You Are What You Eat

How a nation’s eating habits are connected to time perspective and health

Posted May 18, 2013

Your time perspective plays a big part in how you think about food.

Your time perspective plays a big part in how you think about food.

Ever notice when your friends come back from a holiday and they’ve put on a few pounds? Maybe they feasted on too many delicious baguettes in France or indulged in a few too many pasta dishes in Italy. Or maybe they just went to the all-you-can-eat-buffet in Vegas to gorge themselves on foods from many nations.

When we’re on holiday we tend to behave as present hedonists, enjoying new and luxurious foods and drinks we often don’t allow ourselves during our normal routine. We live for the moment and indulge our gluttony, forgetting it is one of the Seven Deadly Sins. Most of us try to make healthy choices most of the time because we’re thinking about our future – we want to look good and feel good tomorrow, next year, and decades from now. But sometimes there are exceptions where we celebrate the positive past, a tradition, or an important date with feasts like Thanksgiving, religious holidays, or birthdays, and we create spreads of food that hold symbolic value so we modify how or what we eat for that event.

Food, Tradition and Culture

Food goes hand in hand with tradition and culture. At least some of the food habits or wisdom you have now were most likely imparted to you by your parents, who learned from their parents, who learned from theirs, and so on. You can probably trace these behaviors back to a specific culture and cultural mindset that accompanied those food and drink habits.

If we look at global obesity trends we can see that – surprise, surprise, the United States has one of the highest rates while Japan has one of the lowest rates. Why? The U. S. and Japan both have an abundance of food, both are educated, and both populations have similar daily stresses, like long work hours combined with short vacations. []

East vs West

One of the fundamental differences between Asian and American cultures is how each views food as sustenance versus a source of pleasure. In Asia where restraint is valued, the Okinawan saying “hara hachi bu,” meaning “eat ‘til you are 80 percent full,” reflects a future-oriented mindset. Whereas in the U.S., one does not have to drive very far to see “all you can eat” banners hanging from restaurants to attract customers. Instant gratification and convenience are usually the rules rather than the exceptions. Consequently,

Asians have a higher life expectancy (Okinawans have more centenarians than any population in the world) as well as fewer age-related illnesses and heart disease than Americans. Sadly, if the obesity epidemic continues, the current generations of American children (Generation X and Millenials) are expected to live shorter lives than their parents.

Food Consumption and National Time Perspectives

If we look at how other cultures enjoy their food, we see many other variations. The French are present-hedonists, but selective present-hedonists because rather than gorge to extremes, they don’t deny themselves what they like to eat, and instead choose their favorite treats and eat smaller, more reasonable portions. The French not only enjoy their food, they also take a notoriously long time to eat it, spending an average 2 hours and 22 minutes each day on meals. Often the French will dine outside, socialize, or take walks after eating. From a young age, French people are made aware of fine foods and are taught to appreciate their nation’s culinary reputation, and they participate in that tradition on a regular basis. Obesity is on the rise in France though, as many people are now preferring ready-to-eat foods over having to spend more time preparing fresh meals. As a consequence, French youth are starting to consume sweeter, high calorie snacks.

The Scottish, who have higher obesity rates than Americans, consume a diet high in sugary foods and drinks, pastries, fatty meat products, and much of their famous Scotch alcohol and beer. There is also a high level of smoking. Long ago, a traditional Scottish diet used to be quite healthy, consisting of oats, fresh seafood and meats, and vegetables. This radical change in diet could be attributed, in part, to the fact that Britain was the first country in the world to industrialize. In the 1800s there was a mass migration from the countryside to cities, and with that migration people left behind many of their formerly healthy food habits. Today among the urban working-class populations there is contempt for “proper” food that still lingers. This past-negative perspective keeps many people locked in negative eating habits that are ruining their health.

Italians are past-positive eaters as many of their meals are based on family recipes and revolve around bringing people together. For Italians, food is something to be savored, honored, studied, and passionately enjoyed with good company at a leisurely pace. It’s all about long lunches or dinners, and despite having generous portion sizes and many courses, Italians tend to cover all food groups and limit their sweets and famously rich dishes to special occasions. They also tend to bake or grill foods instead of frying them. Also fresh olive oil replaces cooking with rich butter, as we tend to do. Like the French, Italians emphasize the social aspect of meals, and they also tend to take walks together after eating. The other big difference between Americans, French and Italians is found in breakfast, where theirs is small and ours can be huge.

It’s Your Choice

Our bodies and our health are a reflection of the choices we make every day, and it’s interesting to think about how time perspective might play a role in why and how YOU eat what you eat. In America we tend to think of ourselves as individuals and play down external influences of culture and our social connections as sources of what we eat, how much, when and where. But new solid research now clearly establishes that obesity is as much determined by our social connections as by genetics. We recommend reading Connected by Christakis and Fowler, its subtitle says it all: “The surprising power of our social networks and how they shape our lives.” Any individual’s weight is a direct function of the extent to which his or her mate, brother, sister or best friends are obese. Being fat is socially modeled and when it is not challenged but viewed as acceptable, it can pump up the gut and add inches to your hips. (see:

Check out our other Psychology Today blogs to get a fuller appreciation of how to create a more balanced time perspective in your life!

Take the Zimbardo Time Perspective Inventory at to discover your personal time perspective.

Visit our website, "" \t "_blank", to view a free 20 minute video - The River of Time; you’ll learn self-soothing techniques as well as how to let go of past negatives, work towards a brighter future, and live in a more compassionate present.

See The Time Cure: Overcoming PTSD with the New Psychology of Time Perspective "" \o "Psychology Today looks at Psychotherapy" Therapy (Zimbardo, Sword & Sword, 2012, Wiley Publishing); for strategies to reduce stress and improve communication, visit "" \o "" \t "_blank" and "" \o "" \t "_blank"

Photos: and