On egg yolks, direct and indirect measures of success

Does the color of your egg yolks bring you joy? I admit, a deep orangey-yellow glow in the center of a clear, uncloudy albumen makes me happy. The color of an egg yolk is influenced by the diet of the hen. Pasture-raised hens with access to a wider variety of feeds, who hunt and peck around for grubs and bugs, and don’t subsist exclusively on corn are more likely to have eggs with lovely, golden-orange yolks.

For years, I measured the “happiness” of the chickens who hatched the eggs I enjoyed by the color of their yolks. I can’t go out to every farm before I buy eggs, and it’s served as a useful tool to help me buy from producers with more ethical practices. However, yolk color is an indirect measurement of chicken happiness, and there are ways around it. Farmers can give their chickens marigold petals or supplement the feed with other carotenoid-heavy substances, and the orange pigments will make their way to the yolks.

I learned the egg yolk trick when it was a pretty good proxy for happy chickens who lived more humane chicken lives, but I’ve noticed an influx of brightly-orange yolked chicken eggs in the markets here in Portland. Does it mean there’s been a boom in pasture-based practices, or does it represent a rise in marketing and using this indirect indicator to send the message to consumers like myself, “you are making a wholesome choice.” Honestly, I don’t know, because what I do know is that it isn’t a guarantee. Egg yolk color isn’t a direct measurement of farming and feeding practices, just a shortcut, a clue.

We use indirect measures for all sorts of things, and in the diet and fitness industry like in egg production, there are ethical and unethical uses of them. Terrible harms are being done to people who have not been taught the distinction between direct and indirect measures of success.

Body weight is used as a proxy for body fat percentage.

Body weight and body fat percentage are used as proxies for overall health.

Body weight and body size are used as proxies for physical fitness.

Strength and physical ability are used as proxies for hard work and dedication.

Time training is used as a proxy for training effectiveness.

Muscle size is used as a proxy for lifting knowledge.

These indirect measures are more convenient, easier to quantify or to see, and that is why they exist. But they don’t actually tell you the thing we use them to tell us. And that means that sometimes, maybe even most of the time, they’re wrong.

If you want to know how healthy you are, you have to begin with the challenging task of defining what health means to you. It’s multidimensional and variable, not measured by a single number and static. Who cares if you have beautiful, bulging biceps if it’s at the cost of social connection, being a good spouse, or means you’re chronically micromanaging your eating and training. And what is healthy for you right now is going to change as your life and your body changes. Who we are today is not who we were five years ago.

For me, that means my goals today must necessarily reflect who I am today and what is right for me right now, not just who I hoped I would become. The direct measures of my success right now are different than what they were in years past. Body weight, body size, body composition, muscularity–these silly and privileged goals of bodybuilding–are proxies for the real goal, to live an active life, to feel good and mostly pain-free, to show up in the world authentically as myself, to stop apologizing for taking up space and having my own needs. These are the pasture; the other stuff is just orange yolk.

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