Food serves many functions in our society today - but it’s anything but simple.
Consuming food is, on a biological level, a fairly straightforward process: Our body needs energy to function properly and survive, so our body gives us signals that we’re hungry. It’s one of the oldest needs we have - since the beginning of the Homosapien, from our first day alive till our dying day, we require food to live. We eat food —> our body receives nutrients and energy. Done. And yet, despite it’s common place existence in our day to day lives, taking this approach to the way we eat is over-simplified in today’s society.
If we simply ate because we were satisfying an unconscious nutritional requirement, many foods we eat would not exist. Simply put, many of the foods we eat hold very little to no nutritional value.
We’re talking here about taste; the foods we eat BECAUSE they’re tasty, and because we enjoy pleasurable things. These foods don’t (or at least shouldn’t) typically make up the bulk of what we consume (most nutritionists will tell you this is not ideal).
And then there’s the fact that consuming food has a large cultural function. Each culture has definitive practices and customs surrounding not only the consumption of food, but the preparation and preservation, particularly in a religious context: for example Halal preparation in Islamic culture, Kosher preparation in Judaism, and the consecration of thirst into ‘bread and wine’ in Catholicism.
At it’s core, while eating is something we can all do alone, it is something we often do together- and this has become one of the core purposes of eating - to be social, to share, to come together as a community. Encouraged by it’s regularity and necessity, as well as it’s enjoyment, it’s become a way to connect - if we all need to do it, why not do it together? Why not share resources, save money, reduce surplus, and connect socially? With that, there are certain traditions; we might feel a sense of expectation to eat particular things because of this social factor.
Some people even use the food they do or do not eat to define their political identity. Vegans, pescatarians, vegetarians - when eating turns into a representation of ethics or moral obligations, taking you are what you eat to a whole new level. Even the booms of ‘super foods’, fad diets and organic foods are ways to control the way we perceive ourselves, our moral worth and our social desirability.
Then there are all of the industries that revolve around food; farmers, chefs, reviewers, cooks, hospitality, entertainment, horticulturalists, abattoirs, nutritionalists… the list goes on. And the profession that we rarely think of in public society is that of the eating disorder specialist.
Then… there’s the relationship between the food we eat and what we look like, as a result - but appearances and their cultural impact is a conversation for another day.
What we can see, though, is that:
Food is a massive part of our every day life. It carries with it significances that far surpass simple biological needs - when and what we eat dictates our social cohesiveness. Our diet tells people who we are and what we believe in. It’s not as easy as just eating when you’re hungry; you eat to impress, to de-stress, to express…
So, what happens when our need to control our internal emotional world and how others perceive us collides with our very real biological needs? Well… this is where the disordered part of a relationship with food begins.
Disorders like anorexia nervosa, bulimia, body dysmorphia and the whole EDNOS(Eating Disordered Not Otherwise Specified) spectrum and their prevalence in our society are indication enough that consuming food isn't simply about nutrition… something that’s good for us can be a tool to do bad to ourselves. Something seemingly ‘natural’ can become unnatural, or disordered… Food affects emotional needs as much as it controls biological ones.
Food can seem to satisfy or dilute many states of psychological stress. It’s not abnormal for most people to use food to satisfy:
A need to numb or dull sadness
A need to avoid problems
A need to feel comfort
A need to feel a sense of control
This behaviour can occur irregularly, or can become a coping pattern that substitutes other healthier alternatives for getting help like seeking assistance, speaking out, reflection, exercise, medication… whatever works for the individual.
The two most interesting needs when considering food-abuse is comfort eating and eating for control. Comfort eating has been completely normalised in western culture - one only needs to consult a magazine article about ‘what to eat to soothe your broken heart’ to get a picture that indulging in ‘treat’ food is a way to cope with emotional distress. Whilst this, in moderation, is not necessarily cause for alarm, in excess it can lead to problems like bulimia or obesity.
The inverse of turning to food to treat our emotional maladies is refusing to turn to food for anything. Calorie counting, the reduction of certain foods and completely restricting are ways that people can attempt to impose moralistic judgements upon themselves and others - who can say they haven't felt apologetic about eating “bad” foods in front of others, as if certain foods could be called ‘good’ and some ‘bad’?
There are a myriad of foods to consume, and a myriad ways to consume it. Perhaps it is important that as a culture we consider the place that food holds in our society - it is only in unpacking its true power that we can start to understand both the sicknesses that plague our community, and the paths to healing, and how to use eating to nourish us along the way.