Last weekend, after a lovely evening at a restaurant with friends, I found myself thinking about the social importance of food and the many reasons we eat.
Do We Eat to Live or Live to Eat?
We all have to eat to stay alive but beyond that food has different meanings for different people. For some people food is a source of profound pleasure, others see food as medicine. Food can be something that brings together communities, a good social occasion, something you use to show love or to comfort yourself.
Thou shouldst eat to live; not live to eat. Socrates
I remember reading a magazine article in which diet-guru Rosemary Conley was quoted as saying that she eats to live and realising how different my approach to food was. It’s not that I live only to eat, but that food is a source of great pleasure in my life and healthy eating an integral part of my lifestyle.
Food for Pleasure
When I was growing up we weren’t allowed to talk at the table. My mother insisted we savour our food and to do that you had to concentrate on what you were eating. I had a similar experience once at a Buddhist Retreat Centre where we ate each meal in silence, our entire focus on the experience on tasting and eating. It certainly made me appreciate my food more and turned mealtimes into a form of meditation.
When I think about food I love, I think about different tastes and textures and the pleasure I derive from eating. Eating is a very sensory experience – the smell, the look, texture, taste and even the psychological effect of how food makes you feel afterwards.
I love biting into the soft flesh of mangoes and feeling the juice drip down my chin, I love a good tender steak and the velvety sweetness of dark chocolate melting on my tongue. I could go on and on as there are so many things I love, but the point is flavours come in many guises – sweet, sour, spicy, fruity, salty and so on. And foods can melt or explode on your tongue, flavours mingle, smells intertwine. Savouring them is part of the pleasure.
One of my favourite ways of socialising is inviting friends around to my home for a meal. I find feeding people a very nurturing experience and one I derive a great deal of pleasure from. I enjoy the anticipation of the meal and the sense of community that comes from sharing a meal in my private space. Usually, the food isn’t as important as the conversation and the communal act of eating together.
Food as Medicine
I’m a firm believer that we are what we eat and whenever I’m not feeling well, instead of rushing to my GP or reaching for the pill bottle, I immediately think of what I can eat to help me heal. By now you’re probably thinking that I’m a bit of a food obsessive in sickness and in health!
I know that there are certain foods that make me feel alert and energetic and other foods that make me feel irritable or sleepy after eating them. Too much caffeine, sugar and starch and I become lethargic and grumpy. If I want to control my energy levels I need to eat protein at every meal and eat little and often.
If I’m feeling nauseous I’ll drink lemon juice to help my liver and increase my alkaline levels, or I’ll have peppermint tea after dinner to aid digestion rather than popping a Rennie. I know that if I eat oily fish regularly and seeds and nuts my joints will be thanking me and I’ll hopefully keep depression at bay. Which is not to say that I’m a saint, just that most of the time I try to think how I can choose foods to help my body rather than harm it.
Food for Comfort
Of course, there are many of us who turn to food as a source of comfort. Who hasn’t reached for the chocolate in times of emotional crisis or used food as a means of reward for achieving something. Because you deserve it. Or eating because you’re bored.
Everything is fine in moderation, the problem is when comfort eating becomes a habit and food is being used to fill an emotional void. Most people who comfort eat aren’t snacking on fruit and vegetables. It tends to be foods with a high sugar, salt and fat content that have the most appeal and the result is normally weight gain.
Food as a Source of Community
When I think about major religious calendar events of the year like Christmas, Easter, Passover, the end of Ramadan, traditional foods come to mind – the kind you only eat once a year or on very special occasions. These festivals are also associated with celebration feasts that bring families and communities together.
In many festivals and celebrations the food eaten is symbolic like matzah (unleavened bread) which is eaten during Passover or traditional, like turkey at Christmas and Easter eggs at Easter.
It’s not only religious festivals that call for special meals. We often celebrate birthdays and weddings with special meals for friends and loved ones, the Americans celebrate Thanksgiving each year with a traditional Thanksgiving meal. Take away the meal and what are you left with? Sharing food in a common cause brings people together in an intimate and profound way.
What Food Means to Me
I would say that I both eat to live and live to eat. Food is more important to me than just a means to stay alive. It is a way for me to share and nurture, to express love for myself and for my friends and family and to protect and preserve my health. And most important, it is a source of great pleasure shared between me and my taste buds.