How Nutritious is Your Mental Diet? - Part 1/2

By Ciaran O'Regan

Pre-flight checklist:

  • As per the title, this is part 1. To get part 2 click here
  • Reading time: 9-11 minutes
  • This ramble is literally about the quality of our mental diets. As such, if you are going to read this in a distracted manner due to flicking back and forth between social media notifications or while watching TV or some shit then just save yourself the irony and stop reading now. 
  • To take a concept from the great book by Cal Newport: go Deep or go home!

Let us begin....

Post Lock-In Esoteric Existential Tangents

It was a particularly crisp and somewhat annoyingly bright Sunday morning back in March in which I found myself making my way home happy AF after a "lock-in*. My in ear entertainment of choice during this particular epic journey was episode #933 of The Joe Rogan Experience podcast in which former pro MMA fighter Julie Kedzie was the guest.

Good craic. 

Good craic. 

While Julie is one of the pioneers of female MMA and a super interesting individual, it was a single concept mentioned by Joe that sent my allegedly intoxicated mind off in a tangential direction even more esoteric than on a usual existential buzzed stroll home. The conceptual bomb dropped by Joe in passing that resonated so much related to the nutritional content of our mental diets. 

Since then, this concept has been bouncing around in my dome. Due to having studied philosophy and psychology as a hobby for the last few years as well as being a legit physiology nerd since even before doing my exercise science degree, this analogous comparison between physical and mental nutritional content was a thing of beauty. The more I thought about it, the more fucking sense it made and the more it irked me that such a simple analogy had never occurred to me before. Genius. 

“In every work of genius we recognize our own rejected thoughts; they come back to us with a certain alienated majesty.” - Ralph Waldo Emerson

Before I delve into what analyzing what the nutritional content of a mental diet could involve, I am going to quickly go over what it could look like in a physical diet. 

Nutritional Analysis of Our Caloric Intake

Long story short, calories are the old metric system unit we still use to label the energy content of our foods and are often represented with the acronym "kcal". The balance of our caloric intake vs. our output are what determines whether our bodies increase or decrease in weight essentially.

All credit to www.cod.edu for the image.

All credit to www.cod.edu for the image.

While all the food we eat contains calories (real food anyway), the macronutrition that makes up those calories in the form of proteins (@4kcal per gram), carbohydrates (@4kcal per gram), and fats (@9kcal per gram) can vary dramatically. On top of this,  the micronutrition that comes with those calories in the form of vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, prooxidants etc. can also vary dramatically. 

This variety of macronutrition and micronutrition can be what is used to describe the nutritional content of our foods. When it comes to processed or "junk" foods however the main differences can be found in micronutrient and fiber breakdowns and not the 3  basic macronutrients.

For example, 200calories of a Kellogg's Pop Tart gives you a pretty similar macronutrient breakdown to 200calories of potato, but, there is a DRASTICALLY different micronutrient breakdown with vitamins, minerals etc. This is pretty obvious considering that potatoes are a natural whole unprocessed food that grows in the ground, whereas, Pop Tarts were formulated in a laboratory by food scientists. This is even ignoring the fact that 200kcal of potatoes is about 250grams (a full cereal bowl pretty much) and that 200kcal of Pop Tart is just one single 52gram tart thereby also being drastically different on the impact these foods would have on our satiety signaling due to factors like food volume, fibre content, and flavor profile for the same calorie load. 

(SIDE NOTE FROM CIARAN: Speaking of Kellogg's, if you want to get a bit of a laugh then click here to learn about the origins of Kellogg's Cornflakes. But I digress............)

Now this is not to say that we need to only eat whole unprocessed foods like potatoes all the time time just because they have more favorable micronutrition breakdowns and lead to better satiety signalling. This is because there is only so much micronutrition we actually need to be healthy, and, the differing effects of satiety signalling vary not just between people but within people based off a variety of changing circumstances. 

(SIDE NOTE FROM CIARAN: The rabbit hole that is the factors governing neuroregulation of appetite are way outside the scope of this piece, but, If you do want to go down this rabbit hole however then this episode of Sigma Nutrition Radio with Stephan Guyenet is a great place to start). 

Therefore, a healthy diet for the average person could of course have the potential room in their caloric intake to squeeze in some Pop Tarts or ice cream or whatever else so long as all of their other nutritional requirements are met (and they do not have some kind of specific health issue prohibiting them from eating a certain food like an allergy for example.).  This careful attention to the nutritional content that comes with our caloric intakes can then give us the freedom to live both healthily by getting all the nutrients we need, and, to also have the luxury to enjoy treats and "junk" foods guilt free as we know our physical needs are being met which makes things like social events for example way easier to navigate. Essentially, the flexibility of this kind of diet leads to a far more enjoyable process. Our diets can't be all ice cream and pop tarts, but, we can make some room for these foods if we want to. 

What we do with our time can also be seen through this concept of nutritional contribution to our long term mental health. 

TIME AS CALORIES

In this great article on one of my favorite blogs Wait But WhyTim Urban details a concept of time management based around the idea that assuming we sleep about 7-8 hours per night, our waking day can be broken into 100 10 minute blocks.  

"It’s always good to step back and think about how we’re using those 100 blocks we get each day. How many of them are put towards making your future better, and how many of them are just there to be enjoyed? How many of them are spent with other people, and how many are for time by yourself? How many are used to create something, and how many are used to consume something? How many of the blocks are focused on your body, how many on your mind, and how many on neither one in particular? Which are your favorite blocks of the day, and which are your least favorite?" - Tim Urban

To reiterate: we have a caloric need that functions as the over arching determinant of our food intake which can then be analyzed by what kind of nutritional density come with these calories under the scrutiny of their contribution to our physical health. We can do the same with our time regarding its contribution to our mental health.

This is easy to conceptualize, because, just as we need to eat a certain amount of calories in order to gain/lose/maintain our bodyweight and these calories come with a certain nutritional load, we are conscious for roughly 100 10 minute blocks per day and during this time are using our brain for something. What we use our brains for during this time, therefore, can then be easily seen as our mental diets. This concept of 100 blocks is absolutely beautiful in its simplicity as it sub-divides our day into bite sized chunks that are easy to analyze for their metaphorical nutritional contribution to our mental diets. This is just like the calorie and macronutrient matched Pop Tart and potato I compared earlier for their nutritional contribution to a physical diet. 

"You’d have to think about everything you might spend your time doing in the context of its worth in blocks. Cooking dinner requires three blocks, while ordering in requires zero—is cooking dinner worth three blocks to you? Is 10 minutes of meditation a day important enough to dedicate a block to it? Reading 20 minutes a night allows you to read 15 additional books a year—is that worth two blocks? If your favorite recreation is playing video games, you’d have to consider the value you place on fun before deciding how many blocks it warrants. Getting a drink with a friend after work takes up about 10 blocks. How often do you want to use 10 blocks for that purpose, and on which friends? Which blocks should be treated as non-negotiable in their labeled purpose and which should be more flexible? Which blocks should be left blank, with no assigned purpose at all?" - Tim Urban

Now I am 100% not saying to become an extremist person like a Nikola Tesla kind of dude and devote yourself to nothing but your work abandoning even your most primal motivations (see below Tesla quote), I am just saying that what we do with our 100 blocks is worth having an inquisitive look at for its nutritional contribution to our mental diets. 

"I destroyed my sexuality." - Nikola Tesla

SIDE NOTE from Ciaran: I know he was a super genius and all, but, Tesla man....  

All credit to Wait But Why for the image. 

All credit to Wait But Why for the image. 

But I digress yet again............

Just like we can have room for nutritionally sparse "treat" food within the caloric load of our physical diets once we have calories left over after our nutritional needs are met by our highly nutritionally dense base, we can, theoretically, have time for "treat" food in our metaphorical mental diets once our nutritional needs are also being met. While "nutritionally dense" foods and nutritionally sparse "treat" foods are easy to identify in actual food (spuds vs. pop tart for example), what constitutes these categories in our mental diets?

A handy lens to analyze our blocks through, is that of identifying whether the blocks constitute Investment activities or Withdrawal activities. 

Investment vs. Withdrawal - Macro to Micro

In this episode of the Sigma Nutrition Podcast,  the very smart Menno Henselmans of Bayesian Bodybuilding described how he sees days as either being "investment" or "withdrawal" in nature. This is not a surprising analogous outlook to hear from him, considering, that while he may very well now be one of the most influential thinkers in the world of drug free bodybuilding: he actually comes from a business and statistics background. 

I want to steal this Investment vs Withdrawal concept of Menno's and apply it to not just days, but smaller chunks of time, or more specifically - the 100 10 minute blocks of daily consciousness that constitute the caloric load of our mental diets. To take this and use another concept in economics, scale: I want to go from the macro of days, to the micro of minutes. 

Basically, I want to put forward the concept of looking at time spent doing Investment activities as the nutritionally dense food that should make up our base intake, and, time spent doing Withdrawal activities as the figurative treat foods we can squeeze in to the remaining of our 100 blocks once the rest of our nutritional needs are met. 

While Menno had his explanations of what he meant by these terms, I want to define what my own definitions of Investment and Withdrawal activities actually are.......... 

Click here for part 2...

If you like what you read here, then please click here and add you best email to the bottom of the page. I will only contact you when I have new content and direct email is the best way to notify you as social media algorithms are not always the most facilitating.