Where did Reasonable Eating Come From?

I've been fascinated by why we do what we do, and why we don't do what we probably should, for over 20 years now and I've come to the fairly stark conclusion:

Getting stuff done is not a problem with information, it's a problem of implementation.

It's a common misconception in the world today that information is power. We dress this information up in fancy words and call it knowledge. We talk of the knowledge economy, the digital age and all these great things.

Consequently we get suckered into a way of thinking that breeds inaction. Our super-intelligent, information-processing adapted brains love the idea that it's all about information and channel our thinking into the business of acquiring more information.

Everything you need to know to create everything you want in your life is already available for free, right now.

Including all the information in this programme.

It's out there already.

But information is like musical notes. They're out there already. It's how we put the notes together that matters.

I'm going to paraphrase Marx to illustrate the problem with much of the inefficiency of today's humans.

'Information is the opium of the people.'

The real power lies in implementation.

Implementation, not knowledge, is power.

This also reminds me of my favourite quote on the purpose of education by the English philosopher, Herbert Spencer:

The great aim of education is not knowledge, but action.

So, why we don't end up getting enough done, achieving our potential as individuals is simple.

It's not that we fail to set goals, it's not that we fail to plan,

it's simply that we fail to stick to the plan we created in order to achieve the goals.

And it's taken me over 20 years to hone a system to solve the implementation problem.

I'll be giving the system a full treatment in the next chapter. But suffice it to say that I have been tailoring my approach to the arena of health for the last 18 months.

I'm a great believer in action research. Try some stuff, see how it works and then tinker with it to make it better. I was getting some encouraging results, like much better health and generally having much more energy, two extremely useful things.

However it wasn't until around May 2013 that I started deliberately applying the system to the more restricted domain of eating. Previously it had been the more general term of 'Wellness' that I was working on.

Now, the overall idea of Wellness is a compelling one and in other works I will be dealing with the issue of Wellness in significant detail. But for now, I'm just going to be focusing on the contribution that eating makes to our general health.

In my personal experience, my conclusion is that the single biggest factor affecting general health is how we eat. Sleeping, breathing, mental state and movement are all hugely important parts of the bigger picture, but eating is the variable that has the biggest influence over our health.

It's probably not that much of a surprise if you consider the world as being all about energy, rather than all about things.

We are just a collection of molecules after all. If we consider that without any energy running through our molecules we're dead, then how we get our energy is a good place to start.

So, how DO we get our energy?

We get it from what we eat.

So, if we get our energy from what we eat, then it would make sense to eat things that have a lot of energy.

What you mean like cakes and donuts?

Well, perhaps.

However, the calorific content of the food we consume is clearly not the whole story. The calorific content is only PART of the energy. It's the energy released by combustion of the food.

Our food has way more to offer than just its energy through combustion.

The way food is organised, the nutrients it contains, the way these nutrients are joined together, all affect how much value we can get out of the food we consume.

Just because burning food in the laboratory gives us an idea of the energy contained within the food, it doesn't mean that we get all these calories into our body when we eat it.

The body's metabolic process is a little bit more complicated than burning, despite that the reduction of glucose to carbon dioxide and water, is indeed a 'combustion' reaction.

Just this simple process, which happens instantly in air in the lab, takes eleven stages in the body.

And that's after the food has been reduced to glucose by the digestive process. There's a job of work to be done to get the food consumed into glucose form in the first place.

So, the whole concept of calorific value of foods is flawed. Not without some value of course, but wrong enough to be at best misleading, and at worst, damaging.

By the way, anyone who isn't convinced of the meaningless of counting calories only needs to run the following thought experiment:

If I planned to feed a child 2000 calories in energy, which would I rather give them:

2000 calories from donuts, or 2000 calories from broccoli?

This absurdity hopefully illustrates that calories are only part of the problem.

However, there's even more to be wary of...

Even if we weren't interested in the nutritional components of food at all, and all we were concerned about WAS the calorific content, what evidence is there that the efficiency with which the body gets the energy is identical for all foods?

Let's say we want to compare 2000 calories from bananas and 2000 calories from broccoli.

If these calories are in different foods, it seems likely that they would be 'locked up' in different ways. Consequently it seems likely that the process for getting the calories out would be different for each food. It would require different physiological processes to extract the calories. Different enzymes would be required, the rate at which the foods would be digested would be different and the total amount of energy required to extract the calories is therefore going to have virtually no chance of being exactly the same.

So, the 'yield' of the food, in terms of the valuable energy that the body can extract from the food is necessarily different.

This means that, EVEN if the only thing you cared about was the calories in the food, all calories are not the same.

All calories are created equal. Some calories are more equal than others.

So, on with my story…

Towards the end of 2012 I'd become aware that I needed to focus a little more on my eating just through observing my appetite and general approach to food. I would find myself getting extremely hungry and then wolfing down a meal, so fast that I went from 'famished to stuffed in about 10 minutes'.

And I couldn't usually remember how good things tasted after I'd eaten them. I'd lean back in my chair, totally stuffed and wonder what the hell that was all about. And then, if I wasn't immediately press-ganged into a family wrestle with the kiddos, I'd feel totally wiped out. I'd decant to the sofa and doze off for 20 minutes, completely mucking up the bedtime routine to my wife's frequent chagrin. Especially reading the kids a story...

Reading my kids a bedtime story was a race to see who could nod off first. I always won.

I'd start drifting off and begin dreaming and hear this voice prattling on about something. Then I'd realise that what I could hear was my voice, still trying ingloriously to continue the story but producing tangential nonsense. The poor kids would shout out, confused at the turn the tale was taking and I would momentarily freshen up.

We've all done this in our lives. And it really is knackering. Especially with young kids, after a long day at work. But as I'm an empirical scientist at heart, I started to look for patterns.

I promptly reasoned that it was nothing to do with the time of day, since if I was playing football, or rehearsing with my band, I had no trouble at all being awake at 8pm. I narrowed the experience down to being at home and started wondering whether it might be to do with the time of dinner.

I'd had previous experiences regarding energy levels and food consumption when working in Hong Kong, over the lunchtime period. My employer generously provided rice free of charge at lunch, somewhat stereotypically, and I initially took advantage of this perk and ate plenty of rice for lunch. However, I soon realised that this was a bad strategy for two reasons:

1. Rice really wasn't that expensive, so it wouldn't be turning down such a wonderful perk if you chose not to participate.

2. Within half an hour of eating, I would feel such an oppressive tiredness that I found myself totally uninterested in the afternoon's activities. Hardly the motivation you need to put in a perfect post-meridian performance.

So, I wondered if eating a large meal in the evening was having anything to do with it.

Of course, as I'm sure you all know by now - eating was making a huge difference to my energy levels. Not just how much I ate but also what I ate.

I started extrapolating to other meals, including lunch and breakfast and started experimenting with timing, volume and nature of food. All I was doing was trying to notice my energy levels and linking that back to the food I had consumed beforehand. It became increasingly revealing.

I started doing a lot of research and bit by bit began applying my findings to try and create some new approaches to eating.

I decided in December 2012 to drastically reduce the amount of meat I was eating. I went on holiday to Thailand and Sri Lanka and happened to finally get around to reading Jonathan Safran Foer's book, Eating Animals. I'd bought the kindle version a year earlier and it'd been sitting on my phone ever since.

Upon concluding the book, I felt compelled to start being more conscious about what I was eating, regardless of whether I decided to become a vegetarian or not.

I didn't eat meat for a few months, and although I've never labelled myself as a vegetarian, I still seldom eat meat. I now aim to never eat anything unless I know where it's come from. Of course, this is not always possible, like many things in life. But I try to maintain a pretty good average.

Anyway, this increased awareness of what I was eating led me to start building a detailed, step-by-step approach to eating more sensibly that was just for me. Not for anyone else, not to be proclaimed from the rooftops, just for me to adopt myself. To feel better, to sleep better, to have more energy, to not feel as sluggish after meals and to generally improve my health.

I say improve it but health really wasn't a big issue for me. I was certainly heavier than I'd have liked a 'long-term me' to be, but I was never sick. I hadn't missed a day's work in 10 years and my posture was very good. Like a lot of people, I was a few pounds overweight, but basically ok.

'Not too bad, really.'

I then started getting so excited with the results that I started telling everyone about it. I went from a 36-inch waist with a BMI of over 29, to a 31 inch waist, moving from notch 2 on my belt to notch 7 in the process.

Before I get into what I actually did, it's possibly even more revealing to look at what I didn't do.

As I mentioned earlier - the lunacy of this approach is that it doesn't involve any of the strategies that normally correlate with a modified eating programme.

I didn't join a gym.

I did no exercise at all for 6 months above and beyond having a fairly active life. I walk around a fair bit and I usually take the stairs rather than the lift.

Well that's not 100% true. Most days I'll do some exercise. Maybe about 15-20 push-ups. But for the first 3 months, these weren't even proper full-body push-ups! I was doing them from my knees.

But perhaps the biggest one is that I've genuinely not felt hungry for almost all of the programme.

I'd love to say that I feel really hungry all the time and I have increased my willpower so much that I can now resist temptation. But I can't. The truth is that I am now seldom hungry, but I enjoy my food way more than previously. Go figure.

Yes, but why Reasonable EATING?

Eating: The University of The Will

How learning to master your appetite is the ultimate training for developing your will power.

I read a book a few years back - its title escapes me I'm afraid, but it had a phrase in it about the idea of 'Marriage as the University of Love'. The concept was that marriage is like an intensive degree course in love, and that being married will not only teach you about what love is, but it will teach you how to love.

I liked that idea. I knew by then the hard truths about having a long-term relationship with anyone, married or not and I knew it would be a battle at times, that could only be won by the power of love. I liked the metaphor and it got me to ruminating on the idea of 'Eating as the University of the Will'.

So, what does it mean exactly?

Well, basically I'm saying that if you can get control over your eating, you will have probably achieved control over your will power, and with that comes control over everything else.

'A man who controls his eating, controls his life.'

Now I'm not saying this flippantly, let me explain my thinking. This has taken years to crystallise into an articulate perspective but it makes a lot of sense to me.

Our will power is constantly tasked with the job of getting us to do less of what we want right now and more of what we don't want right now in order to get some future payoff.

We have primal urges to eat, reproduce, kill etc. that we are always working on tempering, in order to not suffer later consequences.

And we largely do quite a good job. Unlike most animals, we have the ability to travel forwards in time, and assess the likely future consequences of our current actions. We generally avoid things that have a direct and relatively immediate future impact:

We won't speed if we think that the Police might be out and about, we'll generally avoid resorting to violence if we're outnumbered, we won't flirt outrageously with someone if our partner's at the same party etc.

However, if the consequences are a little further down the track we often do things that our future-selves would really not appreciate. Like eating junk food. Like not exercising at all. Like not quitting smoking despite contracting bronchitis every winter for 3 years.

So, it struck me that getting control of our appetites might be the place to start if you're trying to improve your resolve.

Or, put it this way: Would you listen to a fat preacher?

If someone can't control their own eating, can you really learn anything from them about self-discipline? Do you really believe them when they're exhorting you to follow a deeper way of living?

In other words, if you don't have control of your eating, why should anyone listen to you about anything else that involves willpower?

Look, you can have fat scientists, fat train drivers, fat businessmen, fat politicians, no problem. Because we don't expect these people to be able to teach us anything that would require willpower. But fat personal trainers? Fat spiritual leaders? Fat nutritionists? Fat life coaches?


So, if you ever want to influence people, you need to come across as someone who's got their life together.

You have to have something that people want. You may well be very rich, but people can't easily detect your wealth. Any attempt to demonstrate your wealth can come across as showy, as off-putting, even downright offensive to some of your audience. However, you can't fake your health. It radiates from you like the power of the sun.

Look like it's working and people will follow you to the ends of the earth.

Look like it's not working and you'll have a job convincing people to take free money off you.

But what about fat, happy people? Surely it's better to be happy than anything else? I'd rather be fat and happy than thin and miserable right?

Absolutely, but that is predicated on a false dichotomy. Being fat does not make you happy. You are not either happy and fat OR miserable and slim. You can be any of the following four combinations:

1. Fat and Happy

2. Fat and Miserable

3. Slim and Happy

4. Slim and Miserable.

And anything in-between along the spectrum of happiness and shape. Shape and happiness are not binary systems.

It's better to be happy than miserable and it's also better to be slim than fat.

So, if we're going to be happy, let's be slim and happy.

Anything else and all you're broadcasting is:

'What you see before you is a person who is a slave to their taste-buds.'

Mastering eating is a gateway to mastering everything else in life.

So, it makes sense for the entry level Reason-Ability programme to be about getting eating right. After we master eating, everything else is going to be a breeze.

Other reasons why mastering eating is such a great place to start:

1. It's a very forgiving training ground.

Let's say you want to get control of your willpower through getting physically fitter.

You decide to go to the gym 3 nights a week. Every Monday, Wednesday and Friday, you're going to go and hit the gym hard for a 90 minute session. This is a great plan. Highly commended.

The problem comes when we get to Friday's session and you have a long day at work. Meetings run late, your boss asks you to stay late to whip up a report and you end up leaving the office an hour later than normal. You get stuck in traffic and are starting to get annoyed, you're going to be nearly two hours later than planned for your evening session.

Then you hear this little voice, super-quiet at first saying 'well, you ARE pretty tired, maybe you shouldn't go to the gym tonight'

'actually the work-out you had on Wednesday WAS a pretty big one, maybe you don't need to go today'

'hmmm… come to think of it, your back is still quite sore from the other night, it's a good job you got delayed at the office - your body could do with this extra recovery period'

'hmmm… yes, the last thing you want to do is push your body beyond its limits - that's how injuries occur after all'

So, you decide to skip Friday's session. That's not a problem in itself, but you know what will happen.

As soon as it's too physically late for you to make it to the gym that night - the voice will reappear:

'I can't believe you didn't go to the gym tonight - you're such a loser!'

'this fitness regime is going to be just like everything else you've tried - you won't stick at it'

'you are such a useless heap of crp - I can't believe you thought you were going to finally get fit this time…'

Now, that in itself is manageable, especially once you get used to working out where that voice is coming from, but the deeper challenge you've got is that your redemption is not near at hand.

The only way you're going to now get back to feeling good about yourself, is by winning the next battle of willpower, and going to the gym.

You could go sometime over the weekend - that'd be good, but you've got other stuff already arranged.

So, you're going to go on Monday. You make sure you stick to the plan on Monday and you go. You feel good - but you've had to wait 72 hours for the redemptive feeling, the feeling you get when you make amends for your lack of willpower the previous time.

Eating's not like that. If you made poor food choices at lunch, then within a few hours you're going to get a chance to put it right. If you ate a slice of pie for dinner, then the next morning you can skip breakfast.

Every single day you're going to get an opportunity to step up to the plate and use your willpower.

In fact, you're going to get multiple opportunities. You'll get tempted to eat 'something you probably shouldn't' or 'more than you need' many, many times every single day.

Fail at one, and an opportunity for redemption is right around the corner.

So, you'll get more failures, but you'll get more successes, and the real genius about this approach:

Every single event, successful or failure will increase your awareness.

You will notice stuff about yourself more often and you will notice the script more regularly and most importantly, you will learn about yourself faster through taking on eating, than pretty much anything else.

You'll get better, more rapidly, in your ambition to develop your will power, through mastering eating than through trying to get fit, to conquer worry, to banish procrastination, to be more cheerful, to become a better listener, or anything I can think of.

By focusing on mastering eating first, 'you shall become more powerful than you can possibly imagine'.

And since you're only focusing on one aspect of eating at a time, it's really not going to be that hard. You're going to astonish yourself.

2. You can't not eat.

This is a blessing and a curse. If you were trying to stop smoking or quit your cocaine habit, you could just stop. Go cold turkey.

Sure, it'd be hell for a few days of detox, maybe even more, but you'd come out the other side. You could do it.

However, you can't just stop eating.

You can cut out certain types of foods, and some people even advocate full fasting as a diet strategy. [However, weight loss is not our focus, we're going for establishing reasonable eating habits, so abstention is not going to be a good idea. It's not sustainable and above all, it's not reasonable.] You can try to eat only when you're hungry, you can try to eat mostly stuff that's grown into its shape, you can chew your food etc.

All great things, but this is the blessing of this programme:

Not being able to adopt the 'all or nothing' approach forces you to develop your willpower. Having to moderate continuously is way harder than total abstinence.

You become better, sooner at dealing with the enemy within - the script.

Imagine trying to cure your smoking habit while taking three puffs from each cigarette in your day and then discarding it.

Good luck.

Or trying to deal with a drink addiction by deciding to only drink one glass of wine per day rather than six.

Can you imagine the scenario at the AA meeting:

'Hi, I'm Tom and I'm an alcoholic.

It's been 3 hrs and 45 minutes since my last drink - a glass of wine with my penne arrabiata at lunch.'

There's a reason why the AA program focuses on being 'dry' - moderation requires too much willpower.

So, the fact that you are continually being tempted, challenged, cajoled, teased, inspired by food is actually very good news. It gives you countless opportunities to develop your willpower, every single day.

You'll fail, you'll succeed, you'll become proud of yourself, you'll be annoyed with yourself, all within the same afternoon.

But every time, succeed or fail, you'll NOTICE. And you'll be getting both a tiny bit more aware AND a tiny bit better at controlling your willpower.

You can't not eat - another reason why eating is the university of the will.

3. Religions go after eating in a big way.

Anytime a religion goes after a natural inclination, you can bet there's a good reason behind it.

Religious systems know the importance of subjugating the body's desires to the will of the mind. 'The spirit must control the flesh etc.'

Getting people to resist their most basic, animal desires elevates their consciousness. If people are enduring a feeding restriction, every time they feel an urge for food they're served up a reminder of the cause. This is a very powerful re-focusing strategy and it leverages the natural, animal urge that you can rely on to happen over and over again. It's not like you have to wait a few days before you feel like eating again!

By choosing to leverage the urge to feed oneself, you have many daily opportunities to get one to re-focus on the higher goal.

If religions are using some aspect of man's constitution as a form of leverage, we should consider it worthy of our attention at least. We can learn a lot from religious systems - they've been working on this stuff for centuries. Whether we follow a religious system or not is irrelevant to this discussion, it's just another reason why mastering eating has so much potential for us all.

When we have control over our animal desires, we raise our consciousness. We become human.

When we subjugate our actions to our animal desires we lower our consciousness and expose ourselves to the possibility of being inhuman.

On a personal note, I happen to believe that there is a higher intelligence responsible for life, the universe and everything. After a reasonable amount of contemplation and having applied my own personal discernment, I don't subscribe to one particular set of religious beliefs to the exclusion of all others.

I discovered that the great spiritual leaders were in total alignment at the level of principle. I also found out that nearly all of each leader's subsequent followers became distracted by operational differences, and consequently religious beliefs became the divisive force we observe in most of the world today.

Luckily, we're not talking about this at the moment. We're just reflecting on the fact that religious systems have used eating for centuries as a way to elevate human awareness, as a shortcut to the soul.

So, there might be something in it! Just saying... :)