyond improved digestion — that the real benefit come in slowing down the pace of the day and enjoying life more fully.

      Thanks again!

  2. Phil McMahon says:

    Great topic Nate….. I know I have become like many people today that don’t take time to appreciate or enjoy what I eat. My job is so fast paced and travel heavy, that I too fell into the fast food rut. Over the last few years though, I have taken the time to monitor what I buy at the grocery store. I shop for natural or organics almost every time. I like the advice to not buy food items that weren’t arround 50 or more years ago. I now load up on produce and other more natural practical items. I have started bringing a lunch as often as I can to work. This can be a good way to slow down, as the last post suggests. If I bring a lunch, even if I eat in the car, I can find some shade, relax, slow down and enjoy my food and have a real break from work, instead of waiting in a fast food line for half my break. Slowing down is great advice.

    • Nate says:

      Hey Phil,

      Thanks so much for your insights! I agree that it is really easy to fall into the fast food rut. I do that myself sometimes. I think it’s awesome that you are doing more shopping at the grocery store and that you’re bringing lunch in to work.

  3. Bob B. says:

    Nice post. I’ve been growing my own organic vegetables for 10 years now, so I know where it comes from. I only eat food grown withing 2kms of my home. That includes meat, eggs, honey, chicken and turkey. I do not buy any food produced in China – we simply don’t know what’s in it and our government here in Canada can’t test every consumable item entering our country. I do some canning during the months we are able to grow vegetables and we eat produce from our gardens every day. We compost everything ourselves. Our government is allowing sewage sludge to be added to commercial compost and labeling it as ‘organic’, which it is not. I hear California will be doing the same thing so they can get rid of sewage sludge – buyer beware when buying bagged ‘organic’ compost.

    • Nate says:

      Hey Bob,

      Thanks so much for your thoughts! As a California resident, I also appreciate the heads up on the compost point. Best of luck with the garden this summer!

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