Your food habits can teach you how to think

Your food habits can teach you how to think

Facebook lunch was the best, their cheese spread was eclectic during one of the meal times. Google’s spread of a variety of cuisines were mind boggling. Never seen before or after, a large spread like that in a corporate, everyday work setting. There were at least three lunch places, each with a wide range of food in a particular cuisine.  Microsoft felt a little more like a workplace lunch, thankfully. Twitter was a small gathering. Each place left an overwhelming memory of food that still lingers years after our trip to the headquarters of internet giants. I was a part of an IAA delegation that visited and spent a day at some of these corporate headquarters in order to immerse ourselves in the way of their thinking. Digital tourism is the name we gave to this trip. While there are several memories and notes about the experiences gathered across several cities in America, one that tops the charts is the food that we experienced at these places. It was lavish not just as our welcome meal, but as a culture of the workplace. 

Food makes the culture. Culture of a workplace, culture of a community, of a family. Food is a necessity, like air, like water. Yet, most of us have been brought up to leave our own decisions regarding food to someone else. Think about it, we have read about Mark Zuckerberg’s uni color t-shirt choice so as to avoid everyday decision making on what to wear. Ever wondered how he makes food choices, so many decisions to be made in a day? Maybe, like most of us, he is largely dependent on someone else for those decisions.  In most households, the decision lies on the lady of the house. What is served on the table is something that is accepted as a matter of fact. There is nothing wrong with it, except that one has outsourced the most important decision about his mind and body to someone else.   

In today’s Habits for Thinking, I am bringing your attention to something as basic as food and to understand how it is a mental model for thinking and for making right decisions. Let us first understand the theory of First Principles.  

To explain, theory of First Principles, here is an excerpt from an interview with Elon Musk: 

I think people’s thinking process is too bound by convention or analogy to prior experiences. It’s rare that people try to think of something on a first principles basis. They’ll say, “We’ll do that because it’s always been done that way.” Or they’ll not do it because “Well, nobody’s ever done that, so it must not be good. But that’s just a ridiculous way to think. You have to build up the reasoning from the ground up—“from the first principles” is the phrase that’s used in physics. You look at the fundamentals and construct your reasoning from that, and then you see if you have a conclusion that works or doesn’t work, and it may or may not be different from what people have done in the past.

I think it’s important to reason from first principles rather than by analogy. So the normal way we conduct our lives is, we reason by analogy. And it’s … mentally easier to reason by analogy rather than from first principles. First principles is kind of a physics way of looking at the world, and what that really means is, you … boil things down to the most fundamental truths and say, “okay, what are we sure is true?” … and then reason up from there. That takes a lot more mental energy.

Nutritionists are people who understand the first principles of the food. They understand the value of components and what it brings to the body. To a large extent, our mothers and grandmothers who have spent days in the kitchens managing meals with limited seasonal produce have the understanding of first principles. They can toss a meal with equal panache of nutrition and taste even with limited resources as compared to internet-recipes-driven generation. 

First Principles here means understanding the role of food, its nutrients, its pairing,  understanding the needs of the human body at a particular time, at a particular age etc. Over the generations, as the world opened up to travel and cuisines, the knowledge of first principles passed down from one generation to another as a diluted version, mixed with global influences. 

You would wonder, where does this take you in Habits for Thinking? Why and how understanding food becomes a thinking model? A mental model helps us define questions, seek answers and seek solutions. Food has a direct impact on our body and mind. Yet, we take it for granted and depend on others to understand it for us. In today’s habits for thinking, I bring your attention to four areas where you can think about food and that it can have direct impact on our growth. 

“I don’t know what’s the matter with people: they don’t learn by understanding; they learn by some other way—by rote or something. Their knowledge is so fragile!”

—Richard Feynman

1. Understanding one’s own food habits is thinking in First Principles

Have you been taking Vitamin C and Zinc and other multivitamin supplements? Pandemic has brought attention to our nutritional needs. Each body has a unique requirement not just the quantity, but also the variety. This requirement changes with seasons and age. Understanding one’s own food requirement need not come from a third person who serves the food but by owning the responsibility. An athlete, at a competitive level, irrespective of his age, would know his food needs. He has to think and plan for strengthening muscles, building endurance and most importantly recovery. We may not have a similar need, but we still need to understand our rhythmic requirements like when and what to eat, how much to eat. Understanding is a responsibility. 

2. A mental model to exercise control:

Rujuta Diwekar, nutritionist, talks about overeating and portion control.  One of the ideas  she shares to control portions is something that she picked up on her travels: “On a visit to Jordan for a talk, I learnt that there is actually a rule to how many dates and cups of Arabic coffee you can drink at a time. So, of course, you must drink that one cup that your host offers when you arrive, along with one date. But you should allow yourself the second only if you can have the third (date and coffee). Stopping at two or four or even numbers is not allowed. This, I felt, was such a beautiful way of knowing when to stop eating and such a practical way of stopping before getting full.”

Paying attention to overeating trains your mind to exercise control. Something that is important in life to stay away from distractions like doom scrolling on social media.

3. Food language impacts your decisions

In last week’s article we learnt about the importance of the right language. Have you paid attention to the food talk around you? Not just food conversations, words on the menu to describe food influences our perceptions of food. For instance, a research found that people are more likely to choose vegetables as a meal component when described using indulgent (e.g., zesty ginger-turmeric sweet potatoes) language compared to other types of language descriptors, such as healthy (e.g., wholesome sweet potato superfood) (Turnwald et al., 2017) 

Be mindful of the influence that food talk has on you. For example, following intermittent fasting on the basis of what most friends do is the lack of first principles understanding.    

4. Food binds culture. 

It is the warp and weft of our social fabric, whether at home, at work place or with friends. Even in days of physical distancing, food keeps people connected through images, memories and shared experiences. A good food culture can be a pillar of purpose for a group of people fulfilling our social needs. 

If the pandemic will leave us with something good, then it will be a heightened awareness of physical and mental well being of individuals. Consciousness to work out to stay fit is as important as the alertness of nourishing the body with food. It is time that we not only question our own understanding, we also contribute to overall well-being through sharing of knowledge, control on sharing of fad based concepts and build better relationships through food as a binder. 

Paying attention to food is nurturing a growth mindset. It begins with the responsibility of taking mindful decisions and learning as one progresses in the journey. 

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