The Allure of CarbohydratesSure, carbohydrates are more-ish to say the least - in the past I have been known to nail a packet of biscuits in a single sitting, slotting them in one-by-one with machine-like determination. And we can certainly lay blame for some of this squarely at the door of those responsible for the current composition of the western diet - the organisations who peddled the low fat myth and the food companies who cynically exploit it to sell junk masquerading as health food. However, society must shoulder some collective blame for another factor, not as often discussed: our emotional eating.
Learning and AssociationFood associations can be powerful - our negative experiences as children can lead to lifetime likes or dislikes - even phobias - of food. Often these are minor and we grow out of them - most of us disliked at least one vegetable as a child but later came to tolerate it. But sometimes they stick - I have a colleague at work who cannot even look at cooked fish, let alone eat it. I have not pried as to the possible causes, but given that the issue extends beyond taste, it's reasonable to assume that there is more to it.
Likewise, we form associations with positive experiences and develop learned emotional responses to foods. When I was young, my grandmother used to bring me sugary, milky tea and excessively buttered white, crust-less toast in the morning. I sometimes crave these foods even now, but sense it is as much the experience of staying at my grandparents I am hankering for and if I went to the trouble of recreating that breakfast I would probably be disappointed by the reality.
These examples are inevitable consequences of our associative learning mechanisms, about which there's little we can do. However, there are also more ingrained social factors at play which have become part of the grammar of parenthood. As a society we have built an emotional framework around food, teaching our children from an early age to associate it with positive behaviour, using it as a bargaining chip, reward and even punishment.
By her own admission, Mrs M has an emotional relationship with food that adds an extra dimension to her efforts to eat a healthy diet. Those of you who followed The Great Cake Porn Tour will recall how she made heroic efforts to indulge her every sugary whim on our recent trip to the US, taking a break from her usually sugar-free diet. For Mrs M, there are a few buttons which, when pushed, created a powerful urge to eat sugary food. These are stress and the excitement of holidays. We think the latter is a result of childhood associations.
Reward and PunishmentI was recently shopping in a supermarket when I noticed a screaming child, aged around two, whose mother was browsing nearby. The child was clearly not happy about being confined to the shopping trolley. The mother, almost without averting her gaze from the shelf, reached into her handbag, rummaged for a moment, then leaned back to provide the child with a chocolate bar. Immediately, the child was silenced.
In my childhood family, like many others, the mantra 'If you don't eat your meal, you can't have any pudding' could sometimes be heard. Similarly, the notion of sugary food as a treat or a reward for good behaviour was not unheard of. To be fair to my folks, the reward and punishment systems they used were far more varied than this, as a result of which (I speculate) my brother and I do not have particularly strong emotional associations with food. This may also be because we are male, because we are genetically predisposed to functional as opposed to emotional eating, neither or both.
The MediaFor years the media and advertisers have been reinforcing our emotional responses to food. Consider the dumped girlfriend with a tub of ice cream watching Friends re-runs. The industry thrives on stereotypes and caricatures and we often take them as a cue for our own behaviour, leading to a positive feedback loop - life imitates art then art imitates life's imitation. At moments of great stress, it sometimes fleetingly occurs to me to find a bar and ask the barman to line up the whiskies. Why? Because that's what they do on TV.
When I Googled "comfort food" for images, I found over 200,000 - and that's just images. It gives you an idea of how the link between food and emotion has become part of our culture.
Which Came First?Yet this is surely a modern phenomenon. Would stone age woman, upon discovering that her cave-partner had clubbed a neighbouring female over the head and dragged her into the cave while she was out foraging, have sought solace with a handful of nuts and berries whilst asking some friends to re-enact The One Where Ug Kisses Og?
The food industry and society have semi-consciously conspired to create a situation in which not only do our foods make it hard to eat according to our appetite, but our socialisation has created appetite triggers that have nothing to do with hunger.
The question is, which came first? If we had never manufactured these foods in the first place, would the available natural foods have been considered emotional currency? Or was it our innate desire to comfort ourselves in an increasingly stressful world that drove the demand for crappy food and encouraged the food industry charlatans to swap their overalls for lab coats? I am not sure that knowing the answer will help us much.
For my own part, my kids won't be getting nasty foods as a treat or reward. I know parenthood is tough and don't for one minute underestimate the scale of the challenge - but I will certainly do my best to keep unhealthy food out of the bargaining process.