New research on the biological, social, and cultural forces that shape our appetites can shed some light on food addiction, eating disorders and your strange midnight cravings
Life’s sweetest memories and toughest struggles often revolve around what goes into our mouths.
Perhaps that’s why our relationships with food can be as tumultuous as any romantic entanglement. But new research on the biological, social and cultural forces that shape our appetites could help us find harmony – at last.
There was the one you took to bed, even though you knew you’d regret it the next morning and the one you didn’t want any of your friends to know about. And – of course – the one you knew was good for you but just didn’t turn you on.
If only we were talking about men – not tubs of ice-cream, chicken wings and steamed spinach. Compared with food, romantic partners are relatively simple. Yes, they sometimes cause you to cry, swear, or toss a few shirts out onto the footpath, but you can always walk away from those relationships. You and food, on the other hand, are stuck together for life.
Even if you consider yourself “normal” when it comes to what you choose to eat, your relationship with food is probably more complicated than you realise. It might be the most complex relationship in your life, which explains why a recent poll of more than 6000 Women’s Health* readers found that nearly 30 per cent of women feel stressed about food – every single day.
Sometimes that angst can manifest in extreme ways: according to SANE Australia, approximately two per cent of Australians will be diagnosed with an eating disorder at some point in their lives (90 per cent will be women), and 27 per cent are obese, according to Roy Morgan market research. But even among those of us whose approach to food isn’t physically unhealthy, you’d be hard-pressed to find a woman who is totally free of food issues.
For many, it’s guilt about overeating or caving in to cravings for things we know aren’t good for us. In other cases, it’s more of a quirk – such as avoiding foods with a certain texture or colour, or shuddering if our vegetables and meat touch. For most of us, it’s the fact that food is much more than the simple fuel our ancestors considered it to be. A piece of chocolate might be a sin, a reward or a comfort. Or all three. Is it any wonder that a balanced, unremorseful attitude towards food is practically extinct?
In her book Women, Food and God: An Unexpected Path To Almost Everything, author Geneen Roth describes how the way women eat is inseparable from the way they feel about themselves. “No matter how sophisticated or wise or enlightened you believe you are, how you eat tells all. The world is on your plate. When you begin to understand what prompts you to use food as a way to numb or distract yourself, the process takes you to the bright centre of your own life.”
So why do we love food one minute and hate it the next? Many reasons: physiology, genetics, family, cultural baggage… But the relationship each of us has with the stuff we put in our mouths doesn’t have to be so turbulent. Once we have a clearer picture of what precisely shapes our eating behaviour, we can start enjoying our food a whole lot more.
Tip of your tongue
Tastebuds may not rank on your list of the most important body parts, but they could be partly responsible for your cave-dwelling ancestors’ surviving to fight another mammoth. Scientists have long hypothesised that because toxic foods often taste bitter, the ability to distinguish flavours is an evolutionary advantage.
If you have a sweet tooth, you can chalk that up to your genes, too, because your taste preferences are coded in your DNA. A study published in Physiology & Behavior found that as much as 45 per cent of our food preferences are determined by genetics. Among the things controlled by biology is the number of tastebuds you have, and that – in combination with genes for what you taste – can determine whether you’re extra sensitive to most foods and therefore more inclined to be picky about what you eat.
We may not be wired to like bitter flavours, but we can learn to enjoy them with repeated exposure (think back to the first time you drank coffee… or beer). And this process often starts early, even in utero. A study at the Monell Chemical Senses Center in the US found that when women drank carrot juice during pregnancy, their babies were willing to eat more baby cereal mixed with carrot juice than were the babies of mothers who didn’t drink the juice – and they presumably enjoyed it more too, since they grimaced less during their feedings.
But while a large part of what we like to eat is driven by simple biology, even more isn’t – 55 per cent, according to the Physiology & Behavior study. Some of it is learned: a baby may grab whatever is on her parents’ plates, picking up their food preferences in the same way she picks up their language. We also adopt our folks’ attitudes about food. Dr Brian Wansink, author of Mindless Eating and founder of the Food and Brand Lab at Cornell University, US, recalls a colleague who grew up hearing from her mum that it’s “low-class” to eat lollies between meals. Because her mother stigmatised the practice, the woman never indulged in it herself.
Our earliest associations about food – the ones we can end up retaining for life – are formed during childhood. So if you couldn’t watch TV unless you ate your broccoli, eating it might feel like a chore now. Jessica Philips, 28, recalls how as a child she wasn’t allowed to leave the table until her plate was clean. “I grew up with images of poverty in Africa and starving children on TV,” she says. “It was ingrained in me to not allow any food wastage. So even though I’m full, I’ll carry on eating because I can’t bear to throw anything away. My husband jokes that we should get a dog to feed scraps to.”
On the flip side, the foods we find most comforting are the ones we associate with positive emotions. A woman in one of Dr Wansink’s studies loved to munch on popcorn mixed with M&M’s because it made her feel domestic, cosy, and safe – the emotions she felt as she prepared this same snack with her university boyfriend, the man she eventually married. “Even if the memories are vague,” says Dr Wansink, “the feelings they evoke pull you to these foods when you want to boost your mood or sustain a happy feeling.”
Our food, ourselves
The way we think about food becomes as much about what it symbolises as it is about memories, associations and even taste. In the same way you might wear a Rabbitohs jersey to show your loyalty to the team, you may hang on to a fondness for a certain food that connects you to your childhood or ethnic background.
“Food is part of every rite of passage,” says psychologist Dr Kima Cargill.
“It’s a way to connect to one’s ancestors and tell a story or a family or cultural narrative or to manage bereavement,” she says. In other words, food can be who you are, what you want to remember, what you hope for and what you’ve lost – in addition to what you’re putting into your body. With a relationship that intimate, how could we not get emotional about it?
Cultural and social expectations often shape the way we feel about how, or how much, we eat. Priya Ramachandran, 36, grew up in India, where her family considered it uncouth to let food touch anything but the tips of your fingers. “If I have to eat a huge slice of pizza or a long sub, some amount of palm touching is inevitable,” she says. “Inside, I’m cringing.” When she can, she cuts larger slices of pizza in half, and she won’t go anywhere near a hamburger.
In the Western world, where thinness is prized, it’s common for women to down a hefty dose of guilt along with any food they order – especially dessert, says Dr Elizabeth Lombardo, author of A Happy You. It comes down to a feeling of control, she says. If we eat dessert, we may think we have no self-restraint. We’re weak. Dessert wins.
Jane Hedman, 30, knows this battle all too well. “Every time a colleague has a birthday, I have a half hour internal monologue about whether I’m going to skip lunch in favour of a piece of cake.
My workmate, on the other hand, never skips lunch. He just eats the damn cake.”
You can’t alter your DNA, change your cultural background or turn back the clock and make your pregnant mother scull vegetable juice. But now that you understand how these and other factors influence the way you eat and the way you feel about eating, you can work towards making each new experience with food a pleasurable one. It’s a matter of giving yourself permission to enjoy what’s on your plate instead of fretting over whether you’re not eating the right thing, the right amount or the right way, says Dr Lombardo. Here, some other tips to help you savour more and stress less:
FOCUS ON YOUR FOOD You may not have time to enjoy every bite of every meal, but turning off the TV and sitting at a table will help you take more pleasure in what you’re eating.
BUT DON’T BE HYPERVIGILANT “Being too aware of what and how much you eat can turn you into a food obsessive,” says Dr Wansink. “Not to mention that having a mindset of ‘If I walk two kilometres, I can eat this many chips’ is a terrible way to live.”
STOP TELLING YOURSELF NO
Deprivation will just set you up for failure. “It’s a whole lot more liberating to say to yourself ‘I can eat whatever I want, whenever I want, as long as I know how much I actually want’,” says Dr Wansink. We like the way this man thinks.
LISTEN TO YOUR GUT FEELING
If you feel like steak, go ahead and order it, even if everyone else at your table is having salad. Don’t take on other people’s emotional static. “Repeat this mantra,” advises Dr Lombardo: “I choose to enjoy this food.” See, at the end of the day, each of us has to decide for ourselves if we want food to be our enemy or a dear (and delicious) friend.