The Psychology of Food... The Roles of Food in Society.

When we talk about nutrition, it is very easy to get caught up in calories, macros and even micronutrients. If we want to dig a little deeper, then we can discuss the impact on hormones and how meal timing and frequency may have an impact on our health, performance and reaching our physique goals. When we place food in the context that ‘food as a fuel’, it is often easy to forget that food plays huge roles in society, and has been an integral part in developing culture and shaping our relationships throughout our life, including our attitude towards the foods we eat.


Appreciation of foods roles in society is important for two reasons:

Firstly, no matter how optimal our diet might be on paper, being able to stick to a diet (dietary adherence) is arguably the mostly important factor in having a successful outcome in terms of creating sustainable lifestyle changes and in a person reaching their goals. To ignore the social aspect of eating in this regard would be foolish, as many social occasions and pressures can lead to dietary failure and developing nutritional strategies to cope with such innate human needs as to socialise. After all, we are social creatures, and it is essential for a balanced lifestyle to ensure enough time is spent with friends and family, as this is important for both our physical and emotional well-being.


Secondly, society can directly impact on how we view foods, our bodies and determining (often wrongly) what our ideal ‘shape’ should be and how we can achieve it. Interestingly, society can create conflicting emotional ideologies, even within a single food item, and awareness of how we view food as a society can help us contextualise our food choices and view them in the correct light… There are inherently no good or bad foods, but it is the context in which they are placed which governs our emotional response to them and can influence our eating patterns.


Understanding the societally-created attitudes towards certain foods and how this is designed to create a want or need which is often followed, paradoxically, by an expected feeling of guilt is important, as when foods can be placed in the proper context and separated from their social or cultural significance, then these negative emotions can be reduced, helping us to build a more positive relationship with the foods we eat.


If we consider the example of foods giving pleasure (which they should!), many foods that are seen as pleasurable are also associated with guilt… And this is reflected in the sexualisation of certain foods; chocolate being a good example. We are told from a young age that certain acts, such as sex, are pleasurable, but there are also elements of guilt or shame attached and this has been attached to foods in the way they are often portrayed, plugging into our mind-set the idea of ‘wanting the forbidden fruit’ and our risk-taking, pleasure seeking part of the brain.


There is often guilt associated with highly calorific foods, especially if they taste good and give pleasure… You’ll never see an advert about margarine underpinned with its pleasure giving response! If we can strip this back to a basic level, you can eat chocolate every day and still lose weight! It is energy balance that matters in terms of gaining unwanted body fat, so as long as you don’t over-indulge, or only occasionally, and watch your overall calorie intake, the guilt should be non-existent… But years of emotional programming makes that a very difficult concept to grapple with.


If we consider the different nutritional ‘camps’ in the fitness industry, paleo, IIFYM, clean eating, IF, keto and so on… It becomes clear that identifying with a particular way of eating, which often has no benefit over another from a scientific perspective and often has completely unnecessary ‘rules’ making them overly restrictive and difficult to stick to, will still have ‘disciples’ that will aggressively defend their way of eating, even in the face of evidence to the contrary.


For many people, choosing a nutritional ‘team’ is more about identity than it is about nutrition. There are, of course, situations where an identity reflects very specific beliefs such as veganism or religious restriction of foods, however these are more morally guided than a need to belong to or identify with a specific group, although often comparisons in attitude can be drawn by the often dictatorial attitude towards their way of eating being the ‘best’, despite obvious limitations.


Food is also a means of gender identification, although the traditional views of women food shopping and cooking as a way of identifying as female are slowly starting to change. The BBQ is a classic example of a man’s domain, and this may be related to the primary food consumption being meat. Meat consumption has been suggested to show man’s control over nature, a link to the skill of hunting and meat consumption historically is seen as a sign of power, with the best hunters or most important people getting the best cuts of meat, and these traces of our ancestral attitudes are still threaded through modern attitudes towards food today.


It is for this reason that men consume much more meat than women, and are much less likely to be vegetarian, reflecting meats ingrained association with masculinity. Controversially, it has also been suggested that even those who are morally against the consumption of meat, that the need for meat substitutes, formed to represent the texture, taste and shape of other meat products reflects the importance of meat in society as a reflection of a need to fill a ‘cultural gap’ that removing meat from the diet creates.


Whatever our individual reasons for consuming or avoiding specific foods, food has always played an important role in social interaction that cannot be avoided, even if we try. Weddings, birthdays, religious holidays and even funerals typically, if not always, include the idea of social eating. Having a reason to sit and interact is an essential part of developing new relationships or strengthening old ones by creating a shared experience. Food has, and always will, play important roles in developing and maintaining family ties, relationships and friendships.


Food can also be a source of conflict, particularly in the family setting between parents and children. Parents can see food, or social eating as offering of love or affection to their children and if food is rejected, this can be taken as a lack of appreciation for their efforts. Parents often also try to use food to control a child’s eating behaviours, using sweets or dessert as a reward for completing a task or finishing their meal. This comes with its own perils in building associations between behaviour and foods, for example, if a child is naughty and stops when being offered sweets, then this will affirm negative behaviour, encouraging the child to misbehave in order to gain what they feel is a favourable response and the more exposure a child has to these foods, the more likely they will develop the habit of eating them and this habit can continue into later life.


This source of conflict is often caused between a need for the parents to provide healthy food but also express their care and love through giving the child what they want. This can often create issues between parents and can be a battle ground for power within the relationship if a common strategy towards a child’s eating is not developed and stuck to.


As you can see, food is so much more than the sum of its nutritional parts and awareness of its importance in society, how society influences food choices and the importance of being able to eat in a social environment is an integral and essential part of the human experience. With the correct understanding of the nutritional properties of foods, breaking down some of societies misguided attitudes towards certain foods and implementing nutritional strategies that allow for social eating and the occasional treat, it is 100% possible for a person to have a balanced, healthy and sustainable approach towards nutrition, without having to miss out on the things that make life so enjoyable in the first place.

Thansk for reading,

Dr. P.