Year for the Planet Week 32: The Unintended Catalyst for Better Eating

Before you can fix the world, you have to fix yourself. Year for a Planet is a personal challenge to be a better human for the planet for a whole year. This year, 2017, is where I deal with my food choices.

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When I was in the Amazon, one thing I realized was helpful in eating habits was something I was lacking in a while: people.

This was the first time I had eaten with humans in months. Breakfast, lunch, and dinner were spent with these same group of artists. Like a family, over time, we got to know each other’s habits and allergies. How some of us were vegetarian, allergic to wheat and dairy, or craved certain kinds of foods. And this was a lot easier than, say, being alone and ordering something in a restaurant and having to be vigilant over the menu repeatedly. It was like being on a commercial flight with your meal preference already known. And instead of staring numbly at a screen, we all talked to each other.

For the past few months I’ve liked finding new control over what I ate, and while I have a new lease on health, I realized that I was getting a bit lonely and bored with the process because I was doing it all by myself. While the internet provides many opportunities to get in touch with like-minded people, nothing ever beats humans in the flesh. You can sense a person’s moods, get to know their life stories, and see perspective of them that others might not see if you were having a pre-breakfast hike at 6 in the morning.

Community is something that we gloss over but have turned into some sort of online currency. We fail to realize that there is no substitute for face-to-face conversations, and that the best ones don’t come with an app. Here are some reasons why it’s better to not eat alone:

1. Food tastes different.

In the jungle, having to eat whatever was there gave me a sense of spontaneity . Being with people I actually liked made food taste… better. In the end, it made eating more fun, and while weight gain was in a lot of our minds because most of us ate more than usual—how new and fabulous was Amazonian food!—in the end I personally stopped caring. So I’ll do a thousand squats when I get home, I mentally chided myself while digging into what was likely my fourth serving of fried bananas.

2. Community can help control appetites.

When eating with people, you’ll make sure everyone gets a piece and thus prevent yourself from eating everything. Subconsciously, the desire to keep eating may be tempered by unspoken social pressure—the fear of being asked, “Are you really going to eat all that?” If you’re on a diet, nothing beats having people who will remind you of it.

3. Loneliness is an epidemic.

Here’s another case against eating alone: loneliness kills. In the United States, for example, the number of Americans who say they are lonely have doubled from 20 to 40 percent since the 1980s. For me, it also makes you overeat. With one’s mastication drowned by the noise of Netflix or the outside traffic, one can be numbed into eating more than you wish because you get bored.

4. Community leads to other activities.

People who eat together regularly don’t just stuff their faces; this leads to invitations for other activities. And so after eating, we would hike, walk, dance, and other calorie-burning events that made us healthier and built even more community. Doing things as a group can be the positive feedback loop we all need to combat sedentary lifestyles.

5. Communities lead to more meaningful lifestyles.

Science has the answers, and so do our grandparents: at the end of our lives, it’s our relationships that matter most. Strong ties to people are they key to happiness (hence why food can taste better!) and longevity, not whether food was gluten-free. It’s about talking to the chef who made your meal, instead of getting it via your phone. The surge of neurotransmitters we get from human contact is the best seasoning for our meals.

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