26 May 2021

Eat to live or live to eat?

By Dr Irine Runnie Henry Ginjom

Ever seen this old saying on healthy eating posters, ‘Eat to live, not live to eat’? What exactly does this phrase mean?

‘Eat to live’ can be translated as the biological need of every living organism to obtain food in order to survive. Physiologically, our body needs food so that we have sufficient source of energy and nutrients. This is generally signalled by the feeling of hunger (when we need food) and satiety (satisfaction of appetite).

Proteins like meat gives you the highest satiety level, followed by carbohydrates like rice or bread, and lastly fats. This is interesting as foods with lower energy density (proteins and carbs) are more satiating compared to the energy-dense fats. So, naturally, this helps to regulate our food choices to avoid overeating and extra calories that could lead to obesity.

Carbohydrates with more fibre contents such as vegetables and grains are also found to be more satiating. This gives a hint that our diet should consist of more fibre-rich carbohydrates, proteins and lastly a lesser amount of fats. In most countries, this is the accepted general dietary guideline for a balanced diet.

On the other hand, we are also beginning to see that some people seem to ‘Live to eat’ as eating nowadays is beyond our basic survival need, possibly because there are so many different choices of foods available. Generally, people’s food preferences are also influenced by external determinants that include economic, social, psychological and attitudes toward food.

While getting basic nutrition and health is important in anyone’s life, economic factors such as food prices and consumer income also determine which food is affordable. For example, foods can be cheaper if they are bought in bulk, in season, less processed, on specials, or generic brands from a supermarket.

Time is also a factor that affect whether we choose to dine in or buy ready-cooked food rather than preparing our own meals. For example, two pieces of KFC chicken thigh will cost you about RM10.50. With the same price, we can get about seven pieces of raw chicken thigh. KFC may be convenient but may not be economical and healthy in the long run.

Here in Malaysia, we are still fortunate to have a wide variety of very affordable local foods, such as rice with varieties of dishes also known as `nasi campur’. So the next time you need to get fast food and attune to Asian palates, choose that rice with lots of vegetables and protein.

Social media is a huge thing during this pandemic, allowing us to interact with friends and family even when we are locked down somewhere on the other side of the country or the globe. For some, the extra time has led to more devices in our hands.

How many times have you found yourself suddenly have the craving for a certain delicacy right after seeing your friend’s posting on social media? Or raise your hand if you have tried new recipes after watching the step-by-step guide on YouTube.

Creative food presentations and endorsement of people that you follow or trust can create such an effect. International chef and food influencers like Gordon Ramsay have more than 12 million followers on Instagram, and he is creating cravings for certain type of foods or restaurants to dine in. So, the next time you order food via Grab Food or Food Panda, it could have been prompted by those social media posting that you have just seen.

Digging deeper, all those factors are acted upon by your mind, meaning that, you alone control what you eat. The psychology of eating is important to help you to manage your cravings and to see through those marketing antiques the popular big brands use to hook you to their products. Rituals can be linked with tastier or more flavourful food.

Familiar with `It’s Finger Lickin’ Good’ slogan by KFC? Or the twisting and dunking of Oreo? Likewise, aromas can be used to skew your perception of food in incredibly powerful ways. Who have been guilty of buying bags of Famous Amos cookies at the airport after smelling the sweet aroma, only to regret spending too much on sweets that day?

In Malaysia, we are spoiled for food choices. In Sarawak, we have those cheap but tasty `kolo mee’, creatively designed but super sweet `kek lapis’, and equally tasty and fatty sago grub as one of our local delicacies. Are you eating just to fulfil your biological needs or it is more than that?

For some, the choices are very much determined by their income and basic survival. Thus, it is very important that the choices that they have include affordable healthy food. For others who can afford more, be sure to educate yourself with food choices that your body and health is thankful for.

So, do we ‘Eat to live’ or ‘Live to eat’? For me, personally, I see nothing wrong with both as long as you know what your body needs. Foods can make you happy, but always be mindful of what you eat. Gain some knowledge and find out more about it.

Overindulgence can lead to several chronic diseases and can be costly to manage or treat. A balanced diet may not be as easy to prescribe and dispense as a pill, but it is admittedly the most powerful, accessible, and affordable driver for health that all of us should have at our disposal. Use it wisely.

Dr Irine Runnie Henry Ginjom is a senior lecturer of biotechnology at Swinburne University of Technology Sarawak Campus. She can be reached via email at ihenry@swinburne.edu.my.