What is Food?

I learned to cook when I was too short to reach the stove top. I had to stand on a stool to help Mum and before I knew it was making dinner for the family once in a while. So I’ve been fascinated with food for a long time.

This fascination has been there with me through everything I’ve done in my life. My interest in sustainability and the environment stems from wanting to know more about where food comes from. I’ve worked in agricultural science for nearly 10 years now because I’ve been following that curiosity. When I graduated from high school I very nearly decided to become a chef. I love cooking for my friends and family and having people gather around food. Then there’s the more recent connection between food and health that has brought me here, aiming to help people improve their experience in life through the lens of food.

I’m pretty new to coaching. I’m still establishing why I’m here and how I want to do things. Up until this week I would have described what I do as:

Help you improve your experience in life through a lens of food.

But... As I talk to more people about food, I'm starting to see that what I do is more about aligning the way you eat with the story you want to tell in life.

A client recently described me as her counsellor for her relationship with food. I’m not a trained counsellor, but I thought it was very perceptive about my approach to food and coaching. It all starts with how I define the word food.

What is food?

Food is what we eat. Food is a tool. Food is fuel. Food is life.

There are a lot of definitions of what food is. It’s pretty broad because it comes down to anything we eat is food. But the way you define something and the words you use create a story around it that effects what that thing is to you and your relationship with it.

I see food as information. A communication. A script or a story. Food delivers messages to our bodies about which hormones to switch on or off, which proteins to express, and what to do.

Sure, food contains energy (‘food is fuel’), but it also contains lots of other things that have nothing to do with energy but are critically important to a functioning human. Micronutrients, phytochemicals, zoochemicals and mycochemicals are just some of the other things in food. When you’re missing key vitamins and minerals, your body doesn’t work properly. And you feel crap and get sick. It doesn’t matter how much ‘fuel’ you’ve eaten when your body isn’t working properly.

Living organisms are not machines. They’re super complicated, self regulating, dynamic, close-to-magic, unbelievably efficient, antifragile systems. The food you eat is a way of communicating with that system.

Your thoughts, feelings and environment can also affect the processes. If you smell your favourite meal, or have positive or negative thoughts about food (or anything else), are happy and relaxed, or worried and rushing it effects the system too.

Food is a communication. It’s a story. It’s part of who you are as a person.

Disconnection from this story is a common theme I see in coaching. Whether it’s someone who is struggling to manage their weight because they can’t tell when they’re full, or an athlete who is so used to counting calories that they can’t tell when they’re full without knowing how many calories they’ve eaten. In both situations, communication has broken down.

In both cases, it’s time to figure out what food means to that person. It’s time to figure out what the story is, what information is being passed on, and understand the food story being told.

You can do this now by taking a few minutes to consider this question:

What is food? For you?

Is it information? Is it personal freedom? Is it about making environmentally sound choices? Is it reducing animal cruelty? Is it self-esteem? Maybe it’s shame?

Okay. Now consider this. What would you like food to be? Let me know in the comments.

Think as big as possible. This is a story that shapes your daily life, your health, and how you move. You have the power to change this story and food can help you to give your body the information it needs.

People come to me with goals like lose weight, feeling better, improving performance, adding muscle, getting stronger, or looking better. All of these are common stories people have about food.

I help you figure out what your food story is, what it could be, and how you can get there.

In other news, this week I started the Precision Nutrition Level 2 certification. It’s going to consolidate my experience so far coaching and help me be a better coach. I’m really excited about what my year in the program will bring.

It's not Only Your Tastes that Change

When I was a kid, I noticed that a whole lot of the books I read featured kids complaining about the taste of broccoli. They hated it. It was so bitter and disgusting! The worst vegetable ever.

The reason it stood out to me was that I didn’t hate broccoli… In fact, it was one of my preferred vegetables. I didn’t understand why all these kids hated broccoli. When I asked my parents about it they told me that maybe the authors knew lots of kids who didn’t like it so they made their characters like them. They said it was to try to make sure the characters were relatable.


But that didn’t explain why all these kids seemed to hate this vegetable that I liked… Eventually I started to think maybe I was just a really good kid who liked vegetables. A good boy.

I work in the agriculture industry now and I know a little better.

Even so, it didn’t occur to me until very recently that maybe I wasn’t a Good Broccoli Boy. Maybe the broccoli those (imaginary) kids were eating was different to the broccoli I was eating.

I asked a few of my friends in the business of growing vegetables about it. They’re also a decade or two older than me. They confirmed that when they were kids, broccoli was bitter and, they said, “disgusting”. Like all battle scarred kids, they told me my childhood must’ve been much easier with the lovely sweet varieties we have now.

It seems really obvious to me now, but it turns out that we’ve been systematically breeding things like bitter tastes out of our food. Consumers prefer sweeter broccoli, so breeding programs create sweeter varieties. Slowly but surely that’s all you can buy. It has been happening for a long time.

I have been wondering about whether this is a good thing. Sweeter broccoli tastes better, but what else has changed about it? My concern with this is that we humans are really good at making changes to things without considering all the consequences of our actions. We want a sweeter broccoli so we just select for the sweeter varieties. Things like health impacts are often only considered in the marketing of our food rather than back at the pre-breeding and breeding stage. I’m wondering what the impacts of this sweeter broccoli are - has anything been lost along the way?

The author of this opinion piece in the New York Times from 2013 has similar concerns to me:

Studies published within the past 15 years show that much of our produce is relatively low in phytonutrients [compared with non-domesticated plants], which are the compounds with the potential to reduce the risk of four of our modern scourges: cancer, cardiovascular disease, diabetes and dementia.

To be clear, I’m not suggesting that there’s some great conspiracy here. I’m not suggesting that it’s somehow morally better to have worse tasting food. Why wouldn’t we try to make our food taste better? This reduction in phytonutrients isn’t on purpose, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t having an effect or that it doesn’t matter. The reason this happens is that phytonutrients tend to have a bitter flavour, which we tend to try to breed out, thus lowering the phytonutrient content. We also have tended to focus on foods that are energy dense to support a strenuous lifestyle. We’ve bred those foods to be more starch, oily, or sugary over time, seemingly at the expense of other advantageous compounds.

This isn’t even necessarily a problem with industrialised agriculture - recent sophisticated breeding is only a faster version of what we’ve been doing for a long time. From the same opinion piece:

The loss of these beneficial nutrients did not begin 50 or 100 years ago, as many assume. Unwittingly, we have been stripping phytonutrients from our diet since we stopped foraging for wild plants some 10,000 years ago and became farmers.

Phytonutrients are distinct from the vitamins and minerals in food. They’re chemical compounds found in plants, often unique to that particular plant. We know of over ten thousand phytonutrients so far and we discover new ones all the time. We don’t know what all of them do, but it is clear that eating a lot of different plants is good for us. Some of the things we know phytonutrients do are:

  • scavange free radicals as antioxidants
  • help with DNA repair
  • influence hormone function
  • help fight pathogens
  • lower inflammation

Some of them work by mildly stressing the cells in the body and causing them to get stronger. That process is called hormesis - like a microscopic workout!

Phytonutrients are pretty important. So it’s concerning that the plants we eat for food seem to contain less of them than other plants.

Were the people who foraged for these wild foods healthier than we are today? They did not live nearly as long as we do, but growing evidence suggests that they were much less likely to die from degenerative diseases, even the minority who lived 70 years and more. The primary cause of death for most adults, according to anthropologists, was injury and infections.

If the variety and number of phytonutrients available in food was so much higher than it is today, it’s little wonder that degenerative disease was less common.

But the problem with all this is that it doesn’t really matter for us day to day. How can you have any impact on this? How can you make a difference to something that started ten thousand years ago?

Given the complexity of how phytonutrients, how little we understand about how they work, and how little impact you can have on past events; all you can do is try to eat a variety of plants and lots of them. There are some plants around that have kept a relatively high phytonutrient content for various reasons, but it’s hard to say that those specific plants are better to eat than others. For example, herbs like parsley and rosemary have been valued for their strong flavours and thus have kept a high phytonutrient content despite being domesticated. So, adding lots of fresh herbs to a meal could be a good thing to do.

While this stuff is certainly interesting and is a good example of how bad humans are at understanding the impacts of our interventions in the world; it changes little about how I’d recommend you eat. Eat as many vegetables at every meal with a variety of vegetable choices and cooking methods. I don’t want you to spend time worrying about phytonutrients in your food.

If you liked this article, let me know in the comments below! Is there a vegetable you've noticed has changed in your lifetime? Brussel sprouts anyone??

Delicious Homemade Chocolate

I’m about to make my first batch of home made chocolate.

Since I changed the way I eat a few years ago, I rarely eat sweets anymore. But I still crave chocolate on a regular basis. I eat it reasonably regularly, but I have worked hard to make sure that I don’t eat it as a reward.

For me, the darker the chocolate, the better. I make delicious fatty hot chocolate for breakfast (yes breakfast…) sometimes instead of a fatty coffee (or Bulletproof coffee).

I’m real excited about making this first batch. I’m going to follow this recipe:


The ingredients

  • 1 part cocoa butter
  • 1 part virgin coconut oil
  • 1 part (raw) organic cocoa powder

You can also add other dry ingredients like nuts, dried fruit or whatever. I’m not going to for my first batch, but I’ll do some experimenting and update this recipe when I find some good additions.

Step 1.

Grate the cocoa butter. It melts more easily when it’s grated. 

Step 2.

Place the cocoa butter and coconut oil in a water in a small, heat-safe cup or bowl. Then place the cup or bowl in a shallow pan containing a small amount of warm (not boiling, but nearly) water. You can also do this using a bowl over a very slightly simmering (just starting to bubble with some steam - definitely not boiling) saucepan. The idea is to apply heat indirectly and evenly - doing it this way means you won’t burn it or cook it too much.

Stir the oil and butter occasionally until it’s smooth. 

Step 3.

Measure out the cocoa powder. If you’d like to add any other dry ingredients, measure them out now and stir them together with the cocoa powder.

Step 4.

Pour the dry ingredients in the bowl with melted oil and butter. Stir continuously until smooth. 

Step 6.

Pour the chocolate into ice cube trays to set in nice portions.

Step 7.

Eat as you like! Go easy though - it’s very dark, very strong chocolate, so you won’t need much to be satisfied! ;)

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