Why Does Eating For Pleasure Matter So Much?
Whether you're a newcomer to intuitive eating or a seasoned vet, pleasure in food can sometimes still feel like a dirty word. Allowing and enjoying pleasure in your eating experience goes against everything diet culture stands for, like self-control, denial of pleasure, and avoidance of "bad" foods.
The intuitive eating principles describe pleasure in food as one of the most basic and important factors in feeling satisfied or content with food. So eating for pleasure is important, and in this blog, we'll answer 4 questions about food/eating and PLEASURE.
What are some of the psychological health benefits associated with food enjoyment?
- Pleasure of any kind (including pleasure from food) leads to a release of dopamine (a neurotransmitter) in the brain. Dopamine is often referred to as the “feel good chemical” because it activates the reward pathways in the brain, which helps to promote happiness, calmness, motivation, and focus.
- Thanks to diet culture, a big part of disordered eating is the denial/restriction/fear of eating foods that are pleasurable, enjoyable, and satisfying. Check out our blog on the "religion of health" to learn more about how these message are internalized. When we impose rules and restrictions on eating, our bodies actually seek out those “tempting” foods which can lead to feeling out of control around food, and can even result in binge or compulsive eating. When all foods are allowed (including the most delicious ones), without rules, the body learns to trust that it will get what it needs. Creating permission for these foods that have been labeled as “bad” or “off-limits” is an important step in healing your relationship with food, and will foster more peace, confidence, and freedom around food.
- The psychological benefits of food enjoyment can then lead to physiological benefits. When we enjoy the food we are eating (and stimulate dopamine), we actually digest and metabolize it more effectively. When we are relaxed, which is typically a response to having a pleasurable eating experience, our nervous system goes into rest and digest mode, which allows us to fully break down and utilize the nutrients from the foods we eat. When we are stressed about food, and choosing foods that are not creating pleasure and satisfaction, our bodies release more cortisol, and instinctively go into threat mode, which prevents optimal digestion.
How can eating for pleasure help overcome eating disorders?
- Connecting with pleasure and satisfaction is a transformative and healing step in the process of eating disorder recovery. Once other food needs are being adequately attended to (eating enough, eating consistently, eating with variety), there is more space for engaging with food in a positive, joyful, and pleasurable way. When food and eating can be enjoyable (vs stressful, overwhelming, or scary), there are more opportunities to eat socially, to travel, to engage in activities, to try new foods, to be spontaneous and flexible, and to feel satisfied after meals and snacks. These things can be helpful motivators for someone to maintain eating disorder recovery, because they often align with people’s values and desires for a meaningful life.
Why is incorporating your cultural food important when it comes to food enjoyment? How can these foods enhance pleasure and promote a healthier, happier relationship with eating?
- Culture and tradition serve as a form of connection - with others and ourselves - and food plays an important role in this. Restricting or denying foods that promote connection can lead to disengagement and loneliness. Culture and tradition also serve as a form of identity. By omitting cultural foods, we are saying not only that the food is “bad” but that the underlying identity associated with the food is “bad”.
- Frequently, cultural foods are labeled as “bad” or “unhealthy”, because diet culture is a system of oppression that idealizes White-approved foods and ways of eating. Embracing cultural food ways is a way of honoring, embracing, and reclaiming an identity that diet culture works to strip away by promoting kale and quinoa as the “best” foods.
- When we think of culture, connection, and identity as important aspects of health (as they are!), we can see how the “best” or “healthiest” foods for any given person are going to be the ones that support more than just “nutritional health”.
What are some small steps you can take to begin enjoying food more?
- Begin to challenge beliefs about foods being “good” or “bad”.
- When you make a meal or snack, see if there is anything you could add/do to make it even 10% more enjoyable. Sometimes, heating up a brownie, throwing some goat cheese on a salad, or adding more milk to thin out a bowl of oatmeal can take an eating experience from “meh” to “yeah!”.
- Do a satisfaction check at the end of a meal or snack and use the information to create more opportunities for satisfaction in the future. Questions that can be helpful to ask yourself in order to get a sense of your overall satisfaction are:
- Did I truly consider/determine what I actually wanted to eat?
- Did I base my decision of what/how much to eat on my body’s hunger and fullness cues? (vs fear of weight gain, diet rules, shame or embarrassment)
- Do I feel content and ready to move on from eating?
- Was I connected to and present with my experience of eating?
- Did I feel permission to eat what I chose, eat enough of it, and not feel guilt about it?
- Did I enjoy the taste, texture, temperature, mouthfeel, etc. of the food I ate?
Final Thoughts; TLDR
Diet culture has probably taught you that pleasure should be the least important factor in your eating experience, when in fact - pleasure matters! Finding pleasure in food creates several psychological and physiological benefits, can lead to a more meaningful life, and is avenue to reclaim cultural food ways and identity. It's true that not every meal/snack can pack a full pleasure punch, but the majority of the time, pleasure should absolutely be present. We hope these prompts and questions can get you thinking about how you can make an eating experience even a little bit more satisfying and can nurture your content relationship with food.