My relationship with food

At the end of my last bike tour, before I went back to my regular environment, I thought about trying to improve my eating habits. What was the right approach to eating? What did I actually believe?

After years of experimentation, conversations, reading countless books and editorials, and often getting contradictory or useless advice, was there anything I had to show for all that research? Anything that still felt like wisdom?

I did a little experiment: I wrote down everything I had at the top of my head about proper eating and exercise, without consulting any references. This was my ground truth.

When and why should I eat?

  • Recognize when you are eating for some other reason
    • Are you bored?
      • Seeking out or eating a meal might just be something you’re doing because you suddenly have free time
    • Are you upset?
      • This is called “eating your feelings”.  First, notice the feeling.  Then find alternatives to eating it.
      • Call someone up, go outside for a moment, sing along to some music. Write. Try meditating.
    • Are you conforming to the situation?
      • Parties, receptions, tastings, movie theaters
        • Is the place itself compelling you to eat food to “complete the experience”?
      • Keeping something in your hand at a social event
        • Are you just getting a drink or a snack so you have something to fill in the gaps between talking?
        • Are you eating because you don’t want to talk, but don’t want to look antisocial?
    • Your stomach has made room
      • There’s a difference between being able to take in more food, and actually needing food.
      • Unless you are exercising heavily, your body will take some time passing through the first stage before it gets to the second.
      • Recognize when you are only in the first stage.
        • It may take some practice and concentration before you learn the difference. You may not have actually been in the second stage for a long time. Weeks or months.
      • Don’t take this as a reason to starve yourself.  When you get to the second stage, eat.
        • Your body needs some input of proteins, vitamins, fiber, and oils, just to keep up with repairs, even if you’re not exercising.
  • Put a hand on your stomach and concentrate.  Is it your stomach and your gut that wants the food?  Or just your mouth, your throat, your head, your hands, your heart?
    • Listen to your gut.  Don’t listen to those other parts.
  • Sorting out when you are eating for other reasons will be one of the hardest things you do.
    • You WILL NEED to find another outlet for those feelings or you WILL fail.
    • Don’t try and solve this problem all at once.  Pay attention to it a little each day.  Build a habit.  Try setting an alarm to check in with yourself.
    • Environmental tweaks beats willpower every single time.

What should I eat?

  • Try to eat a variety
    • Avoid fake variety
      • Entire store aisles can be filled with products in all different kinds of bottles and boxes but they are all made of the same handful of ingredients, processed different ways
      • Read the ingredients for everything you buy.  Think about what balance of carbohydrates to protein you are getting.
    • Once you have variety, try to switch it up, long range
      • Try entirely cutting out a particular vegetable or meat for a long time – a month perhaps – and then adding it back in
      • This is a tactic to keep your immune and digestion systems happy
  • Eat more meals instead of more food
    • Carry a small snack with you
    • Eat slowly.  Enjoy what you are tasting.
    • Restaurant meals can save time and are great for socializing but the proportions are almost always too large.
      • When you go to a restaurant, eat half of what you are served and then immediately ask for the rest to be wrapped up.
      • You may end up eating the other half only 3 hours later.  This is still a victory: You won’t be hungry again for something like of 6 hours total instead of 4.

The details of eating:  Protein, Fiber, Carbohydrates, Fat

  • Protein
    • You need a variety of simple proteins to build your body.  (These simple proteins are also called amino acids.)
      • Not all proteins are simple – some are made of simple ones put together.
      • The body takes in proteins of all kinds and breaks them down into the simple ones it needs.
    • Almost everything you eat that is natural contains some amount of protein.
      • The kinds of simple proteins and their proportions is different from one food to the next.
    • A food that contains all the simple proteins you need, or breaks down into them, is called a “complete protein” food.
      • Meat and eggs and soy are common examples
      • You don’t need to eat a “complete protein” food all the time, or ever.  You can mix and match different foods to cover the complete set of simple proteins you need.
    • Now that you know this, keep it in the back of your head but don’t obsess about it
      • Eating a variety of foods will almost always cover your protein needs, even if you are a vegetarian.
  • Fiber
    • This is structural stuff you can’t digest directly but can help digest other things
      • A.k.a fiber, roughage
    • Think of this like packing material.  You are shipping nutrition from outside your body to your digestive system..  If it’s packaged the right way, it will arrive safely and can be unpacked easily.
      • This can have a big influence, for example the “glycemic index” of carbohydrates (how hard the sugar hits you), or the ability of your body to absorb certain vitamins.
  • Carbohydrates, a.k.a. carbs.
    • There are two measures for carbs
      • How much in raw energy
      • How hard (fast) it hits you
    • Modern life is drowning in carbs
      • How much you need is a factor of two things:
        • The shape you are currently in
        • The amount you are exercising
    • So the thing to think about is how hard it hits you
      • Sugar makes you feel good at first. It’s like dumping fuel into an engine.
      • But the harder it hits you the hotter the engine runs
      • Imagine an engine running too fast, getting too hot, slowly getting warped and cracked.  It will run worse over time.  You will feel this.
        • Some of this slow damage is not reversible!
      • Eventually you will be tempted to feel good by dumping even more sugar into your broken-down engine.  Your body will choke on the fuel.
        • The more you do this, the more your body will choke.
      • Eventually you will develop a condition called “diabetes”
    • Be introspective.  Notice when you are looking for a sugar rush just to feel good. Set a limit:
      • “I will do this once every other day.”  Then once every three.
    • Sugary drinks are the worst.  They always hit the hardest.
      • If you do drink one, drink it very slowly.  Make it last.  Spread out the impact.  This has a much greater effect than you think.
  • Fat (and oil)
    • It is not a perfect analogy, but you can understand fats and oils by thinking about the oil that goes into machines.
      • Machines with very small gears need “high grade” oils that flow more easily and stick less, so they don’t get gummed up.
      • Machines with large gears need “medium grade” oils that stick and flow less easily, so they can counteract the grinding together of parts, and disperse heat.
    • Your body uses both high and medium grade oil.
      • The “high grade” stuff is mostly for your brain and nervous system.
      • The “medium grade” stuff is for your joints and skin, or is just burned as energy.
    • Just like an oil refinery, your body can turn the “high grade” stuff into the “medium grade” stuff, but it can’t go in the opposite direction.  If you don’t put “high grade” stuff in, your body will be forced to run without it, and it won’t run as well.
      • Likewise, if you put in “low grade” oil, your body will try and use that, with limited results. 
    • The highest grade stuff comes from fish, and to a lesser degree certain plants and seeds.
    • The medium and low grade stuff comes from a variety of sources.
    • Most of the oil you will take in will be mixed in with other foods.
      • The vast majority of it will be from fried foods.
      • Unfortunately, almost all fried foods use “low grade” oil.
    • In general, aim for “high grade” stuff when you can get it, and “medium grade” when you can’t.
      • Examples of medium grade, in descending order of preference:  Olive oil, avocado oil, peanut oil, coconut oil, sesame oil, canola oil, etc

Exercise

  • The best way to get in shape is with MILD exercise.
    • Hard exercise is generally only for building muscle mass.
    • Mild exercise is kind to your joints, has plenty of rest breaks, and is consistent.
    • If the mild exercise spontaneously turns into hard exercise but you’re enjoying it, that’s fine.
      •  The best exercise is the kind you don’t notice getting because you’re having fun.
  • Try and do something that fits in with your day.
    • Walk at an unhurried pace instead of driving, if you can.
    • Ride a bike instead of driving, if you can.
    • Do some work or activity that requires a variety of body positions
      • Yoga, gardening, some kinds of housecleaning
    • Play with your dog or cat
      • Fetch, frisbee, go for a run or walk, drag a feather toy around the house on a string
    • Play with your kids or friends
      • Meet up and go bowling.  Go to the playground and climb around with them.
      • Some of the happiest and most consistent exercise is found this way.
  • Gym memberships are a notorious money suck, but they can be helpful for a routine.
    • If you think you need a gym:
      • Find a local gym with an easy commute that fits your day.
      • Go to it and sign up with the specific intention of canceling your membership as soon as they will allow you to without penalty. This is usually one or two months. Set an alarm for this on your phone.
        • Go every other day at most.  Do not go back-to-back days.
      • Go as often as you want for that time.  When the alarm comes up, set it again for another month.
        • Did you get your moneys’ worth this month?  No?  Cancel the membership IMMEDIATELY.
        • This is not a defeat.  The gym is failing to provide you with a service and environment that suits you.
    • Do not believe that you need to punish yourself on heavy loads.
    • You shouldn’t end the visit feeling completely trashed.  That’s for bodybuilder types who want to get big at the expense of their long-term health.
  • If you’re a geeky type, get some hardware to track your progress.
    • An Apple Watch, used or new, series 2 or beyond, is a great companion
    • A fitbit is also handy, or any gps recorder that you can use to build up a record of your progress.

Rough notes on using European trains for bicycle touring

  • Denmark trains:
    • There is a separate region for trains in the northern country with different logistics
      • Usually small.
      • Quite easy to roll your bike on and stand next to it.
      • At some stations you will need to exit the small train and transfer to another one to continue in the direction you want.
    • Stations are relatively small and easy to navigate
    • Buy a ticket in their app or at local kiosks, which take credit cards.
    • Tickets are collected by a conductor
    • In south Denmark, trains are larger.
      • There are designated bike cars. When the train approaches, look for the symbol of a bike on the outside of the car.
      • There are nominal location numbers given for your bike but it does not seem to matter much.
      • You may not realize it at first but the larger trains have electrical outlets over the seats.
      • It is casually acceptable to just find an open seat and sit in it, until someone with a ticket for that seat comes along.
  • German trains:
    • These are usually double-decker trains.
    • A conductor will come around on the train and check your ticket.
    • Certain cars are designated for bikes.
      • When the train approaches, look for the symbol of a bike on the outside of the car.
    • German train stations are much busier, often much dirtier and more confusing.
    • You can buy regular tickets at a kiosk but you will need to go to the ticket counter to purchase a ticket for your bike.
    • On the bike cars, the bike goes into the lower deck. Find an open spot and strap your bike in place.
    • The competition for spaces can get pretty intense. People will try and pile their bikes on any which way.
    • To make room you may need to remove your bags.
    • If you have a first class ticket, you can go upstairs to a really nice work area with desks and outlets.
  • Germany-to-Netherlands trains:
    • A conductor will come around and ask for your ticket.
    • Certain cars are designated for bikes.
      • When the train approaches, look for the symbol of a bike on the outside of the car.
      • It’s usually the car on the end of the train, but be aware that the train can change direction in the station.
    • You will need to drag your bike up two steps to get it onto the car.
    • This can be a huge pain and you will probably need to remove your bags.
    • Your bike needs to go in a designated numbered holder in the bike car.
      • Refer to your bike transport ticket.
    • To fit the bike in the holder you may need to remove your bags and place them on the shelf above.
    • If there is space you can just hang out in the bike car. Otherwise, find your numbered seat and claim it.
  • Netherlands trains:
    • Often a few minutes late.
    • Google Maps has incomplete information for local trains.
      • Use the official app instead.
    • You use your ticket to badge-in and badge-out of the platform area.
      • Nobody will check it on the train.
    • To get your bike through, badge your ticket at the gate for handicapped access. It’s wider than the others.
    • You can buy tickets at kiosks, which accept credit cards, contactless payment (Apple Pay), and euro coins.
    • You need a ticket for yourself and a separate one for your bike.
    • Take care to buy a ticket for your bike that is designated for your entire trip – within the Netherlands or international.
    • If you need an international bike ticket you may need to buy it at a counter.
    • Certain cars are designated for bikes.
      • When the train approaches, look for the symbol of a bike on the outside of the car.
      • It is almost always the last car in the train.
    • Bikes are not allowed on trains at all during commute hours. Confirm when those hours are.
      • This is a huge pain for bike tourists.
      • But it explains why there are hundreds or thousands of bikes locked up outside all the major train stations.
  • Belgium trains:
    • Larger stations can be confusing because they will merge unceremoniously with other businesses.