Why do we eat what we eat? We, of course, have to eat to survive. And eating is more important than sex – you can live without sex! All animals eat – but we are the only animal that cooks. Cooking is indeed a symbol of humanity. And we like to eat. Food is a symbol of who we are. As Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin said, “Tell me what you eat, and I’ll tell you what you are” – meaning that what we eat reflects our culture and upbringing.
We have to eat, but food is more than just fuel. It is a social experience; one of the simple pleasures of life. The sharing of food is an important human interaction and is often symbolic. The sharing of food is often a ritual and a symbol of acceptance. Feasts cement agreements, treaties and alliances. We discuss business over a meal. We patch up quarrels with a shared meal. We join together with family and friends to share good times with food and drink. We meet new people over dinner. We seek to woo a lover with a special dinner. We have feasts for birthdays, weddings, religious ceremonies, cultural ceremonies and even funerals. In contrast, a solitary meal is often a punishment – being made to eat by oneself in a corner of the room or being made to eat in silence, implicitly excludes the individual from the social group.
Food is about nurturing. We share food, as it is a gift and a sacrifice. Often we go to much more trouble and expense when serving food to strangers than we do for normal day to day nutrition – to impress and enhance our status.
Food itself is a complex mix of chemicals. Carbohydrates, sugars and fat provide energy – fuel for our bodies.Proteins, fats, vitamins, minerals and other chemicals are for maintenance and provide the things necessary for repair and development.
What we eat is determined by availability. Today, in western society, availability is less of an issue and the wide range of foods available can lead to overeating. Man is an omnivore – we can, and do, eat almost anything and everything. But most of what we eat is determined by our brains – not hunger. What qualifies as food fit for human consumption is culturally defined. In some cultures, grasshopper, snake, dog, and horse are on the menu. Elsewhere, these healthy protein sources provoke disgust.
Why do we love hot fried chips even though people tell us that they are not good for our health? Why do people go out of their way to find a good ice cream, a speciality cheese or a perfectly cooked steak?
Eating may be a need, but it is also a pleasure, a sacrament and a source of eternal delight. We crave chips, chocolate and ice cream because they taste great. Products such as caviar, foie gras, truffles and saffron are worth more than gold. Specialty food stores have become shrines to pleasure and temptation. Yet we are told that we should be on low-fat, low-sugar, high-fibre puritan diets and that most of the things we love are bad for us! In fact, food has replaced sex as the primary source of guilt in Western society. Diet is certainly important – but a puritan diet may actually cause ill-health. Eating what we like can be better for us.
Studies have shown that pleasure is an important part of life and eating. Pleasure is essential to good health as it enhances immunity, and immunity is our main defence against disease. When we feel good about ourselves and are enjoying life, we are less likely to get sick. However when we worry, are stressed and feel constantly tired, our immunity decreases and we tend to catch colds and other infections more easily. Immunity is inhibited by stress and enhanced by pleasure.
Good health requires indulgence, not denial.
But indulgence does not mean gluttony. Gluttony leads to obesity and other diet related diseases and, is not much fun. It dulls our senses and reduces pleasure, leading to worry, stress and guilt. However, embracing indulgence, enjoying the foods we like in small amounts, substituting quality for quantity, can lead to good health.
Good food should be savoured, relished, enjoyed and eaten at leisure. Take time. Sit down. Relax. Eat slowly. Eat mindfully. Talk. Listen. See and taste what you are eating! And enjoy. Please indulge!