“Food is fuel” is one of those statements that, as an immigrant, never quite resonated with me. In addition to being the thing that gives me energy to go through my day, food is also nostalgia, and it is also home. Flying back to my hometown across the world, one of my favorite things to do is eat all the delicious street foods and tropical fruits I can only dream of here in the U.S. When I moved across the country from my mom, my favorite part about coming home for the holidays was the bamboo shoot curry she made to welcome me back home. Food is a part of my identity, and to pretend otherwise—to say that food is only there for nutrition and energy—seems awfully limiting.
Food is Culture
So much of nutrition advice is ethnocentric in that not only does it assume a one-dimensional, physical relationship with food, but it also fails to account for the vast array of cuisines that exist around the world for which most nutrition advice may not always be applicable. White rice and rice noodles are mainstays in my cuisine, and those things can’t always be substituted out for “healthier” alternatives. More to the point, though, I wouldn’t want to substitute them. I can’t have kana moo krob (stir-fried Chinese broccoli with crispy pork belly) without the pork belly that gives the dish its name—especially since perfectly fried crispy pork belly is the thing that makes it shine. This isn’t to say that nutritional knowledge is bad—it’s good to know about what you’re eating and especially so if you have specific dietary needs. I’m simply saying that the nutritional value of our food doesn’t give us the complete picture. There are just certain things that hold sentimental value beyond what nutrition can tell us.
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Food is Emotional
Beyond its cultural significance, food can also bring us emotional comfort. The term “emotional eating” is often used in a negative manner, conjuring images of romantic comedies where a woman is dramatically eating a tub full of ice cream while crying over a breakup. But why is this so wrong? In times of emotional distress, we turn to various parts of our lives to make ourselves feel better. Depending on who you are, it may be writing in a personal diary, confiding in a friend, going for a jog, and many more options. Some people simply find comfort in food during their hard times. This doesn’t have to be a bad thing. With that said, a slice of cake is not likely to solve your problems. But I also don’t see the need to shame yourself for finding some solace in your favorite foods.
After all, there’s a reason why the category of “comfort food” exists. Certain foods have emotional value to us. They bring us comfort, and they make us feel at home. For me, comfort food is the food I associate with my own culture, the things my mom cooks for me. For a lot of others, it may be the food they associate with their own childhood as well. It’s normal—and healthy, even—to have certain foods that bring you emotional comfort. In a society where relationships are formed and strengthened over food—from dinners with friends to family recipes passed down—it seems like an unrealistic expectation that we detach food from its social, cultural, and emotional meaning.
When I moved far away from my mom, my favorite thing to do when I got homesick was to take the train out into the suburbs of Maryland to go to the best Thai restaurant I could find in the area and order my favorite meals. After that, I would walk to a nearby Asian market, talk to the merchants who spoke my language, and shop for produce like long beans, lemongrass, and other ingredients that are staples in my fridge back home. When I cook my comfort foods—like my grandma’s fried pork ribs or my mom’s noodle salads—I do it not only because I like to eat them, but also because the act of cooking them myself brings me a little bit closer to the people I miss.
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Food is Community
Beyond any other emotional or cultural meaning that food may have, it is also a social activity. For all the criticism that buffets get for encouraging overeating, such places are more about the experience than the food itself. When I go to a buffet or an all-you-can-eat sushi place, I’m not necessarily expecting top-notch quality food, but rather a fun experience of being able to try a lot of different things from a wide array of selections. Likewise, cook-as-you-go meals like barbecues and hot pot are not so much about the food—though it may be delicious—but about the act of cooking and eating together in community. That’s why meals like those can take hours long to finish. You’re not just there for the food, you’re there to enjoy the whole experience. The same applies whether you’re out having a birthday dinner or hosting a potluck. Food is also social, and embracing that fact is an important part of having a healthy relationship with food.
And Nutritional Advice is Ever-Changing
Lastly, nutrition advice is constantly changing to the point where I have trouble keeping up with its contradictory claims anyway. In a striking example of industry influence on scientific research, internal documents came out in 2016 revealing that, in the 1960s, members of the sugar industry had paid off scientists at Harvard University to portray fat—and not sugar—as the real culprit behind heart disease. It’s astounding how influential this research became in pushing so many people towards a low-fat diet. Yet another example of nutrition advice shifting overtime is the concern over eggs and whether they have a significant effect on cardiovascular health. At one point in history, eggs had a bad reputation due to their high cholesterol content, and it was believed that they might pose a risk for heart disease. Since that time, eggs have somewhat regained favor as research has shown that high cholesterol in food does not necessarily translate to high cholesterol in blood for everybody. As someone who is not a nutritional expert, I may not know the full physical impact of egg consumption—but I do know that they’re not leaving the breakfast menu any time soon. Am I supposed to overthink every food choice I make when health and wellness magazines can’t even make up their minds about what’s good?
When we try to minimize food into the thing that only gives us energy, we lose out on a lot of what food actually means in our day-to-day lives. And depending on who you are, food can mean a lot of great things. For me, it represents a form of attachment to the culture I grew up in, as well as a communal activity that I can enjoy with the people I care about. To be clear, there’s nothing wrong with paying attention to what you’re eating or wanting to know more about the nutrients you’re taking in—but it would be a mistake to assume that that’s all food amounts to. At the end of the day, food gives us all sorts of fulfillment, and hopefully by acknowledging that we can find some peace.
[Featured Image: A person on the right has long dark hair. They are holding a spoon with food near their mouth. They are wearing a white shirt. Source: pexels.com]