“Food is not rational. Food is culture, habit, and identity.” Jonathan Safran Foer.
Eastern and Western cultures think in profoundly different ways - food is no exception. David Robson, author of the Intelligence Trap and former BBC Future journalist, explains in this article how Western civilisations value personal success over group achievement. As a result, Westerners tend to believe that they are solely responsible for their strengths and weaknesses. Easterners, on the other hand, tend to believe that context and situation are equally responsible for an individual’s achievement of success.
Even within Europe, some cultures believe that our relationship with food has only two participants; the food and the individual. Hence, if we are overweight or struggle with diet and binge eating, we assume we have only ourselves to blame. By learning from other cultures, we could explore how our environment affects our relationship with food.
Let’s talk about Sally. Sally is 40, English born and raised, she loves sport and she’s overweight. She admires Margot, a French friend who has a slim figure and an easy relationship with food. Margot is also 40, she is lean but not very fit. Conversely, Margot admires Sally’s fitness and energy.
Sally grew up in the North of England in the 1980-90s. Food wasn’t a priority. In 1980, Margaret Thatcher, Prime Minister at the time, ended the entitlement to free school meals which led to the decrease in the standard of school meals. Eating was perceived as a practical experience. Sally’s family dinner consisted of defrosted comfort food in front of the TV. Both her parents worked and eating was seen as a necessity rather than a pleasure. Therefore, the goal of dinner was to feel full and thus satisfied. Rather than bonding through food, every weekend, her family bonded by playing sports together.
Margot grew up in the South of France during the same period. French school meals were an hour and half to two hours long and followed strict food recommendations. Culturally, within France, eating has always been seen as a hedonistic experience. However, in the 1980-90s, France also witnessed the success of frozen meals. Margot’s parents both worked and the family dinner also often consisted of defrosted comfort food. However, the family had a little ritual. Margot’s parents often added some spice or condiment to the meal and the children had to guess what it was. They ate in the kitchen, where no TV was present, and this ritual helped to create a bonding experience over food. For Margot, eating became a sensory experience as well as a game.
Our food experiences shape our habits and relationship with food
It is important to identify our “food education” as it often determines our perception of “healthy habits”. Our food education comes not only from our family but also the culture in which we grow up.
So what does “Healthy eating” mean for you? Is it restricting the calories you consume? Is it avoiding certain foods or only eating one meal a day but being surrounded by your family?
What we read and hear around us - our culture, affects our perception of what is healthy and what is toxic. So although different cultures can disagree on the content of a healthy diet, according to a Swiss national nutrition survey “the consumer’s perception of food as utilitarian or hedonistic has a positive predictor of the cognitive and affective attitude towards food.” Or to put in other words: If we perceive food as a friend, we are more likely to have a healthy relationship with it. If we perceive it as a foe, we are more likely to fight against it.
In our example, Margot believed until recently that eating healthily meant eating a big breakfast full of carbohydrates, a good lunch and a small dinner. Conversely, for Sally, healthy eating meant eating when she felt hungry and skipping meals when she didn't feel like eating. So, whilst Margot’s viewpoint is not necessarily correct (evidence is building about the benefits of a low-carb diet and intermittent fasting), her perception of food (namely that food is seen as a pleasure) contributes to her health. Sally, on the other hand, sees food as the enemy. Food is merely sustenance to get her through a busy day at work. You'll mostly find her eating on the run or at her desk. Her mind is always elsewhere — she's disconnected from her satiety signals and often overeats. Whilst food is required, Sally is in a constant battle to resist hunger as long as she can, as in her mind, eating is addictive and fattening and it leads to feelings of guilt and anger.
How can we make food a friend.
After 40 years, my partner discovered that he was a coeliac. Like Sally, he has always had an ambivalent relationship with food - part of which was caused by his body’s inability to process wheat. A first step, towards a more healthy relationship with food is, therefore, to identify any food allergies and to avoid certain foods - either to stay healthy or to recover from chronic illness.
The second step can be to transform the eating experience, from that of a chore, which makes us feel powerless to a more mindful experience. Susan Duncan, a professor in the Department of Food Science and Technology recommends everybody to reflect about the food they consume and to label the emotion linked to it. For example, the next time we eat dinner at home, it is worth taking a few seconds to describe the look of the food on the plate, to smell it, savour the first bite, try to define the taste, feel the texture and understand the feeling associated with it. Does it bring a feeling of calm or worry?
This sensory and cognitive experience can prevent overeating. Research at Havard medical school has shown that eating slowly and mindfully helps you eat less. This introspection could also help address emotional reactions linked to food consumption. This mindful exercise can help us realise that we can become curious about food rather than feeling overwhelmed and resentful.
Lisa Feldman Barrett, neuroscientist and author of “How emotions are made” teaches us how to change our interpretation of bodily sensations. She explains that we are born experiencing simple feelings such as calmness, agitation, excitement, comfort and discomfort as a response to sensations in our body. Then our brain, based on previous knowledge, predicts what to do according to the circumstances.
For example, when we walk by a bakery and smell freshly baked baguettes, our stomach rumbles and our brain predicts hunger. Hence, we often interpret stomach rumbling as a feeling of hunger. As the neuroscientist Maccormack explains, our body releases a host of hormones including cortisol and adrenaline, often associated with stress. However, if our stomach is rumbling in a different situation, for example, as we are about to undertake a scary activity, our brain can predict danger - we may feel like we want to be sick. Alternatively, we may feel excited and feel anticipation (butterflies in our stomach). Similarly, our body will respond by releasing cortisol and adrenaline that we can interpret as “tense and ready to act”.
Understanding our senses, including why our stomach rumbles, not only can help our relationship with food but also help us understand our bodies. As Rachel Lett, nutritionist at Span-Health, mentioned in this article, a food craving could hide a vitamin or mineral deficiency (a chocolate craving can indicate a magnesium deficiency, a savoury snack can signal a lack of potassium or fat). Feeling guilty for craving chocolate or crisps can cause shame and self-loathing - but may be easily resolved.
Becoming curious about the root of our impulses (which could be physical or emotional) could be the first step towards a reconciliation with food. Furthermore, knowing the role of our culture in our food education can help us to understand why we feel as we do towards our food choices - which can empower us to become more mindful of our perception of food.
Written in partnership with our friend Sandra Molies. Sandra specializes in organizational and health psychology, specifically how to enhance professional wellbeing by raising awareness about brain and body connection.
Every month, she explores different strategies to help people take initiative for their physical and mental well-being.
You can read her articles on LinkedIn and Medium and weirdceo.com.