Enjoy Food: Why you don’t need to stress about your eating

March 2nd, 2020 by Sara Upson

Did you know that many countries include enjoying food in their official dietary guidelines? Canada, Australia, Japan, South Africa, Lebanon, Spain, Slovenia, Romania, Italy, Germany, Bulgaria, Barbados, Brazil, Ecuador, Mexico, Peru, and Uruguay all promote enjoying food as part of healthy living.  The United States is one of the few countries that doesn’t!

The United States takes a very black and white, scientific approach to food and nutrition.  In that process we forget that we don’t eat vitamins, minerals, macros- we eat food.  Yes, the food is made up of vitamins and minerals, macros, etc- but the reason we choose food is because of preference- taste, texture, satisfaction, etc.  Because we like it- and that’s okay.  (Granted while trapped in diet culture this won’t be how you choose food…)

This rigid approach to food hasn’t helped- and in reality it’s harmed.  It’s okay to enjoy your food- and research backs this up!

Americans associate food with guilt and worry.  A 1999 study by Rozin, et al asked people from a variety of different countries their attitudes about food.  The results included that the French associate food with pleasure and Americans with worry.   When asked the first word that came to mind with chocolate cake the French said “celebration” and Americans said “guilt.”  When asked about heavy cream the French said “whipped” and Americans said “unhealthy.”

Compared to other countries, Americans worry the most about food, modify their diet the most in what they perceive to be healthy, and consider themselves to be less healthy eaters. (Rozin, 1999)   The researchers stated, “Americans have the worst of both worry worlds, greater concern and greater dissatisfaction”- that the greater worry did not lead to improved satisfaction with health.  A 2014 study took this one step further and said “worry, concern and guilt about food are counterproductive.”

Diet culture thrives off this rigidity around food and shames food enjoyment.  One of the most common statements that I hear in session with clients- is that it’s not okay to enjoy food. That you should feel guilty for enjoying food or liking food.  That it’s bad, a sin, unhealthy, a weakness, wrong, or just something you shouldn’t do. 

The irony is, food enjoyment actually improves health.  It leads to more pleasure with food, greater nutrient absorption, higher levels of perceived behavioral control, less worry and concern around food.  (Actually the opposite that diet culture suggests).  One really interesting study (from 1977) looked at how iron absorption was impacted by food satisfaction.  In the study, Swedish and Thai women were first fed a traditional Thai dish that Swedish women didn’t enjoy.  The Thai women, who were familiar with and liked the dish, absorbed more iron than the Swedes.  Next the researchers fed the Thai women a traditional Swedish meal that the Thai women didn’t like.  This time the Swedish women absorbed more iron than the Thais.  In the third variation the women were fed blenderized food that provided a lot of nutrition but was lacking in taste and texture.  In that variation, neither group absorbed much iron.

Food worry decreases health.  Additionally, there is evidence that stress around eating impacts health and wellbeing leading to increased cortisol levels, activating the hypothalamic pituitary axis, and increasing inflammatory markers.

So what do you do?  Enjoy your food.  Seriously- when was the last time you chose food because it sounded good?  If that sounds like too much then start by asking yourself if you actually like or enjoy the food that you’re eating. If not, why not?  What would need to be different?  

The truth is- it’s okay to enjoy your food.  Not just okay- but health promoting (and to be clear it doesn’t have to be health promoting for it to be okay to enjoy your food- that’s the same line of thinking that creates more food worry).  It’s okay to enjoy your food just because.  It’s okay to associate chocolate cake with pleasure and celebration and the good news is- when you do this you’ll actually end up feeling more in charge of your eating, have less stress, worry, improve health, improve digestion and absorption, spend less time thinking about food, and likely just feel better overall.

So the next time you’re enjoying your food and begin to feel bad- challenge your automatic thoughts.  Recognize them, call them out, reframe them- it’s okay to enjoy your food.  Only diet culture says you can’t enjoy food.  Stressing about food only creates more fear worry and concern- you don’t need that. 

Roeline G. Kuijer, Jessica A. Boyce.  Chocolate cake. Guilt or celebration? Associations with healthy eating attitudes, perceived behavioural control, intentions and weight-loss.  Appetite 2014; 74: 48-54.

Hallberg L, et al.  Iron absorption from Southeast Asian diets. II. Role of various factors that might explain low absorption.  Am J Clin Nutr. 1977; 30: 539-548.

Rozin, Et. Al.  Hallberg L, et al. Attitudes to Food and the Role of Food in Life in the U.S.A., Japan, Flemish Belgium and France: Possible Implications for the Diet–Health Debate.  Appetite 1999; 33: 163-180.

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