Food As a Social Construct

What is food? The most obvious answer-- the intended purpose-- is that food is a substance used to nourish and sustain our bodies, with the intention of keeping us alive. 
It’s not that simple though, is it? 

After all, there are foods that will ultimately kill us if consumed in great amounts for extended periods. We eat when we feel upset, despite the fact that our bodies require no further nourishment. Eating is a traditional part of the modern mating ritual, during which dinner is shared to assess whether or not someone will make an ideal partner. It’s a tradition which marks rites of passage and brings families together during both special occasions or after an entirely normal day.

Suffice to say, we are what we eat. Or, perhaps, what we eat is who we are.

Food is heavily ingrained in our cultures and traditions, our mental and physical health, our social relationships and interactions. In essence, food plays a key role in our identities. This is one of the many reasons why the dieting mentality fails for so many.

Eating as a Behavior

If you doubt the relationship between one’s social life and eating habits, consider the differences in someone eating alone versus with a group. A meal at home alone will often consist of little fanfare. Someone who is being mindful of their diet will often purchase the food that fits their desired eating style and sticks to their nutrition plans. The challenge arises when other people are added to the mix. Pressure increases to eat similarly, because “one fry won’t hurt you” or whatever the case may be. We tend to eat more than necessary when in a group than when we’re alone.

This behavior is known as the social facilitation of eating and has been studied meticulously over recent decades. It’s been proven that people will eat more in a social setting than they will alone, though the motivations behind this effect are unclear. Some schools of thought believe this behavior is a result of food being more readily available in larger groups while others look at it as the simple opportunity to overindulge. 

It’s this effect that leads back to many fitness and nutrition professionals guiding their clients to finding or building a support network with similar goals, and why group fitness and accountability is such a booming business, even for professionals with no special training with which to guide their customers.

What’s really interesting about the theories surrounding the social facilitation of eating is the definition of a group. If you’re amongst strangers at a conference or meeting, does the same effect apply as to when you’re with friends? Most research shows that when amongst strangers, people maintain similar eating habits to what they would when alone. Thus, it is the social factor that directly impacts the behavior.

Our eating behaviors tend to mirror those of the people with whom we surround ourselves, starting at an early age. A child in a household where processed foods are readily available and fresh produce is a rarity is likely to carry those eating habits with them as they grow. It may not be until later, as an independent adult, that they are able to take steps to alter the learned behavior. 

The behavior we surround ourselves with, whether at an early age or in a group of friends, becomes a societal norm. As a child, we know no different and seek the comfort of familiarity. As we get older, our human inclination to stick with the herd sometimes alters our behavior. Eating is no exception and is perhaps one of the most prevalent examples of this phenomenon. 

Eating as a Part of a Culture

It’s not enough to say that we eat based on the norm with which we were presented at an early age. Food has been a part of cultural beliefs and rituals for millennia, dating back to Biblical times. In Christianity, there’s the tradition of eating fish on Fridays. The body of Christ is represented by sacramental bread during Mass. We see similar ties to food in other religions, such as the Jewish faith’s requirements for Kosher foods, or the Muslim faith’s Halal. In many religions and cultures, fasting takes place for a specified period-- another food-related belief.

Modern cultural food rituals and etiquette are still diverse across the globe, often in direct contradiction to one another. In North America, it’s all too common to hear a parent chide their child by telling them to “eat all of their dinner” whereas in China, it’s custom to leave food on your plate to show your host that they provided you with enough to eat. In fact, eating everything could be viewed as an insult, whereas metaphorically licking the plate clean is complementary in North America. Furthermore, belching loudly at the table is an additional compliment to the chef in China, something that’s viewed as a social faux pas in the Western hemisphere.

When we think of these cultural implications in regards to the dieting mentality, it adds complexity that is often left unaddressed when reading about the latest fad diet or working with a specialist to meet one’s nutrition and weight goals. Should someone of Indian descent forgo the delicious carbohydrate-rich recipes their families have passed down for generations because the North American media says carbs are evil? Do we sacrifice who we are for what we should be, according to the world around us?

Eating Healthy as a Privilege

There are many adults who distinctly remember being told as children to eat all of their supper because there are starving children in another part of the world, never mind the fact that the portions which we feed children are often much larger than required. As adults, most of us are all too aware of the fact that there are also starving children in our part of the world as well as families that don’t have the luxury of eating well.

The unfortunate reality is that socioeconomic factors play a significant role in what people are able to eat and how that impacts their goals of weight management and nutritional habits. Fresh produce, minimally processed meat, and anything that doesn’t come in a box often comes at a significantly higher price than that which is shelf-stable for years on end. 

Meanwhile, thousands of dollars of unused food is thrown out in the average American household each year and up to 20% of crops are turned away from grocery stores because the produce isn’t aesthetically appealing. 

When you consider that some families lack the resources to eat fresh food every day while others are throwing it away based on appearances, it leads to an uncomfortable conclusion: eating with health in mind is a privilege. For low-income families, it’s not just about getting away from the fad or crash diet mentality, it’s about survival.

The Unhealthy Side of Eating Healthy

It’s not just the ancient practice of sharing a meal or eating the way our families and those in our communities eat that have a societal impact. Eating healthy has become a social construct of its own. In the parts of the world where obesity and obesity-related illness has skyrocketed, how can eating healthy be unhealthy?

First, consider the term “clean eating,” which has been a buzzword for nearly a decade. The term starts to create an unhealthy association with food on a psychological level. To be clean or pure, one must eat these raw, “clean” foods. It must mean then, that the food that doesn’t fit this classification is unclean or dirty and that we, in turn, are undesirable as well. As clean is ultimately a marketing term, rather than a standardized classification, it brings with it subjectivity-- the cleanliness is in the eye of the beholder.

“Clean” is often refers loosely to unprocessed foods. However, most of the food that you purchase in a store will be processed in some way. Organic vegetables are even plucked, washed, and packed for shipping. Quinoa, a grain rich in nutrients, had to be harvested and processed to get from the field to your table. What one person perceives as clean may not be classified as the same to another, adding another layer of complexity to the cultural dieting mentality.

The worldwide craze surrounding clean eating, perpetuated by the exponential growth of social media platforms like Instagram, has led to the in-depth study of the eating disorder known as orthorexia. Officially named in 1998, those with orthorexia take their desire to eat clean from conscientiousness to obsession, not allowing something that they have deemed unhealthy to touch their mouth. People with this disorder may limit themselves to the point of malnourishment, as they lack key nutrients from foods that don’t fit in their rigid self-regulatory beliefs. Furthermore, orthorexia leads to social isolation, as patients tend to withdraw from events where unhealthy food will be present. 

Orthorexia is often lumped under the umbrella of OSFED-- Otherwise Specified Feeding or Eating Disorder (formerly EDNOS)-- as even though twenty years have passed since it was originally labeled, it isn’t as widely accepted as a diagnosis within medical circles as bulimia and anorexia. It’s only within the past five years that scientists have really shifted their focus to studying the impacts of orthorexia in depth.

We see the societal impacts of the dieting mentality from the other side of the equation when it comes to the obsession with clean eating. Through social media, health and fitness enthusiasts have formed a global community with thematic trends, like #transformationtuesday and #mealprepsunday. It doesn’t help that someone can whip up a professional looking post that lists all of the miraculous (false) properties of pineapple and have it shared (and believed) tens of thousands of times. With the dieting mentality, nutrition professionals worry about unhealthy eating and restriction to counteract poor nutrition literacy and overindulgence. On the other side of the coin, idolizing the idea of healthy eating and putting it on a pedestal can have extremely damaging effects as well.

The Balancing Act

So where do we go from here? With such powerful social and cultural influences surrounding how, when, and why someone eats, where should the focus lie? Ultimately, it’s finding a balance between extremes. Learning to eat to fuel the body and provide nourishment for optimal health without depriving oneself to the point where events and social interactions become challenging. Knowing that there will be periods of healthy restriction as well as periods of controlled indulgence is key for a healthy relationship with food. 

It’s about finding that holy grail of the first-world existence: balance.

Nutrition professionals, health professionals, and educators have a duty to promote and advocate for nutrition literacy, using scientific, sociological and psychological research. By openly discussing how food not only fuels our bodies but our relationships and cultural norms, we can create a world where people are more self-aware in regards to their relationship with food and one other.