The Emotional Value of Food

In yesterday’s post, I suggested that the perfect diet could perhaps be described by a triple Venn diagram, where the circles representing nutritional balance, caloric balance, and enjoyment, respectively, fully overlap.

As many readers rightly pointed out, “enjoyment” may be too narrow a definition of that third circle.

Perhaps we should rather describe this circle as “emotional balance”, recognizing that emotion, although a complex construct, is intimately linked to feeding behaviour. (For the sake of discussion, allow me to include both feelings (e.g. apprehension or fear) and sensations (e.g. hunger and satiety) under the term “emotions”.

While experts may argue about just how many basic emotions there may be, there is no doubt that most (if not all) can affect our eating behaviour and/or be affected by it.

Thus, foods may invoke both positive (pleasure, happiness, comfort, satisfaction, satiety) and negative (distress, pain, dissmell, disgust, fear, hunger) feelings or emotions.

While with an ideal diet, nutritional and caloric balance are hopefully in perfect balance, most people will likely prefer the emotional balance to be tipped to the positive side. This would involve maximising positive feelings or sensations while minimising negative ones.

And this is exactly where eating behaviour gets complicated.

It is one thing to focus on nutritional and caloric value of foods – these are objective and can be studied in quantitative research.

It is a completely different story to sort out the emotional value of foods – these are subjective and can only be approached from a qualitative perspective (our methods to objectively quantify emotions are laughable at best).

While our nutritional and caloric needs are dictated by physiology, our emotional needs are dictated by both past and present experiences as well as our general mental disposition.

Throw into this mix the complex influence of other factors like cost, convenience, environmental concerns, ethics, religious beliefs, and traditions and you have a perfect storm.

Unfortunately (or fortunately, depending on the perspective), short-term emotional factors will easily override long-term nutritional or caloric needs.

A food that provides me with enjoyment, comfort, or satiation (even if just for an instant) or relieves my pain, loneliness, boredom, fear, sadness (even for an instant), will tend to be consumed irrespective of its nutritional or caloric value.

In other words, emotions trump physiology.

This would not be such a big problem if we were a) fully aware of our emotions and b) able to control them – neither of which is easy (especially when I have a lot going on).

Traditional dietary counseling tends to focus on the first two dimensions of eating – nutritional and caloric balance. In contrast, it pays little more than lip service to the third dimension, emotional balance.

In other words, I don’t care how much you teach me about nutrients or calories, I still want my burst of happiness or surge of comfort (however brief) – OK, I’m weak, but I’m only human!

I do not for a minute suggest that I have a solution to this problem. However, ignoring this aspect of ingestive behaviour in any discussion of “healthy” eating, means missing a big (perhaps the biggest) part of what makes us eat the things we do.

Edmonton, AB

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