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Darya Pino, Ph.D Headshot

Are You Eating In The Matrix?

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Or to put it another way, do you know the difference between real food and food that was designed to fool you into believing it is real?

It might not be as easy as you think.

(Spoiler Alert! If you haven't seen the original Matrix film yet, crawl out of your cave and go watch it real quick before reading. We'll wait.)

In the classic film The Matrix, machines of the future create a sophisticated computer program that produces an alternate reality for their human slaves. The program, the Matrix, placates humans into believing they are living normal lives while their bodies are imprisoned in suspended animation.

The Matrix is plugged directly into the brains of humans. They live the Matrix, breathe the Matrix, eat the Matrix. They've grown up with it, and have never known any other world.

Now think about a Twinkie or a McNugget. Can you remember life without them? I can't. These products have always been a part of my world, even though it has been a long time since I've eaten them. I have vivid childhood memories of both products-after school snacks with friends, my 10th birthday party-and my memories are happy.

But I've learned to refer to Twinkies and food from McDonald's as products and not foods because, when you think about it, they really aren't foods. Sure you can eat them, but that just makes them a novelty-something akin to beating up your friends in Mortal Kombat.

"Do you believe that me being stronger or faster has anything to do with my muscles in this place?" -Morpheus

Real food nourishes your body by providing essential building blocks for your cells and organs. The human body evolved alongside real food and is adapted to digest it.

Edible products on the other hand were specifically designed to fool your brain and sensory perception, but your body, cells and organs have no idea what to do with them.

Twinkies and McNuggets are engineered. They do not come from the earth and are not food. Twinkies were created in the Matrix.

Do you think that's food you're eating now?

This may sound like rhetorical foodie fluff, but please humor me and entertain the metaphor for a little while longer.

Food should nourish your body and contribute to your overall health. Even foods that are considered fattening-bacon comes to mind-provide nourishment so long as they are based in reality.

But what is a Twinkie? What is a Pringle? What is a McNugget?

Big Macs may look, smell and vaguely taste like food, but if what you are eating is not sustaining your health and is possibly making you sick, isn't it time to question whether it is food at all?

These are products that were created in a laboratory. They may have started as raw materials from plants, but the plants were never grown to be eaten. Industrial corn, soybeans and the cattle raised on them have been processed and redesigned to the point where they've been stripped of anything that allows for them to be reasonably classified as food.

Shouldn't we then stop calling this stuff food?

Most people will initially reject this idea. Of course food is food. But I'd argue that this opinion is just another product of our environment. Haven't we always lived in the Matrix of industrial agriculture?

We have coexisted with McDonald's for so long it seem preposterous to speculate it doesn't meet the definition of food.

But let's take a closer look:

Food -noun:

1. Any nourishing substance that is eaten, drunk, or otherwise taken into the body to sustain life, provide energy, promote growth, etc.
2. More or less solid nourishment, as distinguished from liquids.
3. A particular kind of solid nourishment: a breakfast food; dog food.
4. Whatever supplies nourishment to organisms: plant food.
5. Anything serving for consumption or use: food for thought.

(emphasis mine)

With the exception of the last point, which is clearly philosophical, all these definitions include the word nourishment.

Nourish -verb (used with object)

1. To sustain with food or nutriment; supply with what is necessary for life, health, and growth.
2. To cherish, foster, keep alive, etc.: He had long nourished the dream of living abroad.
3. To strengthen, build up, or promote: to nourish discontent among the workers; to nourish the arts in one's community.

(emphasis mine)

If it doesn't provide nourishment, it is not food.

But relying on dictionary definitions is both semantic and impractical. It also becomes confusing when companies market products that are not real food but have added back nutrients to give the appearance of nourishment.

The important question is how do we break free?

Being convinced that these products are not food is not enough. Like the Matrix, McDonald's is so closely tied to your perception of reality that it can fool you even when you know it isn't real.

Remember, when Neo makes his first attempt to jump across the building roofs. He doesn't make it.

"Everybody falls the first time."

That's because the Matrix feels so real that not believing it is almost impossible. Likewise, knowing that edible products are not food and that they will in fact make you less healthy is often not enough to prevent you from eating them. Your senses are easily fooled.

But better decisions are not impossible and your food world doesn't need to be 100% black and green. Even small steps in the right direction, back into reality, can improve your health.

The first small changes you try can also make subsequent steps easier.

Unplugging from the industrial food Matrix does not need to happen all at once, but you can extract yourself from it eventually. The first step is starting to see it clearly.

"I'm trying to free your mind, Neo, but I can only show you the door. You're the one that has to walk through it."

Are you eating in the Matrix?

Darya is a scientist, foodie and advocate of local, seasonal foods. For more healthy eating tips visit her blog Summer Tomato. You can also connect with Darya on Twitter @summertomato and Facebook.

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