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Getting fit and healthy is a very real battle for many of us, and it’s one that statistics suggest we are losing. Even though we have more access to information and resources than ever before, we cannot seem to turn the tide against rising problems with physical and mental health. But what if there were…

Primary & Secondary Eating

How often do you sit down and take the time to fully enjoy a meal? To savour each mouthful as opposed to eating on the go, during a meeting, scrolling through your phone, or sitting in front of the TV?

In a world full of distractions it’s easy for mealtimes to slip into something you do alongside another activity. Replying to emails between bites of a sandwich, or catching up on the latest social media while mindlessly consuming dinner.

This concept is looked at in detail in Michael Pollan’s book, Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation. It’s a human behavior called ‘Secondary Eating’ and is defined as “eating while engaged in another activity.” 

In other words, if you’re eating while working, driving, walking or texting, you’re engaging in secondary eating. It doesn’t even matter if you’re eating a main meal like lunch or dinner – if you’re distracted, it still counts as secondary. 

Opposite to this is ‘Primary Eating’, which is defined as the meal times when we sit down with the goal of eating a meal. According to Pollan:

“It’s where we teach our children the manners they need to get along in society. We teach them how to share. To take turns. To argue without fighting and insulting other people. They learn the art of adult conversation. The family meal is the nursery of democracy.”

But primary eating is in decline – down to 67 minutes a day, whilst secondary eating (while you’re doing other things) now takes 78 minutes per person per day (astoundingly, 20% of food intake is now eaten in the car). 

“Since 1977, we’ve added roughly half a meal’s worth of food to our daily intake, most of it in the form of secondary eating.” 

Michael Pollan

And food eaten during times of secondary eating is rarely nutrient rich and health building. Most of the food that we consume when engaging in secondary eating is unhealthy. 

When is the last time that you brought a fruit salad on a road trip? 

If you’re planning to eat while doing something else, you’re much more likely to choose items that are easily portable and edible – things like crisps, chocolate and cookies.

Primary Eating is mindful, but Secondary Eating is by definition mindless. 

This is really important and the crux of why this concept has the potential to be helpful in the battle against unhealthy eating. By using a primary eating approach to eating you embrace mindfulness – not only experiencing your meal as you eat it, but also listening to your body and following its hunger and satiety cues. If you’re engaging in secondary eating, you are doing none of this.

This doesn’t mean you can’t have ‘treats’. If you are in the mood for a delicious chocolate chip cookie, for example, then by all means find (or make!!) the best tasting cookie and sit down and enjoy every crumb. Then go about your business. 

Where is the value in inhaling ten cookies while watching TV and not really even processing that you’ve eaten them?

The Power Of Cooking

Cooking is also an important component, more important than we perhaps give consideration to. 

It’s what happens between farming and eating, and Pollan suggests, is a political act, because by cooking we can improve our health, break our dependence on conglomerates, and build community. 

Cooking is too important to be left to any one gender or member of the family, not just for reasons of fairness but because we have so much to gain by being there.

“None of us has to cook any more so when we get into the kitchen we’re conflicted. There’s always something else we could be doing that’s more pleasurable. Or easier. Or more demanding. But as I learned to cook, I changed. I just let myself be in the kitchen. I disconnected from my computer screens and took time to connect with my senses, my wife and my son. When chopping onions, just … chop … onions.”

Michael Pollan

It’s a useful piece of life wisdom.

It may also sound time-consuming, but Pollan also points out how we have found other ways to waste time that would previously have been spent cooking:

“We forget how much time it can take simply to avoid cooking: all that time spent driving to restaurants or waiting for our orders, none of which gets counted as ‘food preparation’. And much of the half-hour saved by not cooking is spent watching screens.”

Home cooking is good for you; You eat out less. It is more stimulating. More satisfying. You learn a lot about plants and animals, and begin to recognise your place in the world.

There is also great importance in teaching these valuable lessons to the next generations, but for that to happen children need to be taught about food. There are few more important life skills we can give them. 

We already teach them about driving, alcohol and drugs in school, and it seems to me that teaching them to cook is just as important for their long-term health and happiness.

Where To Go From Here

This week I challenge you to put a little consciousness into how much time you spend eating and identify if it is Primary or Secondary Eating. 

By increasing your Primary Eating and decreasing your Secondary Eating you bring more awareness to the act of consuming food, allowing you to assess if/when your body has eaten what it needs. 

You will also most likely reduce the amount of snacks, “convenience” food, and late night treats that are being consumed without you really even paying much attention.

I know from experience that there are a million reasons to have lunch at your desk while at work. But perhaps we should really evaluate if making lunch ‘secondary’ is truly necessary most of the time.

Does it really serve you best to cram down a few bites while not stopping your day? Only you know the answer to this, but make sure that you’ve put thought into the pros and cons of eating like this in the long-term.

The next time you sit down for a meal, think of how you can make it a ‘primary’ experience. If you need an enhancement, don’t turn on the TV. Instead enjoy your food to the tune of good music, against the backdrop of a beautiful setting or with a friend to enhance the quality of your meal. You’ll enjoy it that much more, and may even lose a few pounds in the process!

Evaluate your Primary and Secondary Eating and decide if there are any changes you could make to improve your health and your life.

“Eating thoughtlessly is the biggest problem we have. If we’re not thinking, they can push our buttons and get us to eat all sorts of stuff. The more thoughtful we are, the healthier we’ll be.”

Michael Pollan

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