The meaning of food choices
Or: Why Ice Cream is Devine
(Photo Credit :: Wilson Fotografie)
When we ask ourselves the question, “What am I really hungry for?”, the reply we receive from our brains is rarely as simple as it seems. Our food choices are shaped by our culture, our taste buds, advertising dollars, our eating histories, our body and brain’s signals, and, perhaps, something even deeper. (By the way, Dorry, the adorable blogger at Living with Healthy Hunger, wrote a wonderful post on influential food factors that you should check out.)
I’m not talking here specifically about over-eating or binging, which of course may be triggered by issues like low self-esteem, feeling overwhelmed, or a myriad of other possibilities. Even for individuals that do not tend to struggle with eating too much or too little (though I believe that few of do not, at least at times), the foods that we choose to nourish and sustain us carry with them important meaning – symbolic meaning, even. And individuals who do tend to engage in binge eating or struggle with other eating issues, these choices often carry even more emotional weight.
Take a moment to close your eyes and imagine the food that sounds the most delicious and desirable right now.
Got the visual image of that food? Good. Now I want you to imagine the way that it feels to hold it your hand, the way that its aroma rises to your nose as you breathe in, the way that it feels as you place the first bite on your tongue. This is kind of like imaginary mindful eating, if you will.
I now want you to do your best to connect not solely with the physical sensations, but with the emotional ones ones as well – the ones that we experience, but often push to the wayside when it comes to eating. Consider:
- What memories do I have of this particular food? Did I eat this food when I was a child? What associations from my childhood do I have of it?
- What feelings do the thought of the food invoke in me? Excitement? Passion? Fear? Anxiety? A sense of calm?
- What bodily sensations arise when I think about eating this food?
- What does this food represent to me? If one word was associated with this food, what would it be?
The responses to these questions will be different for every person, but there are of course some common themes that often arise. As a more straightforward example, spicy food might represent in you a longing for excitement, a sense of adventure, or a fiery spirit trying to assert itself within the confines of a more structured life. Or maybe you just really like Spicy Thai at the place down the street and haven’t had it in a month – everything doesn’t have to have a deeper meaning after all.
But since my bias is that most things do (and most marketers should agree, since they translate these symbols into dollar signs), let’s take one more example. How about ice cream, since I have a strong affection for the stuff and it was also chosen as one of the top comfort foods in a study, particularly among women.
Stripping away the effects of sugar and carbohydrates on brain functioning, consider for a moment the symbolism in ice cream. To me, its richness and creaminess represent envelopment and safety. It offers a feeling of physical and emotional fullness. It speaks of warm summer days licking a dripping cone as my mom sunbathes. Or nights curled up on a blanket on the couch, safe and secure. Thus, it’s no wonder that when I may be feeling anxious or sad, my body and mind call for black raspberry chip.
If this whole “symbolic meaning of what I put in mouth” stuff is a little too woo-woo for you, hopefully you can at least appreciate that our moods and emotional well-being do play a factor in our food choices. There is a very real mood-food connection. For instance, Edward Gibson of Roehampton University discusses the fact that sweet, fatty foods can improve our moods by improving serotonin and dopamine functioning. However (there’s always a flippin’ catch when it comes to “good news” like this!), eating too much of these foods can result in an over-reliance on them and produce obesity.
So, what do you think? Let’s discuss.
What factors influence your food choices? What are some associations (words, sensations, memories) do you have with your favorite foods? What’s your favorite ice cream flavor?