Sunday, February 24, 2013

How I Eat, part 1.

I am in my 60th year, weigh 137 pounds, am 5 feet 6-1/2 inches tall, and have not had a weight control problem in years. A good friend looked at me one day and said to the person next to her, "She's been that way for as long as I've known her." (35 years) She sounded somewhere between exasperated, resentful, and mystified. It occurred to me that I might share just exactly what I do to stay this way, and a lot of that has to do with how I treat food. This post is going to cover mostly how I don't eat any more.

I grew up in a family that had a bounteous spread on the table every meal. We were taught several things about eating. First, you must not waste food. Second, you must eat everything on your plate. Third, you must never complain about food. These rules are not bad if put in the right context. However, they can be deadly to your weight if taken the way I was taught.

You must not waste food. Generally we did not throw out food that was still edible. It returned as leftovers or as an ingredient in a new dish. However, if there as just a dab of something left, the question was, "Who is going to finish that off?" It was practically criminal to put a tiny bit of leftovers into the fridge for another time. Finishing things off is a dangerous habit to get into, since those little dabs, if eaten dutifully to avoid wasting the food, add up to a substantial amount of calories. The only food these days that I finish off is salad or plain vegetables, and even then, they often go into a plastic tub and are enjoyed the  next day in my lunch.

You must eat everything on your plate. If you do the dishing up on your own plate, then taking only the amount you should eat is best. However, as a kid, our plates were often loaded by a parent who decided how much was the right amount to eat. Kids' appetites change drastically depending on whether or not they are having a growth spurt. By being forced to eat everything on my plate, I was taught to overeat, to eat till it hurt, and that leaving things on my plate was a cardinal sin. I don't recall the line, "People are starving in China" used on me, but that logic never seemed to make sense, as if my eating something in America could do anything to help people in China. That line basically feeds into the idea of ingratitude, which is part of the next rule.

You must never complain about food. I don't. Food, especially ample amounts of high quality, is not something to complain about. Portion size is a different matter. So is pickiness. I am not a picky eater--I can eat whatever is served because I was not allowed to complain. But I did need to learn to recognize that it is OK to state preferences, and that is not the same thing as complaining. Being able to state preferences allows you to customize your food to your maximum pleasure. If you can do it without putting anybody to much trouble, you may do a better job of eating sensibly. For example, if someone is serving up grilled hotdogs, can you ask if you can have your hotdog without a bun? When I was growing up, that simple request was not allowed, so I had to eat the bun, even though it was nutrition-less, spongy white bread that only served as a holder for the real food.

Enough for this post. Eating is complicated, and how I eat has changed a lot over the years. I hope this and future posts are helpful to someone.


John Lynch said...

The point about wasting food is an excellent example of the sunk cost fallacy.

The only relevant question to any decision is how any particular available option maximizes the difference between expected future costs and expected future benefits. Costs and benefits that occurred in the past are unrecoverable; they are "sunk." Eating food that you don't need to eat has a cost (the extra unneeded calories) for very little benefit. That the food you are considering consuming cost you something in the near past is irrelevant: the only question now is how to maximize the difference between the expected future costs and the expected future benefits of eating the food. Period.

This is especially true at restaurants when you're dealing with a dish (like an appetizer) that you aren't inclined to take home with you or an amount of food too small to store practically. That food is wasted the moment you order it. No one else will get it. The only remaining question is how best you can use that food. If the food will provide you with no extra benefit, don't eat it; throw it out.

And if anyone is uncomfortable with the waste involved, I suggest not ordering too much food (yeah, given the portion sizes at American restaurants, that often means splitting your meals with someone or not eating out) or sucking it up and taking leftovers home when you don't feel like it or it seems ridiculous. Just don't think that eating the food you don't need is any less of a waste in any real sense than throwing it out. Disposing of food by throwing it in your stomach isn't any more useful to the others who could have used that food than disposing of it by throwing it the trash.

Anyway, good post, Mom!

Lisa said...

"Disposing of food by throwing it in your stomach isn't any more useful to the others who could have used that food than disposing of it by throwing it the trash."

Yes. In fact, by eating food because other people can't eat it for you may make the problem (on a theoretical level) harder for the people who need the food when you don't. If you consume food that you don't need, it is not available for anyone else. Consuming can include eating it AND wasting it. If we really only dished up what we need, then we would be eating less food. The food, then, that we choose not to eat (theoretically) might be available for someone else. For example, if I buy three bushels of apples and waste one bushel, no one benefits from the wasted apples. But if I realize I only need two bushels, and that's what I buy, then the third bushel is available for someone else to have.

I know you could have said that better, John. Is there a economic truth behind that idea? What would it be called?

John Lynch said...

Well, the recognition that you value the first two bushels of apples more than the third bushel is broadly related to marginalism (and specifically, the concept of diminishing marginal utility), one of the most important theories in economics. And the fact that your consumption of a good prevents another's consumption of it is (unsurprisingly) known as rivalry. Bushels of apples exhibit both diminishing marginal utility and are both rival and excludable (often the criteria used to separate a so-called public good from a private good).

I find that people are generally highly confused in how they think about how costs, burdens, liabilities, etc. are passed on to others. It is the consumption of rival resources that impacts other people negatively. Everything else is just accounting.

Steven Landsburg illustrates this wonderfully in his article "What I Like About Scrooge" in which he argues that Scrooge gets a "bum rap" for being a miser. I can think of ways to attack Landsburg's position on misers specifically, but none that attack the general proposition that it's consumption that ultimately matters in questions of wealth distribution.

Lisa said...

I sort of get what Steven Landsburg's article was about, but I kept asking myself---so if he doesn't spend, someone is "free" to serve someone else--doesn't that mean if he doesn't spend, someone else has to look for another job, another customer, another source of income? And of course, he is probably aware, but doesn't address that fact that the real story is about how Scrooge's miserliness may have ballooned his savings, but shrunk his compassion. If the compassionate solution to the problems around him was to save his money, he certainly didn't know it and didn't grow in compassion for his decision to save.

John Lynch said...

Landsburg is a consequentialist, so his only concern is with the effects of Scrooge's actions, not his intentions (ie: to be compassionate or not). You can, of course, quibble with his philosophy, but I do think the question of what the effects of Scrooge's actions are is both morally and economically relevant.

Yes, if Scrooge spends lavishly and then suddenly stops, a whole bunch of people will be unemployed or see their incomes fall. This will be painful for them, but the effect on society is that people who were employed providing luxuries for a rich man are now free to do something else.

However, Scrooge's decision to stop spending (or never to spend in the first place) has another effect: it drives down the prices of the goods he would have consumed. This does two things: it makes them more affordable for others and it sends a signal to people not to produce more of that good. You can't assume that Scrooge's not spending puts someone out of work, since because of Scrooge's miserliness that person may never have been enticed into that line of work in the first place!

People who lose their jobs because of this type of economic adjustment are highly visible and sympathetic (and rightly do we sympathize with them). However, the long run effect of allowing such economic adjustment (and the long run effect of encouraging saving and thrift over conspicuous consumption) is to direct people's efforts into the most productive occupations. Edison killed the candlemaking profession. Ford killed the horse-drawn carriage. Each of these events were painful for candlemakers and coachmen, but by killing their professions, we freed up resources (labor) to be employed in an area where it was previously not profitable to employ them. That's how society advances.

Allow me to recommend two classic essays on this subject: Bastiat's What Is Seen and What Is Not Seen and Hayek's The Use of Knowledge in Society.