Wednesday, December 2, 2015

Food as tradition vs Food as reward

Food has many meanings and purposes. Food can soothe the soul as well as sustain the body. It may even heal and restore. It is a source of nourishment, especially, or perhaps only – when it contains protein, carbs, fats and nutrients, not empty calories (e.g., high sugar, high salt and high saturated fat). And food is a source of pleasure, helping us to recall happy moments, favorite people, and traditions.

For many of us, the act of preparing, cooking and serving food is an expression of love: familial, social, charitable. Within cultures, broad and refined, certain foods celebrate, symbolize, crystalize (as in rites of passage, milestones). There is room in all our lives for these occasions[1], these moments of food as something more than or other from, sustenance. There is no room in any of our lives for abandoned consumption of even our cherished foods. To be honest, gluttony sort of ruins the whole appeal. But this blog post is not about moderation or counting calories. I am hoping that in time, soon, it will no longer be necessary to even mention calorie moderation, not because we have found a magic pill that lets you eat whatever you want, or because exercise suddenly causes easy weight control, but because we will have learned, as a nation, that calories MUST be part of the strategy.[2]

These other than sustenance reasons for eating that I described above, fall into the appropriate practices of most societies throughout time. But there are less salubrious reasons for eating and sadly, these unhealthy, psychologically damaging reasons are often situated and cemented in childhood: pacification, reward, boredom. Recently, I observed one of these unhealthy uses of food, which I’ll describe in a moment, and that scene triggered a few other memories of the misuse of food, memories that are at least 20 to 30 years in the past – I’ll share them too.

The first and recent example uses food as reinforcement. This particular example can be thought of as either negative or positive reinforcement, which is unusual and psychologists might disagree with me, but I’ll explain my reasons and why I call it negative reinforcement. Negative reinforcement is an action that takes away an unpleasant thing, while positive reinforcement provides a reward or something pleasant when a particular behavior is exhibited. In my interpretation, one is meant to extinguish and the other is meant to encourage. I think that using food to take away an unpleasant emotion would be using it for negative reinforcement – a really bad idea. In the case I witnessed, a child was crying – throwing a pretty good tantrum – and the dad said to the mom, “Give her a lolly pop.” WHOA. – I most certainly did cringe. More distally, when I was a young adult babysitter, I observed what the parents clearly meant to be positive reinforcement when they gave their child a cookie for using the potty. To this day I have wondered if that girl grew up to have an eating disorder. And a little more recently, but still 20 or more years ago, I remember watching a friend constantly hand her son food to eat as they rode around in the car – visiting people. He was bored and eating chips and drinking soda kept him occupied. He is a (heart breaking) morbidly obese young adult now.

Food is not meant to drown out our feelings, teach us to do things, or keep us from being bored.  Parenting is hard -  I get that, but food as a parenting strategy is a dangerous mistake. Though I am firm in my belief that food not be a reward, food can certainly be a pleasure and serving it rewarding. When foods become embedded with our culture, our traditions, and our families it is a good thing. But using food to treat a bad mood, stress or mental illness is ineffective and it’s unhealthy. If you’ve found yourself using it this way, instead, try exercise, talking to confidants or professionals, writing, meditating, praying, and other positive coping mechanisms. Heck, even medicine if all else fails, but not food. Food is not the answer nor the treatment for emotional or physical pain.

[1] Note: this is not the same thing as having style of cooking that consistently creates excess calories or uses large amounts of nutrients/substances of concern (i.e., sugar, fatty and or fried/breaded foods and salt/sodium)
[2] Forgive me for another small aside, but as I wrote the sentence above regarding the pill that lets you eat whatever you want, I had a little epiphany. The ads for pills and supplements do say, ‘eat whatever you want and lose x pounds.’ And that is not the real issue. It is less about WHAT one eats and a lot about HOW MUCH; so the magic pills have to let us eat what we want, as much as we want and keep us thin and metabolically healthy – good luck waiting on that.

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