“Eat only when you feel hungry. Notice and feel your hunger. This is conscious eating.”
I spit into the sink, wiping my tongue with my hands. “Do you know how many CALORIES were in that!”
It was a Saturday night senior year in college, and my roommates and I were throwing our annual “bathtub party.” Friends were over, music was blasting, and our bathtub was filled with ice and the finest 30-racks of cheap beer a few college kids could buy.
Needless to say, we weren’t at our best and brightest.
Halfway through the party, someone proposed a round of shots. Glancing down at the dark-ish liquid, I assumed it was some kind of rum or whiskey. I shrugged, pounded it down, waited for the alcoholic bite to hit, and… surprisingly it never came.
Smooth as water.
I turned around feeling high and mighty only to find my roommates and three others mischievously grinning in my direction. One of them raises a bottle of extra virgin olive oil and shakes it above his head.
By our senior year, my roommates knew I’d freak out about something like this. I probably paid more attention to what I ate than any guy they’d ever met. If I didn’t want something in my body, I wasn’t going to consume it (and no, the irony of me getting annoyed at something like this while participating in a “bathtub party” is not lost on me). They knew replacing a shot of alcohol with olive oil was sure to rile me up.
Funny thing is, these days I’d probably prefer the olive oil. I’m not completely against drinking, it’s just that my perspective on what counts as enjoyable socialization has changed. I also don’t freak out about consuming healthy fats anymore, including olive oil.
But it’s not just about alcohol and macronutrients. My mindset towards food and health has evolved over time, with this story illuminating just one example. Like most people interested in improving their health, I didn’t wake up one day with a fully formed food philosophy. I went through periods of ignorance, education, experimentation, and trauma, before discovering the Paleo framework I follow today.
In fact, I can identify four distinct “eating phases” I’ve experienced throughout my life. Borrowing from Dr. Ed Bauman, those phases are:
- Eating for Pleasure
- Eating for Energy
- Eating for Recovery
- Eating for Health
These phases represent a chronological account of my journey to Paleo.
Eating for Pleasure (0-12 years old)
- Eat what “tastes good”
- Thinking about health is not in the picture
- Food sourcing and quality were unknown concepts
- Mozzarella sticks
- Macaroni & cheese
- Cookies, brownies, ice cream
As a kid, I ate and drank whatever I wanted. Junk food, fast food, and everything in between. I was never the kid who “hated vegetables,” but they just weren’t regularly on the menu. Pizza Hut was my favorite restaurant, and our family went to Burger King every Wednesday night during the school year for months at a time. I distinctly remember guzzling down a gallon of 2% milk in a day or two on more than one occasion. I’m still impressed I was able to stomach that.
Despite being active and athletic, I was always a little chunky. No one would mistake me for obese, but I definitely carried around a little extra baby fat for awhile. At around age 12, after years of getting picked on by peers and not understanding why I didn’t have a “normal metabolism,” I took my Dad up on his suggestion to stop drinking soda and replace it with water. It sounded crazy (soda was delicious!), but if it helped me lean out and improve in sports I was all for it.
And what do you know? Once I ditched drinking the brown stuff regularly, I quickly shed the extra layer. And my mind started to open up a bit.
Eating for Energy (12-18 years old)
- Raising my blood sugar with snacks throughout the day
- Getting to and through practices and homework after school
- Having enough energy for weight training, games, and other extracurricular activities
- Health only mattered as it related to sports and training
- Food sourcing and quality were unknown concepts
- Heavy, dense, and filling foods: Pasta, meat dishes, chicken parm sandwiches
- School cafeteria food (processed chicken patties, cheeseburgers)
- Snacks throughout the day: Energy bars, granola bars, fruit, yogurt… anything I could get my hands on that would fill me up
Fast forward into high school, and eating was all about getting through the day. Having energy for class, football practice, weight training sessions, and games on the weekend was all that mattered.
But as I graduated high school and entered college, I realized staying in shape and achieving my fitness goals were solely my responsibility. I started paying more attention to my diet and exercise habits, leading into the next phase.
Eating for Recovery (19-24 years old)
- Using conventional wisdom and popular tactics to achieve superficial health goals (building muscle, trimming fat)
- Not necessarily effective or sustainable
- Vaguely aware of food sourcing and quality, but didn’t care
- Sandwiches on whole grain bread (eggs and cheese, turkey, pb&j)
- Chicken, turkey, some beef (mostly “lean” meat)
- Pasta, oatmeal, rice
Dr. Bauman describes Eating for Recovery as a response to the “cumulative effects” of the first two phases. As I entered college, I wasn’t obese or sick, but I felt myself paying more attention to what I ate than I ever had before.* You could say I was “recovering” from growing up on the Standard American Diet (SAD).
My focus was all about body composition: How could I gain the most muscle, while remaining as lean as possible? I lifted five days a week, ran at least two times a week, and started tweaking my diet based on what I learned in magazines and an intro nutrition class I took. After graduating college, I maintained the same outlook, although the foods I ate began to gradually change.
At this point I thought I had a grasp for what was healthy and what wasn’t. Lift weights; get in some cardio; eat to fuel, recover, and have fun with friends.
But looking back, all my goals were external, and I viewed food simply as a means to an end – physical fitness, body composition, and social entertainment (rather than true enjoyment). I even caved to peer pressure about what a healthy outlook towards food should be for someone my age, leading me to indulge when I didn’t really want to. Even when I did eat in line with my mentality at the time, my attitude was passive and mechanical. Eat food X in order to achieve Y result. Whether the result I was after was physical, emotional, or social, it’s clear to me now my approach was unhealthy.
This became all too apparent as I was forced into the next phase.
*Despite growing more conscious of what I ate, that didn’t mean I was immune to the typical weekend behavior of most college students. While I like to think I was more careful than most, I definitely had my fair share of late-night pizzas, cookies, and burrito bowls.
Eating for Health (Age 25-present)
- Focus is overall health: Feeling good and maintaining high energy
- Abundance, not restriction: Eat what makes me feel good, avoid things that don’t
- A healthy outlook towards food is crucial to every other goal I have
- Food sourcing and quality matters
- Start with the Paleo framework, and customize from there
- High quality meat, eggs, and fish
- Lots of fresh, organic veggies
- Seasonal, organic fruits
- Nuts and seeds
In early 2012 I suffered a knee injury that became chronic, and I’ve spent the past 2+ years recovering and rehabbing. You can read more details here and here, but the short version is that my whole outlook on health and wellness was turned upside down. As a result of that experience, food is no longer a means to an end, but rather serves as a source of healing, vitality, and longevity.
As part of my recovery process, I dove deep into food and the impact diet can have on overall health. I read It Starts With Food, and was exposed to the science behind the Paleo style of eating. I was intrigued, and the deeper I dug the more I learned how food, movement, and mindset all work synergistically to produce one’s health.
Today I try my best to make conscious decisions about what, when, and how I eat. With the goal of optimal overall health in mind, I eat more deliberately, enjoy my food, and don’t beat myself up if I eat something that’s “not Paleo.”
The goal isn’t perfection. It’s about feeling good in a sustainable way. And now that I’ve discovered what works for me, I enjoy my food more than ever.
Have you gone through similar food phases throughout your life? Or are you just now realizing you eat for pleasure or energy, rather than health? I’m always curious to hear how people think about their food choices, so let me know in the comments.