• Daniel Kephart

Eat What's Eating You

Updated: Mar 11

This isn't about any kind of diet--it's about the story of food.

I saw a clip on YouTube of Sly Stallone in his glory days, chatting about his fitness regimen.

For Stallone, apparently, it all came down to food:

"What you eat is what you is."

There's something charming about an only half-coherent sentence, isn't there?

I heard this little truism, albeit in a less grammatically alarming form, time and time again growing up. My mother's side of the family, in particular, was quite fond of this simple little idea: We are what we eat.

It's a bit of a weird little formula, isn't it?

Good food in = Good health.

Useless food in = Dan getting sick every other week in college.

As a nutritional formula, of course, it's not much use. It's far too simple--it doesn't do anything to tell us whether it would be better to eat more or less red meat, or how many fatty acids should be part of our breakfast. If food was only a matter of nutrition, this statement would be useless.

Over the past week or so, though, I've been thinking about how much of my experience with food is almost entirely divorced from nutrition. Taste, social experiences, identity--these are all aspects of my experiences with food over the years. Till now, though, I never devoted even a sort period of time to thinking about the story of my relationship to food. It's bizarre, really, considering how many times in your life people ask you, "what's your favorite food?"

It's an important question--probably every bit as important a question as "what's your favorite book?" or even "what's your best childhood memory?".

So, rather imperfectly, I'm going to attempt to consider how I've constructed a story of my relationship to food over the years.

And, in particular, one beverage: Mountain Dew.

In high school and college, I drank a lot of Mountain Dew. By the time I was a junior in college, my consumption of the beverage was something of a meme among my friends. A girlfriend even bought me a six-pack of Mountain Dew bottles for Valentines Day during my senior year. As strange as it sounds, I think I adopted Mountain Dew as a symbol of my identity. Certainly, this was physically unhealthy. The radioactive green color of Mountain Dew is a pretty good cue that it's no good for the human body. Still, it didn't bother me.

Then, a few months back, a student of mine wrote in a teaching evaluation that they hoped I would stop drinking so much soda, because they wanted me to stay healthy. Now, it wasn't as if this was new information. Nobody tricked me into thinking that Mountain Dew was a health beverage. This little note really shouldn't have made much of a difference, but it did. In fact, it really had a profound effect on me--as evidenced by the fact that I'm writing about it months after seeing it.

Currently, I've stopped drinking soda regularly--and this happened without any serious attempt to cut it out of my diet. After years of imbibing sugary sweetness almost daily, I'm not even much tempted when I see a vending machine. And all because of this strange little note. Biologically, I'm don't think any serious changes occurred. It's not as though I woke up one day just hating Mountain Dew. My relationship to soda, though, certainly changed. The whole story I built around the consumption of soda was rewritten.

Why did I become so tightly attached to soda, and Mountain Dew in particular, in the first place? Well, I think some of it may certainly be imitative. Growing up, I can remember that most of the young men who were a few years older than me drank quite a lot of Mountain Dew. Certainly, I like the way it tasted.

Ultimately, though, I don't think there was anything especially significant about the drink itself--it could have been anything.

What's more important is that, without ever consciously choosing to do so, I made an artificial beverage a symbol of who I was as a human being. Once I noticed this, I began noticing it happening every where around me--and not just with food. You've heard the joke, for instance, that "a hat is not the same thing as a personality" when a young man or woman decides to start wearing a newsboy cap or a 1940's fedora. Despite the fact that the wearer made a conscious choice to adopt the hat as a symbol of their personality, people around them are not willing to accept it as a legitimate symbol: That is, they are pointing out a discongruence between the wearer's personality and their chosen symbol.

Of course, we can quibble with the ethics of this: If someone wants to wear a hat, perhaps it's a bit unfair to utilize peer pressure to try to curb that fairly benign impulse. On the other hand, it might strike us as less tyrannical to tease someone for wearing around a suit of plate mail or something--so perhaps the line is a bit difficult to draw.

Food, however, is a more subtle symbol. After all, while we do publicize some of our daily foodstuffs (perhaps we have a favorite brand of beer or a favorite pizza shop), most of consumables go unnoticed. Because of its less aesthetically significant nature, perhaps, food and drink simply takes longer to be identified as a symbol of the personality. Which is a bit alarming, really, when you consider that you are the person most affected by what you eat; and while you may be thinking about whether your food is nutritious or not, you probably haven't thought too much about what your symbolic relationship to it is.

I certainly don't. And that's a problem, because:

"What you eat is what you is."

I've tried to flesh out in my mind some of the thoughts I've had about consuming Mountain Dew, and why I drank it. I offer them below as an example of what I mean about a symbolic relationship to food.

Why I Drink Mountain Dew:

This is full of a lot of caffeine, which will give me energy. I need energy because I'm a hard worker.

This might mess with my sleep schedule, but that's okay. I don't need to sleep well, because not sleeping is actually a sign that I'm working harder.

I write really well when I drink this. Drinking this makes me write well.

This isn't good for human beings, but it won't hurt me because I'm strong enough to drink it and be fine.

People think Mountain Dew is for hillbillies and for thirty-year-old gamers living in their parents' basements. By drinking this, I'm fighting a stereotype.

I drank this when I was in high school. As long as I drink this, nothing has changed and everything will be okay.

Somehow, this is good for me because I have a bond with it.

Now, obviously, a great deal of these are ridiculous. In fact, they are lies. I was lying to myself. Put on paper (or a computer screen, in this case) they are patently foolish. A lot of what we tell ourselves in our heads, however, is like this. We lie to ourselves pretty frequently--because we don't take seriously how we interact with the symbols in our lives.

Again, this isn't about dieting at all. Diets are the realm of the nutritionist and the physician--I cannot speak at all to the physiological reasons of why we eat what we eat, or whether it is really beneficial to us in the long run.

In terms of narratives, however, this is certainly not a heroic narrative. It's secretive and clandestine, for one thing. None of the self-talk surrounding my experience with Mountain Dew was something I would want to share with the outside world. My thoughts needed to be hidden, and that's a bad sign in a narrative--just watch Breaking Bad and you'll see what the consequences of deceit are. No matter how bad things are, they can be worse if you lie to yourself about them.

Contrast this, on the other hand, with some of the narratives of eating roasted chicken breast:

Why I Eat Roast Chicken Breast:

This isn't especially delicious, but if I exercise it will help keep me healthy.

This is a financially responsible way to nourish myself.

If I eat this, I will be more alert when at work.

Now, none of these are particularly fascinating--they're all rather mundane. At the same time, though, they're the sorts of thoughts that you would expect to see in someone you respected.

Which goes hand in hand with the entire concept at the foundation of this site: That your life is rich with meaning, discoverable in even the most mundane activities.

What you eat from day to day probably deserves as much thoughtful consideration as any great novel. Certainly, it'll be something more relevant to your daily experiences.

And, if you thought about it, you might decide you could eat what's eating you. I don't mean to say that naively. I'm not suggesting all the problems you face in life could be changed by thinking a bit more about the food you eat.

That's not only ridiculous, but it's disrespectful to the depths of tragedy we experience as human beings.

What I am suggesting is that the conversations we have in our head about the food we eat often contains self-deception. And, by the way, that's not only limited to consuming unhealthy foods. It's quite possible, for instance, that you're depriving yourself of enjoying the richness of food by being overly-critical of yourself. That's a real risk.

Narratively speaking, once again, a hero's journey doesn't simply lead them down into an abyss of self-hatred. That's the villain's journey, in fact, turning themselves into something they resent but are afraid to confront. Anakin Skywalker hates himself for murdering his wife, but cannot accept that he did so. That's the villainous downward spiral. Luke Skywalker, on the other hand, learns to acknowledge his insufficiency while focusing on his potential: "I am a Jedi, like my father before me." There's an ascendance there--a recognition of the human responsibility to embrace the challenge to confront evil.

Nor is this heroic journey limited to the world of fiction. It can emerge, quite powerfully, when the self exhibits the courage to proclaim: "I have a dream..."

A dream, taken seriously, can change the world.

It's quite possible to use food as a bludgeon for beating ourselves up. That's not what we want. You wouldn't do it to someone you loved, and you shouldn't do it to yourself.

More hopefully, it is possible to use food as a symbol for the potential you desire to realize. By eating the right things, whatever they may be, you are suggesting to yourself that you have a specific goal in mind, a dream that you wish to see fulfilled. You are adopted a symbol of some good that needs to be realized, and then making that good a part of yourself.

"What you eat is what you is."

Eat what's eating you.

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