By Todd Essig, Ph.D.
Making food choices part of a well-lived life is a different challenge than helping people overcome eating disorders: health is much more than just the absence of pathology. And psychoanalysis has lots to say about both.
However much psychoanalysts help individuals and families struggling with disordered eating — see "Conversations about Eating Disorders with Family and in Therapy: Binge Eating, Anorexia and Bulimia" for three interesting clinical tales from three expert clinicians — treating pathology is not the full story psychoanalysts can tell about eating and food. We are also interested in the many roles food-choices can play in a depth psychology of health and well-being. As I've learned from both my clinical work and my personal experience, exploring a healthy relationship with food can become a vital part of building a good life. When you think about it — and I mean really think about it, really develop "culinary mindfulness" — what becomes clear is that food choices can lead to abundant pleasures, engaging activities, nourishing relationships, and meaningful connections.
"The American Way of Eating" vs. "Eat Local and Laugh"
A reality of life for many is that the American Way of Eating actually prevents food-choices from being part of a well-lived life. Our culture supports food choices that are neither physically nor psychologically healthy. If a well-lived life is your aim — and I highly recommend it — you will have to find your own path away from the easy and usual towards more meaningful and engaging pleasures. Furthermore, as Michael Pollan and others have documented, ours is a way of eating that is also not environmentally sustainable: our plentiful (and cheap) food supply floats on an ocean of oil and gas and that simply can't go on.
Having too much is kind of an embarrassing problem to have. But we live surrounded by a profound over-abundance of cheap and not terribly nutritious calories: always available fast foods, huge portions, super-sized sugar drinks, corn-syrup based "meal solutions," and donuts seeming to rain from the heavens. While we sit in the midst of such unprecedented caloric excess, large agra-business bombards us with marketing messages to eat more, and then more more. Too much is never enough! And because evolution equipped us to hoard calories during times of abundance, the temptation to have more and then more more can often feel irresistible.
The costs in physical health of these cheap, convenient, heavily marketed calories interacting with our evolutionary endowment are astounding. Many who eat American will go on to develop diabetes or contribute to a growing national obesity epidemic (about 32 percent nationwide according to a 2006 study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention).
Plus, the American way of eating is just not psychologically sustainable. In addition to destroying the environment and our physical health, we also deprive ourselves and our intimates of the many psychological satisfactions and pleasures that can come from eating sustainably. The American Way of Eating, built as it is on the illusion that more is always better, actually undermines a well-lived life.
But change is possible. Not by diets, we know those rigid top-down restrictions just don't work, not for the long run. Diets frequently result in cycles of relative abstinence and guilt, not sustainably healthy habits. Rather, psychologically sustainable change can be achieved by trying to derive as much meaningful gratification as possible from our calories (which is not to be confused with consuming as much food as possible). The goal is to take as much pleasure as possible from the food-choices one makes rather than constantly hunting and gathering more calories.
The question is how to do that, how to maximize gratification? Well, you have to change both what and how you eat, what I'm calling "Eat Local and Laugh."
First, some foods, no matter what you do, are limited in what they can provide. No matter how hard you try to savor it as a pleasure-giving experience, a fast-food lunch designed to be wolfed-down on the run has a very low limit on how much enjoyment you can find. You'll get your calories, lots of them, but not much else, and you will be undermining your health and harming the environment. But with other foods, the more you look for gratifying opportunities, the more you can find. So, the first principle of maximizing enjoyment is to eat food with the greatest potential to be enjoyed: hence, eat local. Seasonal food purchased close to where it was raised, ideally from someone you know and can talk to, provides the richest opportunities for sensual delights, social attachments, gratifying activities, and meaningful connections.
The second principle is, well, you gotta laugh. The same habits of mind developed to eat fast food, or even organic, processed meal-solutions, limits pleasure because maximizing enjoyment doesn't just happen; we don't just find good experiences on the plate, we make them. Developing new patterns of attention and activity, finding ways to notice, even celebrate, all the potential gratifications on our plates and around our table doesn't come easily in today's world. Culinary mindfullnes actually takes time and effort. It may not seem worth it — or even possible — but it is. Paying a little extra attention to all the steps between farm and table is a good way to start breaking out of the "illusion of more" so one can develop a more satisfying, pleasurable, and healthy approach to food.
Let's look closer at the component parts of maximizing gratification. Of course the abundant pleasures of food include all the obvious sensual delights: taste, smell, feel, appearance, and even ambience and setting. But other sources of gratification also exist that can help tip the balance away from the illusion of more towards having food-choices positively contribute to a well-lived life. The sources of gratification in addition to sensual pleasures include social attachments, engaging activities, and meaningful connections.
Meals are not just problems to be solved with the latest processed "meal solution:" eating happens inside relationships. We know that feeling loved and having a "good feed" have gone together since infancy. And today, even in the midst of our modern hustle-and-bustle, the intimacy families and friends (and even strangers) can find at the table can provide life with deep warmth and profound pleasure. If you make eating more social you will deepen the pleasures of both the relationships and the food. It's worth the time.
Gratifications can also be found in the shopping and cooking many mistakenly view as simple drudgery. You really shouldn't listen to the old rule: "don't play with you food." Instead, play with your food! The pleasures of play are too psychologically important to take off the table. Although we don't specifically remember the joy in mastering something like walking, the glories of those toddling successes are still with us, and can be re-awakened in the kitchen when it becomes a place to balance skill and challenge. Instead of meaningless drudgery to be avoided, shopping and cooking can become engaging activities. Again, it's worth the time.
And as for meaningful connections, when we make dinner, we're also making meaning. Are you connecting with your community, or supporting an anonymous corporation? Are you expressing care for self and for those for whom you care, or frenetically expressing you are too busy to care. Food choices that express care for self, for intimates, for community, and for the planet (and thereby for future generations) can significantly deepen the gratification experienced. For the third time, it's worth the time.
So, if you take the time to develop your own version of culinary mindfulness — one in which you take as much pleasure as possible from the calories you consume — you just may be surprised at how what used to be a site of struggle becomes part of a well-lived life.
[This article first appeared in the January, 2011 issue of PsychMatters, an online magazine sponsored by the Division of Psychoanalysis of the New York State Psychological Association (NYSPA).]
About the author:
Todd Essig, PhD, is a Training and Supervising Psychoanalyst at the William Alanson White Institute and Clinical Assistant Professor of Psychiatry at New York Medical College. He is the editorial coordinator for "Psychoanalysis 3.0" and also writes his own Psychology Today blog titled Over-Simulated: Staying Human in a Post-Human World." His clinical practice is in New York City where he treats individuals and couples.
© 2011 Todd Essig, All Rights Reserved