Last weekend, my wife and I had lunch at the Cheesecake Factory, courtesy of a gift card we received sometime ago. I must say, it was a fantastic meal. I had somosas and fettucini alfredo. Alice had soft chicken tacos and a big plate of pasta with marinara sauce topped with some chicken. For desert, we had the Black Out Chocolate Cheesecake. All of it was delicious, all of it well worth experience of eating there.
But the one thing I won't forget about our experience is the size of the portions. They were huge portions. Even the cake was big enough for two. The meal was so big that I didn't even eat dinner that night. Around dinner time, I was still buzzing from all the food that I ate for lunch.
As I sat in a chair at home shortly after the meal, I could feel my stomach working, I could feel the pulse through my hands as my body worked to digest this massive meal. I wasn't hungry and I could feel the urge to take a nap. I think I did take a nap that day.
Upon reflection, I started to think about my other restaurant adventures and noticed a similar pattern. The portions are very large, too large for me, probably too large for most people, but you know, "waste not, want not" is running through our minds, so we eat all of it.
Years ago, I read about a study where college kids were invited to eat a bowl of soup. This was no ordinary bowl of soup. There was nothing special about the soup, but there was something special about the bowl. The bowl would keep filling up from the bottom as the students ate the soup. Another group ate from a different bowl that did not fill up. But they ate until the soup was gone. The conclusion of the study is that most people eat until the food is gone, and won't stop even if they feel full.
These two conditions, portion sizes and the tendency to eat beyond the point where we need no more, could easily explain obesity in America.
I know this tendency in myself. I will eat until the food is gone. So at home, I make sure that the portions are small. If I need more, I can get more later. My wife is like my Mom, they both cook more than we need and often, there are leftovers. No big deal. I don't like the feeling of my stomach working late into the night to digest food. I actually like a little hunger pang so that I know my stomach is getting a rest.
You see, the stomach is a muscle, and it has to work hard to digest food. This takes energy away from other processes that the body will perform to assimilate and rebuild. I make sure that my stomach has time to rest every day. You wouldn't want to do situps all day now, would you? But if you snack all day, your stomach is working all day.
Cooked food also leads to another form of work: enzyme production. Raw food is packed with enzymes that digest food for us. This is what causes fresh food to decay if we leave it out of the refrigerator. Animals use these enzymes to assist with digestion of the food they eat. There is significant documentation on the subject of enzymes, but most of what I know comes from two sources: Enzyme Nutrition, a book by Dr. Edward Howell, and the Wheatgrass Book, by Ann Wigmore. Both of these books are a huge influence in the choices I make when it comes to food.
The easiest food to digest is raw food. Salads, fruits, even raw vegetables, they're all there, ready to eat. Meat is much harder to digest, even when cooked because the enzymes are dead by then. Enzymes are at work in our bodies, 24/7, and they do almost all of the work of keeping us alive. Enzymes mediate every step of metabolism in our bodies. Food that comes with living enzymes makes for light work for our bodies.
You might have heard of caloric restriction as a way to increase lifespan. I think it is a good practice and practice it myself. I eat when I'm hungry and I don't eat when I'm not hungry. Eating is not a sport, it is not recreation. It is something I do to live and live well. You just won't see me in a pie eating contest.
The reason caloric restriction works is not fewer calories consumed, its because your body is not producing enzymes to digest cooked food. As your body produces enzymes, that effort takes away energy for other work that the body needs to do to stay healthy and young.
The next time I go to the Cheesecake Factory, I will probably split the entree with my wife for better sleep. I will also rest easier knowing that my stomach will get some rest before the next meal.