Updated: May 12, 2020
by Keegan Abernathy, MS, LDN
The American Culture of Eating
Take a moment to contemplate our societal relationship with food. What comes to mind? Perhaps you see a barrage of T.V. advertisements flickering across the screen of your mind. What are these messages telling you? They most likely are emphasizing how important cheap, fast, and easy food is in order for you to sustain yourself. We live in an environment where such messages are constantly being sent to us, reminding us of the 24-7 access to fast food. This is one lens that our culture sees food through. Eating food is a cheap and mindless task that can be a sensory bomb for our mouth to further distract us from what is going on within and around us.
However, there seems to be a shift culturally in regards to how we, as human beings, want to experience and relate to food. Nutrition has become an ever-expanding topic in our culture. In many regards, people want a deeper connection with real food. This is a wonderful shift from the fast and cheap culture of eating. However, I feel that our culture also has a tradition of being obsessive in regards to what foods and ways of eating are “good” or “bad”. Food trends are always rising and falling in America. For years, fat was seen as the cause of the ever-rising chronic disease crisis in America. Now, high-fat low carb diets, such as ketogenic diets, are used therapeutically for weight loss and the reversal of metabolic disease states 1. Research in the field of nutrition is always evolving as more clinical trials are completed to assess the nutritional benefits of specific ways of eating. A problem arises when research in the field of nutrition is touted as fact by various forms of media. One day the internet tells you coconut oil is bad for you, the next it is good, then bad again.
We live in a world with ever-increasing access to nutritional information and, sadly, nutritional misinformation. As a nutritionist, I have seen many clients come in the door who know so much about the field of nutrition. In many cases, these clients are juggling a combination of too much information and nutritional misinformation in their minds. Such clients feel overwhelmed nutritionally. They don’t know what to eat and are constantly experiencing fear around food because they are conflicted about what is “good” or “bad” for their health. Indeed, there was a time in my life where I simply had no idea what I should or should not eat myself. Subtle fears would enter my mind because I knew, or at least I thought I knew, so much about nutrition and its effect on my body.
Some overwhelming thoughts that have surfaced in my mind concerning nutrition and health include:
I should not eat this apple, if I have SIBO it will feed an overgrowth of bacteria in my intestine and cause GI symptoms. This apple could hurt me.
I need to take probiotics. If I have elevated levels of pathogenic bacteria in my colon, probiotics are needed for me to feel better and reduce the population of such overgrowth.
I should not take probiotics, it could potentiate my IBS-like symptoms. Some people with IBD actually have a relapse of symptoms when taking them. So, I should not take them.
Grass-fed butter is high in beta-carotene and n-butyrate. These are great nutrients for colon health. Butter is probably a good thing to eat if the source is quality.
I should avoid butter and dairy due to the proinflammatory mechanisms that casein causes in the small intestine. Dairy products could hurt my belly.
For some of you, these thoughts may sound familiar. I call this a nutritionally overwhelmed relationship with food. Diagnostically in mental health, this is referred to as orthorexia, a disordered eating pattern rooted in an obsession of eating only healthy foods. Nutritionists, doctors, dietitians, media sources, or research articles have replaced the wisdom of our bodies. I believe this has resulted in a cultural disconnect from the lived experience of our body and the simplicity of eating real food. Our bodies may be giving us clear messages on how to eat, but we dissociate from this intuition out of fear because of an overabundance of nutritional knowledge swimming in our minds.
Do not mistake this analysis as an attack on the amazing work and research in the field of nutrition being conducted by qualified practitioners and researchers. Truly, such professionals are needed for the healing of our nation’s metabolic and chronic health crisis. This is more of a critique on how our society often misrepresents the work by such professionals which the public at large then internalizes into negative food-associated behaviors.
Our Health Worries Hurt Us
The paradox for the nutritional overwhelmed is a tragic irony. The stress resulting from worrying about what to eat may be hurting your body more than the actual food. By excessively worrying about the health effects of a food, you actually decrease your body’s ability to digest food thus inducing systemic inflammation physiologically. This happens because the fearful, overwhelming thoughts surrounding the meal you are about to eat induces a sympathetic nervous system response. This means that the body “thinks” it is under attack or is threatened by an outside source. In this case, the threat is coming from the thoughts concerning the possible dangers of eating certain foods. This stress response is useful for short durations of time when you are truly in harm's way.
For example, your sympathetic nervous system activates if you are being chased by a bear while on a hike or if you see a car accident in front of you while driving. Under such stress, the digestion of food is inhibited because it is not a wise devotion of energy at this time. Instead, your heart rate increases, pupils dilate, and respiration increases so that you can handle the threat in front of you and live to see another day. After escaping the bear or dodging the car crash, you can return to life as normal and get back to digesting that food in your belly. This stress response becomes maladaptive when the stress is chronic and constant 2. This can become the case for the nutritionally overwhelmed. The fear and confusion experienced around what should or should not be eaten are manifesting the same stress response in the body as that bear or car crash. However, unlike these two scenarios, there is no escaping it physically since the fearful food thoughts linger in your mind.
One of my favorite studies that may give insight into the ramifications of such nutritional worries is what has been called The French Paradox. An international group of psychologists and sociologists sought to investigate food-related attitudes amongst different cultures. The countries investigated included Japan, France, Belgium, and the US. The survey discovered that Americans were most likely to worry about how food affects health while also being the group that derived the least amount of pleasure from the practice of eating 3. The researchers would ask participants from each country to explain what they think of when they hear the word “chocolate cake”. The French would commonly report words and ideas such as “celebration” while Americans would think of words like “guilt”. You may be wondering what the paradox of this situation is. Well, the paradox resides in the data related to rates of cardiovascular disease in America vs. France. France experiences lower rates of heart disease despite being a culture that indulges in fatty, rich foods with pleasure despite American-based research suggesting such eating habits are unhealthy 4. So, this research goes to show that obsessive worry over eating “healthy” may do nothing in regards to improving our health. This study also suggests that there are other modalities of the human experience such as community, leisure, and physical activity that contribute to well being along with food-related attitudes.
The Medicine for The Nutritionally Overwhelmed
So, what is the medicine for this dis-eased state of mind? What can we do to ease our minds nutritionally? As it so often occurs in life, I feel there is a middle path to be taken in regard to how we can relate to nutrition. Firstly, let's take to heart the solid, evidenced-based truth that a whole foods diet with limited processed food consumption seems to be optimal for physiological health. Next, let's balance this truth with positive food-related attitudes as taught to us by the French. We can live a life of wellbeing without the obsessive worry over our health. We can trust ourselves to take care and, most importantly, listen to our bodies. Such listening, combined with positive regard towards food may be the medicine we really need to heal our relationship with food.
By listening to our bodies, we empower ourselves to be able to sense subtle cravings for certain nutritious foods. Now, there is a difference between a sugar craving or addiction compared to the craving for a fresh apple or roasted brussel sprouts. That is a blog post for another time tasked to examining real food cravings vs. addiction to processed foods. Regardless, our bodies crave salty foods when we are lacking this key electrolyte due to excessive perspiration. Your body lets you know when it is time for water with the experience of thirst. All the macronutrients (protein, fat, and carbs) our bodies need can manifest as cravings. It seems that even micronutrients not directly experienced through the sensation of taste may produce unconscious food preferences. For example, when rats are deficient in vitamin B1 (thiamin), they actively choose food sources rich in B1. This was discovered during a study that purposefully depleted rats of B1 until they were clinically deficient of this micronutrient. They were then presented with two identical meals. The only difference was one was fortified with B1 while the other was denuded of B1. The B1 deficient rats consistently preferred the meal rich in B1 despite both meals looking and tasting the same 5. If rats can listen to the subtle micronutrient needs of their bodies, perhaps we as humans can as well! In fact, when given authority of choice, children can make healthy eating choices in regards to their nutritional needs without outside pressure from parental forces 6.
I feel that it is also important for us to listen to our bodies' hunger not just for physiological purposes, but for the nurturance of the heart and human spirit as well. I believe there are times in life when foods can nurture us as humans on a deeper level even though the food itself may not be what your mind thinks is “healthy”. Maybe it's your mom’s old cookie recipe. All the smells and journey of getting the ingredients brings you back to a beautiful moment in your life as a child. Cooking and eating such a food item can really nourish the heart and reinforce positive food-related attitudes if done with intention, mindfulness, gratitude, and appropriate moderation. Eating such food is a way of honoring your mother while nourishing your spirit with the loving taste of childhood. Now, if you were to eat those cookies every day, I imagine that your body would soon let you know that it has had enough. I feel that such a treat on occasion satiates the soul and deepens our connection to the ones we love and foods that hold a special place in our hearts.
Mindfulness is also key in cultivating an understanding of our bodies and empowering a joyful relationship with food. Mindfulness allows us to become aware of food-thought worries without judgment, without trying to force them away or into mental scrutiny. We can see that such thoughts are impermanent and have as much control over our meal as we allow them too. Greet them, take care of the worries with kindness, then let them go. Mindfulness also empowers us to cultivate positive regard towards our food. We can investigate the true nature of food, contemplate the interconnectedness of the universe in our food, and find profound gratitude for the unseeable forces that bring the abundant meal together before us.
Keegan received his Master of Science in Nutrition and Integrative Health from Maryland University of Integrative Health (MUIH) and is a Certified Nutrition Specialist (CNS) and Licensed Dietitian Nutritionist (LDN). He has witnessed how nutrition has the ability to heal, empower, and enrich lives. Keegan sees eating not only as a way to heal but also as a practice for returning to our true nature. Contact him directly through his website truenaturewellness.net to schedule a consultation.
May you find refuge in the simplicity of eating and drinking. May you turn your ear inward to the guiding wisdom of your body while honoring the nurturance needed within your heart. May every meal be an offering for you to return to your true nature.
For further mindful-eating reading, check out these 5-star picks on Amazon:
1. Westman, E. C., Yancy, W. S., Mavropoulos, J. C., Marquart, M., & McDuffie, J. R. (2008). The effect of a low-carbohydrate, ketogenic diet versus a low-glycemic index diet on glycemic control in type 2 diabetes mellitus. Nutrition & metabolism, 5(1), 36.
2. Sapolsky, R. M. (2004). Why zebras don't get ulcers: The acclaimed guide to stress, stress-related diseases, and coping-now revised and updated. Holt paperbacks.
3. Rozin, P., Fischler, C., Imada, S., Sarubin, A., & Wrzesniewski, A. (1999). Attitudes to food and the role of food in life in the USA, Japan, Flemish Belgium and France: Possible implications for the diet–health debate. Appetite, 33(2), 163-180.
4. Renaud, S. & de Lorgeril, M. (1992). Wine, alcohol, platelets, and the French paradox for coronary heart disease. Lancet, 339, 1523–1526.
5. Harris, L. J., Clay, J., Hargreaves, F. J., & Ward, A. (1933). Appetite and choice of diet: The ability of the vitamin B deficient rat to discriminate between diets containing and lacking the vitamin. Proceedings of the Royal Society of London (B), 113, 161-190.
6. Birch, L. L., & Fisher, J. O. (1998). Development of eating behaviors among children and adolescents. Pediatrics, 101(Supplement 2), 539-549.