Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Energy Crisis

Before I get into the bulk of my post, there are a few items of business to attend to. First, sincere apologies for the long breaks between posts. For 10 of the 20-some days between posts I was on a road trip and was unable to post. However, it is our intention to post closer to once a week as opposed to once every three weeks, so an apology is in order. The second item of business is the issue of reformatting. At the onset of this blog, Alex and I discussed a desire to have it be less a one way conversation and more an open dialogue, with our readers responding to our posts, challenging our assumptions and offering counterpoints. Thank you for all the comments we have received so far. However, there is some concern that we are still approaching each new subject as a diagnosis and prescription for problems we perceive to be important. We'd like to shy away from that, promoting more of a question and answer format. We hope that all our readers will offer their own answers and critique the answers we offer in our posts. An exchange of ideas and opinions will help us come to better solutions, as opposed to Alex or me decreeing them from our couches and keyboards. So, here it goes.

The question for this post was inspired by my aforementioned road trip, where we woke up most mornings at 5:30am for the days drive, and ran on drinks and foods we perceived would deliver quick cheap energy. So my question has to do with our expectations of our diet, and the energy it provides us with, as well as the marketing that surrounds the food we buy. The question is as follows; are we all more tired than we should be, and is it because of our diet or something else?

If you look at food marketing these days it seems to all be focused on energy. At least food marketing on the road. Energy drinks seem to be ubiquitous at this point, and if you haven't had one today you've probably had one at some point. I don't even need to mention how popular coffee is these days. And beyond that, you have foods from Quaker Oats to candy bars such as Snickers to vitamin waters to water itself claiming that each product will give you "more energy." Where did this concept of "more energy" come from and why do we feel we have such a deficit? When talking to someone a couple of months ago about the fact that I was a vegetarian his immediate reaction was "oh so you must have loads of energy, eating all those veggies." Do I have more energy? What is this baseline that everyone seems to be comparing their current lack of energy to.

I think one obvious answer for whatever lack of energy one may perceive would be lack of sleep. But of course that's not marketable. If pillows were disposable and you needed a new one every night then maybe marketers in gas stations and supermarkets would be targeting sleep as a factor for energy. But then again, with our culture of overworking and overscheduling, it isn't popular for any of us in our own calculations to look at the time spent horizontal last night as a reason why we are fighting sleep today, because hey, I'm busy, I can't sleep 8 hours every night. However, if we are being honest with ourselves and really don't have as much energy as we should, I would put a lot of weight on sleep.

If diet does play a factor, which I think it certainly does, then the products marketed to give you energy are probably not ultimately the key. At least that's how it felt on the road trip. If you've ever been on a road trip you know how easy it is to eat horrendous food. When the majority of your contact with food becomes rest stops, with a plethora of gas stations and fast food chains, then you are bound to make some questionable choices about food. But the worst part is that you actually start to believe the marketers, buying drinks and candy bars "designed" to give you more energy and keep you up when driving. Yeah I felt more comfortable sipping a green tea drink while driving, putting my faith in the caffeine to keep me alert, when really I was plenty alert before my shift, I just wanted the drink as an insurance policy, a "just in case." I think all of this energy marketing, including moderate amounts of caffeine, become placebo. I think we trick ourselves into thinking we could have even more energy, and if we could have more energy, it must mean we currently don't have enough. And if we don't have enough, we simply need these products to keep us alert and give us elevated energy levels, when really the whole time we have stayed at an even level, with our perceptions of our energy level fluctuating below and above the line based on our consumption of whatever foods we convince ourselves will affect this level.

It seems like such a recent trend to re-frame our food in terms of energy. Don't we get energy from anything we eat? That's the nature of calories - ultimately a unit of energy content of food. So couldn't we say that a twinkie is an energy bar, because it has a lot of calories in it? No one would buy that, of course, because it is refined sugar and carbohydrates that provides quick energy but offers a crash just as sure. But Quaker Oats, whole grains, offer longer lasting energy, and also nutritional benefits beyond simple energy. Yet a new ad campaign, at least in NYC, frames these oats as units for delivering energy to propel humans through life. I think we miss something by looking for food solely for energy. We are not cars and food is not gasoline. We get more from food than just its caloric content. Otherwise the "ice cream diet" would be perfectly acceptable.

Next time you are in a supermarket, pay attention to food marketing. The next time you stop for coffee, consider if you are actually getting more energy than you would have had if you hadn't relied on coffee for energy for so long. I don't drink coffee so I can't answer that question. If you do really get more energy, maybe I will have to get to know my local barista. But ultimately I would like to know what you all think. Do we have a personal energy crisis? Do foods and drinks help us acheive a level of energy we wouldn't already be at if we didn't choose foods based on energy claims? Are there other factors to our energy level (like maybe drinking high fructose corn syrup and consuming nutritionally deficient foods actually lower our energy level, and fresh produce instead will deliver more energy)? You know what I think, but I want to know what you think. After all, this is just my opinion, hashed out during a Celtics game, as tenuous and as open to revision as any other argument I could make.


  1. I think the best way to energize ourselves is to watch the movie "Death Race" once per day. Seeing the riveting thrill of a man framed and put into prison, and then forced to partake in high speed dangerous car races of doom will provide the necessary adrenalize to propel us toward whatever endeavors we so choose to follow.

  2. Hahaha, an excellent point. Maybe they could start adding Death Race extract to our processed foods and we'd be all set.

  3. Brilliant point about marketing and sleep, Devin. We tend to think of technology as just being a physical thing that makes our lives easier. It also changes our lives mentally, attitudinally, spiritually, etc. Imagine living just 150 years ago. You bought locally because that was what was available. You bought from neighbors and people you knew. You bought fewer things because no marketers were convincing you that you needed a bunch of junk that in fact you really didn't need. Kids got a new sled and an orange for Christmas, and they were thrilled. You ate when you were hungry, and you ate food you made yourselves that tasted good to you. You threw no plastic in the trash. You reused the flour sack you got the flour out of. You went to bed when it got dark and you got tired. You visited friends and family in person, or you wrote carefully thought-out letters to people farther away. You saved and cherished the letters you got back. Now we delete, we throw away. We base many of our decisions on what advertisers tell us. Including when they tell us we need "energy" or "power" foods. If they weren't selling us so many processed foods in the first place, we'd probably naturally have a lot more energy.