When Food is More Than a Meal

WhenFoodIsMoreThanAMealAside from weight loss itself, which has an obvious implication for what one eats, there are lots of health conditions with some dietary component to their management. Some examples: People with high blood pressure need to be aware of sodium intake, some medications interact with food or drink, and folks with food allergies are on constant high alert. These sorts of changes can be very difficult for people to make, and it’s not just because they enjoy the taste of forbidden foods. Food can be much more than just a meal.

I see this most clearly whenever I make my own attempts to make healthier food choices. I do very well on my own and at home. Where I stumble is when it’s time to eat socially. The nachos and beer I share with my friends are delicious, but they’re also a way to bond and experience a pleasure as a group. Abstaining from that can feel like I’m giving up much more than melty cheese and malty beverages. (Smokers often report a similar sense of loss when they quit; cigarette breaks are evidently a good time for smokers to hang out together.)

Some holiday foods I recently enjoyed with family--a social way to show love.
Some holiday foods I recently enjoyed with family–a social way to show love.

In many cultures, food also has come to equal love. We’re probably all familiar with the stereotype of the Jewish mother urging more food on her children. Many of us have eaten something we weren’t hungry for as a way to show appreciation or respect for the person who prepared it and offered it to us. We ritualistically provide food as a way of caring, for example by bringing casseroles and prepared meals to grieving friends following a death. An interesting health op-ed claims that when someone is seriously or terminally ill, there’s a trend to opt for feeding tubes that don’t prolong life so that the family can continue to provide care via food. As the author of the piece notes, “Food is how we know best to care for one another, from breast to deathbed.”

Food also has powerful emotional associations for people that make each meal a memory. The famous literary example of the ties between food and memory comes from Marcel Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past, in which the taste of a madeleine brings back a time long gone for the narrator. (As a side note, at least one modern reporter has investigated Proust’s account of the madeleine and contents it was actually soggy toast.) My childhood memories aren’t tied to anything so elegant as a madeleine, but certain tastes do bring me right back to my grandmother’s kitchen or my grade school classroom.

All of this is to say, any behavior change that requires moderating food intake and especially forsaking certain foods is a much more emotionally complicated issue than simply deciding to eat differently. As behavior change professionals, it’s important to realize that what seem like simple health decisions have multiple layers for people. Giving up a favorite treat may also mean giving up fun times with friends, disrupting a relationship or forgoing an opportunity to show affection, and severing an easy way to relive a treasured memory.  Food is more than a meal; it’s an emotional, cognitive, and social experience.