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Nutrition Culture: Understanding Why We Eat What We Eat and How to Change It

Updated on May 28, 2018
Lauren Flauding profile image

Lauren studied International Cultural Studies at BYU-Hawaii and went on to study nutrition. Macaroni and cheese is her weakness.

You Eat What You Are

I grew up in a house of baked goods. Well, not a literal house of baked goods like in Hansel and Gretel, but cookies, breads, and muffins abounded in my home. Those smells and tastes are tightly linked with memories of my childhood, and consequently, those baked goods trigger feelings of love, happiness, and comfort. I went to college in Hawaii, and while there I developed a love for Kalua pork, mangoes, lilikoi, and Spam (yes, Spam. More specifically, Spam musubi.) I have a long list of fast food restaurants that I love and frequent because they are associated with good memories of growing up, spending time with friends, and meeting my husband. Now I have a family with young children and sometimes I feel so overwhelmed and burned out that I really just want to have several bowls of cold cereal for dinner. All of these things, and many more, make up my personal nutrition culture.

An individual’s personal nutrition culture is made up of historical, family, societal and environmental factors. So while you may live in a region where a food culture of chocolate and sweets are prevalent, a history of diabetes in your family might alter how your nutrition functions within that community. In a TED talk, Jennifer 8. Lee said, “What you want to cook and eat is an accumulation, a function of your experiences — the people you’ve dated, what you’ve learned, where you’ve gone. There may be inbound elements from other cultures, but you’ll always eat things that mean something to you.”

What is Your Personal Nutrition Culture?

To determine your nutrition culture, consider these questions.

  • Do you live in a rural, suburban, or urban area? Factors such as availability of locally grown produce, areas highly saturated in grocery stores and an abundance of fast food restaurants will play a factor in your relationship to food.
  • What do you do for work? Is it high stress? Does it leave you much time for meal preparation? Are you pressured to eat out often?
  • What type of food and meals did you enjoy growing up? Do you associate good feelings with these foods?
  • Do you have any traditions involving food, particularly unhealthy food?
  • Does the community you live in offer a wide range of food choices, healthy and/or unhealthy?
  • Is unhealthy food involved in your entertainment? Do you eat out or try new foods for fun? Is food and beverage a main element of your socializing?
  • What eating habits have you developed? How often do you eat or snack? Do you regularly eat during certain activities.
  • Do you often feel that eating some delectable or savory item makes you happy?
  • How often do you eat out? How often do you go to the grocery store? Do you produce some of your own food?
  • When do you begin eating in your day? When do you stop eating?
  • Are meals major events in your day or just rushed through to get to more important matters? Do you take time to be with family and friends or relax when you have your meals?
  • Do you look forward to certain holidays and events because of food and refreshment or because of spending time with relatives, friends, and loved ones?

What have you deduced about your nutrition culture from these questions? Have you learned anything new? What other influences can you think of that might contribute to your nutrition?

Considering the relationships we have with our nutrition and how our historical and environmental factors influences our eating habits is important. This is not so we can say: “Oh, unhealthy eating habits are in my nature. They are ingrained in me. They’re part of my environment so I can’t change. I have no hope.” Rather, determining our nutrition culture is to identify what forms our emotional and traditional ties to food so we can begin to understand why we feel the way we do about food and strive to change our health. Once you understand why you make certain choices or how you respond to food and beverage, you can start to overwrite those feelings and gain a fresh perspective on your personal nutrition.

Improving Your Personal Nutrition Culture

While there a lot of factors pressing in on us from our outside environment which may be making it difficult to make good nutritional choices, it’s helpful to consider the immortal words of Michael Jackson: “I’m starting with the man in the mirror.” If we want to change the world and better the overall nutrition culture, we have to start with ourselves.

In these next sections we’ll discuss how to overcome bad nutritional habits by examining our emotional connections to food in different circumstances. We’ll identify cravings, triggers, and sentimental feelings and strive to overwrite them with more meaningful and healthy habits and emotions. We can’t just take a bad habit away and leave an empty, gaping hole ready to be filled with the next bag of potato chips that comes our way. We need to replace those habits with better ones.

Emotional Connections to Food Alone

Juicy hamburgers. Hot French fries. Smooth chocolate. Refreshing ice cream. Creamy macaroni and cheese. Savory pizza. Fresh doughnuts. Are you salivating yet? Maybe not. Maybe you possess a higher level of self control, or just black and white words on a page aren’t enough to awaken your hunger. But for me, after hashing out that list I’m ready to drop everything and go binge at the grocery store.

For most of us, we feel it every time we see a certain food on an advertisement, smell it in passing, and sometimes even when we just hear it mentioned. It’s a longing, a sudden craving for that taste, that satisfaction, that feeling. This is because we have a myriad of previous positive experiences with certain foods, and therefore when those triggers attack our senses, sensations of happiness, excitement, and pleasure enter our brains. Many patients undergoing gastric bypass surgery suffer extreme withdrawals when they become unable to eat the foods that they used to consume. This is because so many of their emotions had been tied to the food they were eating. It was their comfort, their relief, their entertainment. We all experience these emotional connections on some level.

How do the pictures above make you feel?

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Special Occasions

Birthdays. Weddings. Graduations. Cake, cake, cake. These celebratory events always seem to give us an excuse to eat cake. In fact, it’s hard to imagine having a birthday or a wedding without cake. These happy milestones are associated with sweet treats, and therefore we associate those feelings of accomplishment, love, and commitment with sugary products.

Rewrite the Culture

Instead of focusing on the delicious cake at the birthday or all the fantastic food at the wedding, focus on the great things the person has achieved or the happy union of the couple. Center your emotions on the person being celebrated and not the food being served.

Holidays and Family Functions

This is a difficult one, what with some holidays, like Thanksgiving, being completely centered on food. Many of us can’t think of Christmas, New Year’s, Halloween, or even Independence Day without recalling or looking forward to some delectable dish. Turkey recipes filter through our minds, visions of pies and cookies dance in our heads. On Valentine’s Day, we often associate giving chocolates and eating out at fancy restaurants with showing love. Somehow the amount of chocolate offered equates to how much someone loves you.

Rewrite the Culture

Show your love to others by improving their health and yours. The joy of these holidays is spending time together, and the longer and better you live, the more you’ll be able to spend this time with loved ones. Don’t default to craving holiday treats, but instead remember the happy feelings spent with family and friends. Stories shared, games played, activities you all enjoyed, the way Uncle Jeff cries when he laughs too hard or the way Grandma’s eyes light up when she sees her grandchildren playing. This is the joy of the holidays, not cookies and potatoes and rolls and candies. Some foods will always be present in our association with certain holidays, but don’t let those take center stage in the bliss receptors of your subconscious.

Friends and Socializing

Eating is central to our social life. When you go out with friends, or on a date, or to a party, 90% of the time food is involved. Even if the main activity isn’t going out to eat or drink, it usually shows up in some other form. Concessions at a movie or the bowling alley, snacks on a hike, coffee on the way to or at the bookstore, heading to the bar after dancing. It’s this gravitation to food while socializing that makes dieting so difficult. The individual either has to suffer through the activity, turning down all the food offered to them, or be ostracized from the group because, “What’s her face isn’t eating this kind of stuff anymore.”

Rewrite the Culture

Again, focus on the time spent with your friends, the fun and the conversation and the energy of being together. Let these feelings of community and friendship be the driving force for being social instead of trying some new food or indulging in some sweet morsel together. Strive to choose activities that don’t make food the main event. If one of your group of friends is trying to eat healthier, encourage them. Don’t ridicule their choices. Plan outings that accommodate them and don’t make them feel awkward or left out.

Vacations

Comedian Jim Gaffigan speaks truth when he describes a vacation as “eating in a place we’ve never been.” Often we might go somewhere to see landmarks, people, or entertainment, but what really excites us is trying new food. My sister and I went on a backpacking trip around the British Isles. We saw numerous historical sites, stunning landscapes, and met fascinating people. We even attended a couple festivals, including the World Ploughing Championships in Ireland (which was unusually exciting). But my clearest memory from that trip? Sampling a delightful plate of Sticky Toffee Pudding in a pub in Haversage after walking 20 miles to get there.

Vacations are a time to have fun, to let loose for a little bit, and trying the local fare is a great way to enhance our experiences abroad. Sometimes we’ll spend so much time eating that we’ll miss out on other opportunities. And then we come home and search out those foods so we can remember the exquisite sensations we had on our vacation, and so we eat those foods again and again.

Rewrite the Culture

While cuisines and flavors are an important part of broadening our cultural knowledge when we travel, try not to let the food we eat carry so much weight in our pleasure seeking and memories. Focus on the people you meet and the things you see. The time that you spend with others while vacationing and the things you learn. Hopefully, by giving importance to other aspects of the place and culture, we’ll expand our horizons without expanding our waistlines.

Relieving Stress

After an especially trying day, I used to love sitting down with a large bowl of sugary cereal. The problem with cereal (I’ve found) is that there’s always a little left over milk in the bowl, so you have to pour in more cereal. Well, you pour in a little too much cereal, and then you have to add more milk. And it goes on in a viscous cycle until you’ve devoured half a box of Fruit Loops and are passed out on the couch in a sugar coma. These methods, whether it be cereal or ice cream or a box of greasy tacos, are what many of us use to decompress and relax after a stressful day. Or, in the middle of a high stress day, we tear into a bag of chocolates or doughnuts to help get us through it. We feel we need these foods to survive. We feel like we need to reward ourselves for our hard work, to allow ourselves some pleasure for going through it all. Often this is a cycle in and of itself. The unhealthy food makes us feel sick and tired, which adds to our stress, which makes us binge on sugar and grease more, and soon we’ve gone through half a convenience store of junk food and we’re passed out on the couch in a food coma.

Rewrite the Culture

This is hard. Junk foods, treats, and drinks provide such instant pleasure and satisfaction that it’s difficult to overwrite those habits and emotions with more healthy behavior. Many have found that working out is an effective way to relive stress in lieu of binging on junk. If hitting the gym at the end of the day sounds like torture, try just going on a walk or sitting in a hot tub or pool. Meditation has worked wonders for many in relieving stress. Watch or go to a movie, but skip the snacks. Call a friend or family member. Take a power nap in the middle of the day. Diligently try as many activities as you can to relax so that you don’t automatically default to unhealthy food.

Entertainment

Sometimes trying or cooking new or favorite food is the main event, the weekend entertainment or the purpose of gathering together. Maybe it’s setting aside time to try that new cupcake recipe or getting together to learn how to make sushi or going out to try that new restaurant or having a cookie decorating party. When food is the plan, it’s hard to avoid.

Rewrite the Culture

For those who consume and make food as their main source of entertainment, this is something that’s difficult to overcome, and perhaps shouldn’t be. But it can be limited. Seek quality over quantity when trying new foods, especially if they are hindering your health. In addition, explore healthier venues and ingredients. Luckily, more establishments are dedicating all or part of their menus to healthier fare. Foodies and cooking hobbyists can still enjoy new tastes and flavors, but it doesn’t need to be at the expense of their salubrity.

Finding Your Motivation

By this point you hopefully have a fairly solid idea of what your nutrition culture looks like and the steps you can take to improve it. You may feel like you can’t eat anything delicious or satiate a craving again, but that’s not necessarily true. This process is really about finding balance and reassigning positive emotions and sensations to more meaningful and healthful experiences. This is about changing your mindset and perspective toward food. French fries and ice cream may give you a moment’s pleasure, but fortifying proteins and vitamins will give you lasting joy.

I’ve heard people motivate themselves by saying something to the effect of: “nothing tastes as good as thin feels.” I would disagree. I can think of about 2000 things that taste as good as thin feels. For me, a more effective statement would be, “nothing tastes as good as having enough energy to keep up with my kids,” or, “nothing tastes as good as going a whole year without having to see the doctor.” Consider what is most important to you and use that motivation to build yourself a healthier nutrition culture.

Resources

Why You Eat What You Eat: The Science Behind Our Relationship With Food by Rachel Herz

Why Humans Like Junk Food by Steven A. Witherly

What Americans Can Learn From Other Food Cultures

© 2018 Lauren Flauding

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