A Plea for Eating with a Purpose

By Chris Kostman

Originally published in Fitness Magazine, Sweden, May 1999. A revised version was published in Endurance News, #65, September 2009. Download that publication here (64 pages; 2.6MB). View this article on the Hammer Nutrition website: Click.

Photo below of the author by Wayne Kostman, 1978

When I was 11, I shot a lizard at point blank range with a pellet gun. I stood transfixed, then in horror, then in disgust with myself, as that innocent creature’s guts spilled out onto the rock on which it had been sunning itself. My heart spilled out just as quickly.

At the university, I used to pick up a big donut, euphemistically called an apple fritter, on the way to campus a few days a week. Within an hour, sitting in the lecture hall, I would be fast asleep.

At age 20, I competed in the Race Across America (RAAM), a 5,000 km non-stop bicycle race from San Francisco, CA, to Washington, D.C. Along the way, I consumed daily up to 12,000 carefully considered calories that my brother Keith prescribed for me. Exact proportions of carbohydrates, fat, and protein were followed and most of the food was liquid and pre-digested, totally "bio-available," as they say. To make sure it was well balanced and adequate to support the rigors of pedaling 500 km a day, I also took over 100 supplement pills daily: amino acids, multi-vitamins, and anti-oxidants. By the finish line, I had lost only two kilos and had dropped my body fat percentage from eleven to four. I was also the only competitor in the race who actually increased his lean muscle mass during the event.

But after finishing the race, I switched right back to my normal diet. In fact, I overindulged on burgers, fries, shakes, ice cream, steak, and more. The result: My brain went completely out of whack from the influx of heavy doses of "less than ideal" foods. Instead of being thrilled at my cycling accomplishment and thankful to my support team, I was a rude, angry jerk.

Somewhere along the way, I started to wake up to the profound effect food made upon me, my body, my mind, my mood, and, ultimately, my heart. I began to notice that what I consumed had both an immediate, and long-term, effect on everything about me, my lifestyle, and my environment. So my diet got "better," but still, I indulged. I made rules for myself like, "OK, I won’t cook meat or eggs at home, but I’ll still eat them in restaurants or when invited to eat with friends or family."

At age 23, I was saddled up in a van as assistant race director of the RAAM. My partner for the ten days in a motor vehicle was fellow RAAM staffer Joe Heil, an anarchist vegan who thought life was far superior prior to the Neolithic Revolution which lead to cities, agriculture, and animal domestication. Joe brought along a book that detailed the location of every health food store and natural market in America, along with a giant cooler full of fruits and vegetables. His car battery-operated blender would whip up organic smoothies for us during the entire trip.

But once in a while, I’d want a milk shake. Joe would argue with me, tell me not to eat it, explain how terrible it was for the environment, but eventually I’d prevail and insist he pull into a fast-food drive-through. He’d pull up to the order-placing window, but make me shout my order across him. The same would happen when we’d pull up to pick up my shake; he’d lean back and make me stretch across him to pay for and get my animal-derived food. There was no way he was going to contribute to my eating the ghastly stuff.

By the end of the year, I’d read John Robbins’ Diet for a New America, France Moore Lappé’s Diet for a Small Planet, David Steinman’s Diet for a Poisoned Planet, and Roy Walford’s The 120 Year Diet, among many others.

As an assignment for a nutrition and anthropology seminar, as well as out of personal interest, I wrote down everything I ate and did for a month. That was an eye-opener.

But most importantly, I started to consider my feelings relative to food: How did eating, in general, make me feel? How did I feel about this type of food, that source of energy? How did what I ate affect how I felt about myself as a human being, as an athlete, as an inhabitant of this planet?

Trusting my feelings, I became a vegetarian and I began a formal relationship with food. I began to eat with a purpose.

No longer would my attitude be "food is fuel." No longer would I victimize myself with my food choices, shorten my life, diminish my athletic potential. No longer would animals live tragic lives punctuated only by their death in order to feed me. No longer would I abuse the environment, contribute to the growth of global agribusiness, or hasten global warming, topsoil depletion, and the destruction of rainforests.

Every bite, every trip to the market, every perusal of a restaurant menu is a vote, an exercise in democracy. My vote counts. It counts for me, it counts for the animals, it counts for the planet. It counts.

So does yours.

Here, in no particular order, are my guidelines for eating with a purpose. I offer them here as a platter from which to choose. My advice to one and all is to trust your feelings and do what feels right for you. Yes, think about it, do your homework, be thoughtful, but more importantly, be "feelful."

  • If you can’t kill it yourself, maybe you shouldn’t eat it. Nowadays, we are so far removed from the killing of animals when we go to the market or to the restaurant. Next time you’re at the deli section, remember: those are corpses you are looking at.
  • Avoid ruts. Even if it’s the healthiest, purest, best food imaginable, nothing should be eaten every day at the same time. Enjoy the variety that the cornucopia of food available to us provides.
  • Consider how recently your food was alive. How long ago was the food you are about to eat killed? Picked? Dug up? Harvested? The more recently, the better. Freshness is paramount to health.
  • Eat from a bowl. Stir-fry over rice. Four different breakfast cereals mixed with sliced fruit and raisins. Salads made up of a variety of green leaves, nuts, seeds, fruit, and more. Just get it all in the bowl and eat it in one big, delicious mix!
  • Eat from a blender. Dump it in there: fruits, juices, rice "milk," and more. Whip it, beat it, blend it, drink it, love it!
  • Avoid foods that require a knife at the table. If it takes a knife to cut them, imagine what your intestines must go through when you eat them.
  • Eat polychromatic meals. The more bright, contrasting colors on your plate or in your bowl, the better. Whatever the meal, look for red, brown, yellow, green, orange, and more, all together.
  • Realize that life eats life to live. Respect, appreciate, even thank the food you eat. Even plants die in order to be eaten. It sounds like a Disney movie song, but we truly are all part of the circle of life.
  • Eat with the seasons. It's a very recent and decidedly weird situation that we can essentially eat any food at any time of the year, thanks to the current global economy and fast jet delivery of foreign foods. But the body expects to be in tune with the seasons and its own local climate, so don't stray too far from what would have been natural as recently as fifty years ago. Besides, why support the waste and pollution generated by flying and trucking in strawberries from Mexico or kiwis from New Zealand? Are your year-round taste buds more important than fighting pollution or supporting the local economy, not to mention throwing your body out of whack?
  • Chew. A friend of mine was taught to chew every bite 26 times before swallowing. Another friend "chews" juice and other liquid foods in order to get his enzymes going. Both are pretty extreme cases, but the point is made: Slow down, chew properly, facilitate proper digestion and enjoyment of the food. Remember: eating should be fun and joyous!
  • Breathe. "Don’t inhale your food," as my mother would say. But do breathe while eating, soak up the aromas of your meal, slow down, again, and be in the moment with your meal.
  • Eat a majority of your food warm or hot. The body runs warm, remember, so don’t fill it only, or mostly, with cold cereal, cold sandwiches, cold smoothies, cold fruits and vegetables, and cold drinks. Many foods are best eaten raw and uncooked, but others are more healthfully, and heartily, enjoyed if cooked and warm. As the saying goes, "let a hot meal warm your heart."
  • Beware of the instinctual eating idea. Too many athletes, especially, falsely believe they are so "in tune with their body," that they "know" when it’s OK to eat junk food, or fat, or high-sodium snacks. "My body’s telling me it needs this," they say. This is an excuse to eat whatever junk their weak-willed, reward-driven mind wants. (On the other hand, do trust your instincts when they suggest you eat healthfully, wholesomely, appropriately.)
  • Laboratories do not produce or replicate nature. A friend of mine insists that the electrolyte replacement drink in the big pitcher in his refrigerator is better for him and his children than orange juice. That’s insane! Who are we to think we can do better than Mother Nature?
  • Eat a low calorie, nutrient-dense diet. Be truthful about it, for it’s a spiritual and logistical challenge to eat this way. However, Dr. Roy Walford explains that this will increase your life span and quality of life better than most anything else you can do while you are here.
  • Avoid processed foods high in refined flour and sugar. Remember the wholeness principle. Processed foods are hardly whole anymore.
  • Realize that the label "organic" on food does make the food product healthier for both the body and the environment. "Organic" is not just a marketing tool, nor a term loosely bandied about. Generally speaking, products with labels reading "organic" are legally required to not have synthetically manufactured materials used in the cropland or water for one year prior to the growing of crops, as well as during the actual growing and harvesting of the crops, and then during the subsequent handling and transport of the food items to the retailer. This doesn’t fully guarantee their "purity," organic foods are worth their extra cost. And, like anything else in a free-enterprise system, the more people buy these products, the cheaper they will become.
  • I am often asked "but where do you get your protein?" This may come as a shock, but meat is not the only available protein source! For example: rice = 8% protein, wheat = 17% protein, and broccoli = 45% protein. Develop a consistently nutrient-rich diet primarily made up of grains, fresh vegetables, legumes, and fruit. With a little effort, you can be sure to include all the necessary amino acids in your regular diet.
  • Grow something. It doesn't have to be a full-blown organic garden, but plant and grow something, somewhere. Plants, fruits, vegetables, they'll grow just about anywhere: on the roof, in the bathroom, on a windowsill, on a fence. Growing something brings some green into your life and space, produces more oxygen for the world, puts one in touch with the natural rhythm of things, and can even fill a dinner plate or two.
  • You don't "earn" the right to eat or drink something unhealthy (like pizza or a milk shake, for example) by exercising. If you want to put something into your body that's unhealthy for you and the environment, don't delude yourself into thinking that you earned it just because you ran a 10km footrace or put in some extra reps at the gym.
  • Lastly, enjoy the process of growing, buying, choosing, preparing, slicing, baking, cooking, blending, and, finally, eating your food. Get a big grin on your face when you open your refrigerator or your pantry. Having a meaningful relationship with food will allow your quality of life to improve exponentially, in ways for which there are no words, only appreciation and satisfaction.