One of the great pleasures in life can be found in the food that we eat. For me, my relationship with food started out as a challenge for many years. Involved in the very aesthetically-focused sport of figure skating, I was forced to be constantly vigilant about my weight. Consequently, I spent the first 16 years of my life with food as my sworn enemy. The food I did eat was tasteless, bland, nonfat, in powder form or compressed into bars that resembled the same particleboard which comprises my Ikea furniture. At that point in my life, I derived none, if very little pleasure from eating my food.
For me, as well as many others, “worries about eating have come to dominate the pleasure of eating: there is little doubt that these worries have eroded the quality of life and reduced the intrinsic and largely innate pleasure of eating” (Wrzesniewski, et al, 2003).
Author Michael Pollan, in The Omnivore’s Dilemma, argues that the people of the United States are deeply engrossed in a national eating disorder, thanks to a huge surfeit of choices in available food (see The Paradox of Choice by Barry Schwartz) coupled with the daily hailstorms of confusing messages about diet, nutrition, health, and obesity. Here, where the super-sized attitude of “more is better” appears to dominate our thinking, many appear to be fighting a daily battle to keep themselves from overindulging, and consequently, food – which should be “one of the major sources of pleasure for human beings” – has become a source of anguish for many, according to Paul Rozin.
After my skating career ended, I made a concerted effort to re-establish a healthy relationship with food, and I’m at a point in my life where cooking and eating are two of my biggest sources of pleasure. Ten years ago, my perspective around having a positive relationship with food would have been very hopeless and charged with negative emotions. Here are some of the strategies I’ve employed in my own life to capitalize on the pleasure I get from food and eating. I hope that these strategies help you increase your own enjoyment:
Explore the cultural and historical roots of the food that you eat.
Michael Pollan argues that “[eating] is an ecological act, and a political act, too,” and “the way we eat is our most profound engagement with the natural world.” Since food is often a social construction, trying new varieties can be thought of as an exchange in history between cultures. Experience new flavors and cuisines, and learn about where and why those types of food emerged from the traditions, environment, cultures and people of that particular place. On the travel channel, catch Anthony Bourdain’s show “No Reservations” or Andrew Zimmern’s “Bizaare Foods” – you will learn why food is tied intricately and often inextricably to history, and how we have been culturally conditioned to feel disgusted by foods that are considered delicacies in other parts of the world.
Savor, Savor, Savor!
According to Pollan, American society eats “a fifth of its meals in cars and feed fully a third of its children at a fast food outlet every day.”
Slow down! Think of everything you eat as a fine wine. Use all 5 senses to indulge in food. Examine its appearance, color, and texture. Remember, your sense of smell has the strongest ties to memory, so when you’re celebrating a special occasion with a special meal, take time to breathe in the aromas – It might help you recall that occasion more vividly. Roll things around in your mouth or chew very slowly. Eat mindfully. Think about where the food comes from. Much as you would with a fine wine, imagine the land, the weather, the vegetation that contributes to its growth and flavor.
Eat smaller portions of really great tasting and nutritious food.
During recent trips to northern Italy, what struck me immediately was that it appeared as though people ate food and drank wine constantly throughout the day, and without much worry for calorie or fat content. In the supermarket, there were no diet cheeses, low fat milks, or sugar free candies. Amazingly, it was as difficult to find people who appeared overweight or obese as it was to find a diet soda in a café. Like the French, who “are legendary for their love of food and wine, their care in preparing, and the richness and variety of their cuisine,” the Italians also seemed to approach meals with much different perspective (Wrzesniewski, et al, 2003).
According to Pollan, people in these countries “decide their dinner questions on the basis of such quaint and unscientific criteria as pleasure and tradition, eat all manner of “unhealthy” foods, and, lo and behold, wind up actually healthier and happier in their eating than we are.”
Eat foods that are seasonal and full of flavor to get more bang for your bite. You might be surprised how little of this food you need to feel content and satisfied.
Make dining as much about family, friends, and good conversation, as it is about eating.
In Italy, most places of business (outside of busy tourist hotspots) are required by law to close for 2-3 hours midday. During this time, they take time to eat a full course meal while sitting with friends and family. The dinners are often elaborate, multi-course meals composed of the freshest and finest ingredients, eaten slowly, accompanied by good company and great conversation.
Many of our lifestyles are fast paced and hectic, requiring us to juggle multiple responsibilities. Carve out time in your day to eat and make it about nourishing your mind and body – try not to eat in your car while driving or stuff your face with a sandwich while walking around your office. Invite people over for meals and cook them together. Make dinnertime a place where busy family members can reconnect with each other and share the details of life that would otherwise get lost in the lightspeed of what is a day-in-the-life for most.
Grow your own food or visit local places that do.
Food is fast in our world today – Pollan calls this eating at the end of an industrial food chain. I order a sandwich at the deli, and in less than 4 minutes, it is sitting in front of me, ready to be devoured. But think about what it took to grow, care for, transport and prepare each portion of the sandwich – the lettuce, tomatoes, bread, ham, and cheese. While it is impossible and burdensome to get rid of these shortcuts and “eat with a fuller consciousness of all that is at stake [all the time]… in practice few things in life afford quite as much satisfaction” (Pollan, 11).
Every March, I visit a local gardening store and buy packets of seeds for the herb garden I keep on my tiny fire escape. I spend a Saturday afternoon filling little Solo cups with dirt and seeds and line them up on my windowsill. As the seeds being to sprout, I look forward to two things: The arrival of spring, and the replanting of the seedlings into their boxes. Until the first chilly frost of winter hits, I am blessed with fresh herbs with which to enliven the food I eat, and I feel humbled and awed each time I experience the delightful tastes that grew from those tiny little seeds, and great satisfaction that I cultivated those plants with my two little hands. Somehow, this sense of pleasure I helped to create means more, tastes better, and feels more robust to me than shaking some dried parsley flakes out of a glass jar I purchased at the supermarket.
In a broader discussion of the good life, “researchers and practitioners have become increasingly interested in promoting lives that could be broadly defined as “good”- lives that are exemplary in a variety of ways, in terms of fulfillment, moral character, physical health, success, or excellence” according to King and colleagues. Physical health, although named by many as one of the main substrates of a fulfilling life, is rarely discussed in depth from a positive psychology perspective.
The United States, as a nation, is faced with the daunting task of overcoming obesity, one of the greatest public health issues to arise in decades: The latest data from the National Center for Health Statistics show that in 1999, 61% of adults in the United States were overweight or obese. This increase in obesity affected people of all cultures, races, ages and genders, and is cited to be associated with some psychological disorders, such as depression (Center for Disease Control, 1999).
In this sense, eating habits and resulting health consequences should absolutely be factored into our conception of the good life. I realize this kind of change (on a grand scale) is rather ambitious, but I’m willing to bet that shifting our attitudes about eating would have a huge impact on our health, and the way we perceive the quality of our lives as a whole. We have to eat to stay alive: Wouldn’t it be wonderful if food could help us thrive by providing us with a source of joy and pleasure, and contributing to our satisfaction with life?
Centers for Disease Control. The surgeon general’s call to action to prevent and decrease overweight and obesity.
King, L. A., Eells, J. E., & Burton, C. M. (2004). The good life, broadly defined. In P. A. Linley & S. Joseph (Eds.). Positive Psychology in Practice, pp. 35-52. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons.
Pollan, M. (2006). The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals. New York: Penguin Press.
Rozin, P. (1999). Preadaption and the puzzles and properties of pleasure. In D. Kahneman, E. Diener & N. Schwartz (eds). Well-Being: The Foundations of Hedonic Psychology (pp. 109-133). New York: Russell Sage.
Schwartz, B. (2004). The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less. New York: Ecco.
Wrzesniewski, A., Rozin, P., and Bennet, G. (2003). Working, playing, and eating: Making the most of most moments. In C. L. M. Keyes, & J. Haidt (eds.). Flourishing: Positive Psychology and the Life Well-Lived (pp. 185-204). Washington, D. C.: American Psychological Association.
Healthy food courtesy of jazzijava
Yes, Slow food is good stuff and savoring would be even better if there were special set-aside times for it. I guess it is a question of commitment. Do you make time to smell the roses or to taste the potato salad?
With a lot of the conflicting diet fads basically muddling the public awareness of the science of gaining and losing weight, if you gave the average person a quiz on which foods were healthy and which were not, I don’t know if there would be a general consensus.
I suspect that a lot of people, myself included, just throw up their hands and say: if it tastes good, down the hatch!
Yummy article, G.P.
Here’s another point worth mentioning.
Do you remember those little Flintstone Chewable Vitamins that Mom gave you when you were a kid? How about Cherry Flavored Robitussin for Kids? I used to practically salivate over those things. If you can make kids enjoy the healthy foods from the minute they starting eating solid food, then, WOW, there is a big advantage for these kids’ health. I know a family whose kids don’t trade for candy bars and chocolate but for fresh bananas in the school lunchroom. What a great and inspiring thing to see!
Gloria, I can so see you as the rustic chef in your apartment overlooking the rooftops, with your solo cups of herbs, some tomato-based createion brewing on top of the stove. What a wonderful article!
I had not heard of Michael Pollan’s “The Omnivore’s Dilemma” before – it seems to support us so many of the studies you cite – the King et. al., Rozin, and Wrzesniewski et. al. studies.
Ah! I will now mindfully eat the next raisin that I eat – chewing it, and imagining the sun-filled valley that it came from! Merci! Really. The article – this may sound funny – makes me feel full, like I’ve just eaten a filling olive-oil-based meal.
I agree – I’m sure there is a lot of research on the acquisition of food preferences out there that I haven’t had time to look for yet, but I do think your childhood has a huge influence on eating habits. I’m Korean, so I was exposed to very wide variety of food at a very early age. I’m sure that has something to do with my openness to trying varieties of food. I remember at my brother’s wedding rehearsal dinner, several people were amazed watching my little cousins eat away happily at a bowl of pumpkin porridge or fish soup (they would say “my kids would NEVER eat that”)…
It would indeed be wonderful if all parents took the time to teach their children about food. I see kids on the bus all the time here in Philadelphia eating Doritos and a bottle of Pepsi for breakfast. I can’t imagine that is a good start to anyone’s day.
Thanks for your comments 🙂
Pollan says he borrowed the phrase “The Omnivore’s Dilemma” from Paul Rozin. I happened upon his very intriguing book in the Penn book store – I think you would enjoy it.
I loved your Raisin exercise! Thanks for sharing with me.
Thanks so much, Gloria, for this great article! I’ve thought a lot about the food issues of this country, and I agree that the ideas of positive psychology have a lot to add to the discussion. I am in contact with an organization specifically devoted to combating obesity in America’s teenagers, and I plan to keep a printout of this article in my folder of ideas to present to them. And, P.S., I’ve been longing to travel to Italy, and your article whetted my appetite even more for that vision!