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The Psychology of Food

Humans are social creatures by nature. Even the most introverted people find solace and acceptance in relationships they form with other people or things. Yes, things: it is possible to form tangible connections with inanimate objects, and the most common example of this is food.

Although food cannot hold a conversation or join you in your favorite activities, what we eat affects our minds, bodies, and souls just like any human relationship would. Consuming "comfort food" can make us relive fond memories and experience a variety of emotions from just a single bite.

However, there is a dark side when it comes to the psychology of food: we can form unhealthy relationships with the thing that is supposed to aid in our well being. The psychology of food and eating is intricate and complex, with needs, wants, cravings, and personality influencing and clashing with one another.

It's miracle we can decide what to eat for breakfast, let alone make healthy dietary choices that are foreign to us. That being said, there are a plethora of things we can learn from food psychology and how it affects our lives.

Psychological Connection to Food

"Brain food" has a completely new meaning when considered through the lense of psychology. What we choose to eat may feel like a conscious decision, but so many internal and external factors impact our food preferences that in can be hard to tell who or what is actually calling the shots. The psychology of food and eating is not a fiction of anyone's imagination, and has a real life impact on our habits and attitudes.

Biological Need for Food

Of course, there is a biological motivation for why we eat breakfast, lunch, and dinner with snacks in between. We need food in order to survive. When we go without it for too long, our typical behaviors begin to change, often without our permission.

Food gives us energy, so like a car without gas, we begin to shut down physically to conserve what little nourishment we have left. Interests that once brought you joy will no longer seem enticing enough to prompt effort or exertion. The only thing that will have you and your body's entire focus is food (and how to get it).

Hunger in general is the byproduct of a bodily conversation between your nervous system, stomach, and hormonal levels. Depending on how full or empty your stomach is plays a definite role in how hungry you feel, but it doesn't necessarily hold all the cards in this equation. The hypothalamus region of your brain is responsible for responding to stimuli that encourage and discourage eating.

If the hypothalamus is damaged in any way, it can negatively impact your eating behaviors to make you eat more or less than you actually should. Hormones dictate your consumption habits as well. Insulin, orexin, and ghrelin are all essential components that help our bodies figure out when it's chow time.

Eating Disorders and Physical Disorders

Even though food is meant to be beneficial to our bodies, it can cause some serious harm as well. This happens when our attitude towards food becomes distorted, often to the point where our eating choices are hurting us rather than helping. A variety of factors are responsible when a person develops an eating disorder, making simple fixes practically impossible.

An individual's upbringing, mental health, social environment, and culture all affect the many decisions we have to make regarding food. What should you eat? What shouldn't you eat? How much should you eat? The list goes on.

Just as a person who's starving can't think about anything but food, people with eating disorders have a similar fixation on food, but for very different reasons. Here are a few common examples of psychological and physical disordered eating:

  • Anorexia Nervosa: This eating disorder involves an unrealistic perception of one's own body, leading to severe food restriction that results in an extremely low body weight. Weight gain becomes a serious fear for individuals with this condition.
  • Bulimia Nervosa: Bulimia nervosa entails eating copious amounts of food and expelling it in some way afterward, usually by vomiting, exercising excessively, using laxatives, fasting, or any combination of these methods. This is known as "binging and purging", and can occur in conjunction with a mental illness.
  • Obesity: This condition occurs when biological factors and an overconsumption of food attributes to an unhealthy amount of body fat. Not only does being obese subject you to social disdain, but also puts you at risk for a number of serious ailments including diabetes, arthritis, and cancer.
  • Heart Disease: Disordered and unhealthy eating is recipe for more than a heavy heart. Certain foods when eaten in large amounts prompt damaging inflammation and the development of certain risk factors that contribute to cardiovascular issues. Excess weight can impede the functioning of your heart as well.

The Role of Comfort Food

It's in the name. Comfort food brings you comfort. We all have certain foods that hold special places in our hearts and bring back memories of the times we had it. Perhaps your favorite meal is associated with a special occasion or could just be too delicious to forget. There are plenty of reasons why food has as much of an impact as it does on our souls and stomachs. After all, food nourishes a lot more than just our appetites.

Growing Up With Happy Meals and Comforting Fast Food

Many of us have had the experience of visiting a fast food establishment with our families and enjoying a kids meal from time to time. With tasty entrees, tantalizing desserts, and a jungle gym to climb on depending on the restaurant, it was a kid paradise. Just hearing the name of a fast food joint could bring instantaneous joy to the listener.

There aren't too many children who would deny an outing involving something fried and an ice cream treat to sweeten the deal. For better or for worse, we have grown an affinity towards convenience with a side of deliciousness. We want our food now with as little effort on our part as possible.

However, we don't want taste to be sacrificed either in this pursuit. Unfortunately, some of the more nutritious dishes require time and skill to be prepared and cooked. Although we are head over heels for what we could get at a drive through, we are quickly falling out of love with home cooked meals and the work that goes along with it.

Nostalgia and Food (Memories Associated With Certain Foods)

Every time you go down an aisle while you're grocery shopping is an opportunity to find a box of nostalgia on the shelf. As we grow older, our eating choices begin to mature and become healthier due to changing tastes and education - for the most part.

We may know that eating sugary snacks is not necessarily conducive to a well balanced diet, but that doesn't stop the gears turning in you brain of all the good memories associated with a particular treat.

Even though food can bring up all these wonderful memories, the ability to conjure up these past times derives from a higher power than just taste alone.

So many things go into meal, home cooked or not. People, places, emotions, and events are all ingredients that make food as powerful as it is to make us feel and relive moments.

Connection of Senses and Emotions

Food may seem to be primarily in the domain of one of our senses, but it actually involves all of them. Many foods we eat with our hands, and different textures create all sorts of sounds when you munch and crunch on them.

Our ears tingle when we hear cooking food sizzle and steam and there's a reason why people say our eyes our bigger than our stomachs. Food is a very visual experience, with chefs taking the same level of care with the presentation of a dish as well as the taste.

After all, no matter how good a meal tastes, if it doesn't look good, people usually aren't going to try it. We see this with children all the time when parents have to coax them to try one bite of a food that's alien to them. Not only does food stimulate all of your senses, it evokes emotion as well.

You can test this out yourself by thinking of some of your favorite (and least favorite) foods. A flood of emotions can come pouring out, from pure joy to absolute aversion, depending on the dish you're thinking about. Food has a way of connecting our physical and mental selves that not many other things can replicate.

Overcoming Psychological Barriers to Food

The associations we form with food over the years can be very strong, and it's no walk in the park if you to reshape them. However, it's not impossible to build new relationships and habits with some dedication.

With practice, intention, and having the right people and support group around you, the power to transform your mindset on eating is within your grasp. Just know this won't be an overnight thing. It will take time to replace old habits with new ones as you strive for a healthier existence.

How Do Childhood Food Choices Affect Lifelong Eating Habits?

What we eat as children can have definite, long-term consequences on our health and what we eat as adults. As we age, we become more open to trying new foods if we were prompted to do so when we were young. However, not all of us were the most adventurous eaters and tended to stick with same food choices over and over again - and not always healthy ones at that.

If we continue to develop and mature with the same limited palette, it narrows the window of opportunity for our taste buds to branch out and enjoy other flavors as well. Plus, the effects of a childhood of bad eating habits generally follow you well into adulthood in the form of heart issues, excess weight, and a multitude of other health conditions.

Home Made Comfort Food

We know by now that what we eat does more than just fill our stomachs. There are a variety of physical and mental downfalls that we can experience if we don't keep our food choices under control. However, no one's saying you have to give up comfort food forever.

Everything in moderation is the golden rule when it comes to food. There is another possibility, though, that many people underutilize. Comfort food can still be a part of your daily diet; all you need to do is to look at it a little differently. Instead of consuming the high calorie version you know and love on a regular basis, switch it up and find a healthier rendition.

This way you can enjoy your guilty pleasure without feeling any of the guilt. The one downside is that you have to prepare and cook these meals yourself, for the most part. As mentioned before, people want quality, but they want convenience as well. This is where meal delivery kits come in.

Prepared meal kits are the way to go when you want the taste of a home cooked meal without putting in all of the work. With a number of nutritional prepared meals to choose from, it's like going to your favorite drive through, but with much less grease and more health benefits.

Social Justice Issues That Affect or Cause Disordered Thinking

Although we must not shift the accountability about the foods we choose to eat and the decisions we make surrounding it, there are cultural and societal factors that do lend a hand in encouraging the unhealthy eating patterns we see today. One of the biggest contributors here is the media.

Beauty Standards and Mass Media

We are told day after day that being thin is beautiful, and any extra weight is less so. With people in commercials and magazines being photoshopped to be even skinnier than what they actually are, or is even possible, it can make the most confident people feel insecure about themselves and their body.

As a culture, many of us have conformed to these beliefs, even if our bodies are far from that ideal. It's one of the main reasons why people develop eating disorders.

Socioeconomic Factors

Socioeconomic variables are at play as well when it comes to unhealthy eating. Nutritionally lacking food is usually the most affordable food product customers can purchase.

If you don't have the money to pay, your choices are empty calories to feed yourself and your family more often than not. Even if you do have the money, where you live can also impede your health goals. Food deserts limit your food options greatly, which can have a serious effect on your health if your body is not getting the vitamins and minerals it needs.

Bridging Mind and Body With Food

Food connects us in ways we don't always realize. Our memories, feelings, and physical senses are all influenced by the act of eating. There truly isn't a sphere that food doesn't touch. Like with everything, though, there's a good and bad side when it comes to our eating habits.

So many things influence what we consume and how we do it that when an individual develops a disorder of some kind, it's difficult to rewire that part of them since our food beliefs are so ingrained with who we are. There are a few reasons why this happens, but the most important thing to take away from all of this is that it is possible to get back on a healthy track.

By upgrading your favorite comfort foods to healthier alternatives and investing in prepared meal kits, you can change your food choices for the better and make new happy memories on your food journey.

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