Tuesday, 7 July 2020

Our eating habits are not just about food

Imagine you are in a supermarket for your weekly food shop. What are you paying attention to when choosing which foods to buy? Do you have a tendency to glance at nutritional values or calories, do you consider ethical and ecological factors, do you look at the origin of fresh produce, do you compare prices and opt of the cheapest/most expensive items on the shelf?

What we choose to eat goes beyond our physiological needs

Health psychologists have long recognised that what we choose to eat goes far beyond responding to our physiological needs. Our food choices do not take place in a vacuum but in the context of our social, cultural, spiritual, and political environments. Food and eating habits can be a way to express who we are as a person; what our religious, ethical, or spiritual beliefs are; what we consider our cultural heritage; and how we like to connect with others.

Food can be a statement

Jane Ogden, professor for health psychology, suggests that food can be a 'statement of self' and this has been the case for centuries. From the strict vegan to the proud meat eater, our food choices are often indicative of how we relate to ourselves and the world – what is acceptable or unacceptable to us? Are we 'controlling' or 'indulgent' around food and how do we define those categories? Do we use foods as a 'treat' or do we deny ourselves certain things?

Food can express our identity

What we eat can also reflect our cultural, national, or spiritual identities. For example, many religions consider certain foods to be either 'sacred' or 'profane' – just think of beef or pork in the context of various major religions. We may feel patriotic about our home country/region's national dish or reject it in favour of other cuisines, showcasing our cosmopolitan pallet. For those of us who have emigrated, cooking some of the staples from 'back home' may be a way to stay connected to where we are from.

Food and socialising

Food also plays a major role in how we socialise and connect with others – the picnic in the park, preparing a family dinner, going for a nice meal to mark a special occasion...there are many ways in which food is central to our social lives.

Our relationship with food

Sometimes our relationship with food can become skewed and difficult, for example when we start coming overly focussed on our weight or exceedingly controlling, secretive, or shameful around what we consume. If those patterns persist over time, we may be diagnosed with an eating disorder – a serious mental health condition that can have a significant negative physical and psychological impact.

There are many reasons why we eat what we eat and they go far beyond basic nutritional considerations. It can be important to be aware of our relationship with food, particularly as it often reflects our relationship with ourselves and others. 

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