Food and Identity: The Social and Cultural Significance of Food

If food wasn’t a part of our cultural and social identity, we wouldn’t label foods ‘ethnic’, ‘traditional’, ‘mexican’, ‘asian’, ‘classic’, ‘indian’, ‘chinese’ or ‘comfort food’. We wouldn’t have ritualistic food like turkey on Thanksgiving, birthday cakes or Christmas ham. We’d simply refer to it with non-emotional and non-descriptive identifiers.

Which, side note, diet culture is always trying to do. Diets or “lifestyle changes” try to condition us to think of food as just ‘calories’ or ‘fuel’ and that our attaching of emotionality to food is the problem that needs to be fixed. There is a concerted effort to strip food of identity and emotionality because homogenization and conformity is the ultimate goal of dieting. Everyone needs to look the same and eat the same in order to be loved.

However, truth is: all eating is emotional because of food’s inextricable role in survival, society and culture.

Imagine, you were unable to eat for an entire day and begin to feel irritable. This is a biological and emotional reaction to food scarcity. It is well known by the fasting community that the longer you fast, the worse your sleep gets, this is a biological panic in your body. Stress hormones are pumping and trying to keep you awake to hunt for food. Thus creating an emotional response in the faster to be on alert.

Food is and always will be emotional because survival is emotional.

Outside of survival, more symbolically food is a cultural expression of love. Our earliest association with food is something most of us don’t remember, but as infants went we became hungry we cried and a caregiver fed us. Along with the soothing of food, they often held you close and potentially rocked you, spoke calmly to you, kissed you. In the human brain, these events repeatedly happening together wires food with love.

“Food is almost always shared,” writes anthropologist Robin Fox in the article Food and Eating: An Anthropological Perspective. “people eat together; mealtimes are events when the whole family or settlement or village comes together. Food is an occasion for sharing… for the expression of altruism” (2014, pg. 1).

Highlighting that food now and always is inherently social. Sharing food with others has always been an act of peace and good will. Status could and can be ascertained by how food is portioned or distributed.

If we look at diet culture’s rhetoric, all we have to do is ask: Who is allowed to eat without restraint? What status is given to those who can eat without restraint or being shamed for what they eat? And pretty quickly, you stumble onto the concept of thin privilege. Does this mean thin people don’t suffer from the harsh rhetoric and status distribution of diet culture? No. They are often in a perpetual state of weight gain, which underscores the ultimate goal of dieting and diet culture: homogenization and conformity.

If the food you cook can portray the culture you are from, it is more than just calories. If the amount of food you eat or don’t eat can illustrate your status, it is more than just fuel. If what and how you eat can determine if you are accepted or rejected by a society, food is utterly emotional because it securely attaches you to belonging and love.

I’d love to hear from you! What are your cultural traditions around food? What stories did you hear about food, culture, emotions and love as you were growing up? What food makes you feel loved?


Who Benefits From You Hating Your Body? Diet Culture and Capitalism

Who Benefits From You Hating Your Body?

Diet Culture and Capitalism

Maybe you’re not yet sold on Health At Every Size or Intuitive Eating, but are tired of the constant cycles of dieting. So, let’s take a moment to objectively deconstruct the effectiveness of dieting. 

The stated goal of dieting is thinness. However, research shows 95-98% of people who go on a diet, gain the weight back and more over time. But research aside, if diets truly worked you would only need one and yet every January millions commit yet again to some form of restrictive eating behavior. 

So, if diets don’t work, why are we bombarded with ads, products, eating prescriptions that claim they do?

Diet Culture is the idea that one’s pursuit of thinness is not only noble, but required to be considered worthy of love and social acceptance. It is built on the idea that everyone could be thin if they tried hard enough. This separates bodies into two camps: 

  1. People who are fat, who are desperately trying to become thin. 
  2. People who are thin, who are desperately trying to stay that way.

This fear of being fat (fatphobia) is due to the societal treatment of fat people. We have all experienced the shame and guilt associated with eating “bad food” or skipping a workout no matter our body size. 

So, if diet culture is stressful for all body sizes than diet culture is more about control than “healthy habits”.

The diet and weight loss industry is a $72 billion dollar enterprise with apps, at home workouts, gyms, to-go meals and supplements. In order for their business model to continue to make profits, diets can’t work. You can’t love your body. You have to get your body back and you have to be “addicted” to food because they couldn’t sell you the fix otherwise.

Diet culture also completely denies biology and the fact that humans would have diverse bodies even if we all ate and exercised the same because 80% of body size and density is genetically predetermined. They would struggle to convince you your “lifestyle” needed to change so you could finally make it to the “ideal weight” if they admitted that there is no “ideal weight”. 

This is by no means an anti-capitalism blog post, but unbridled capitalism with no regard for the wellbeing for the humans on the other side of their bottom line is incredibly harmful. Not only to that person, but also our society. People who are busy dieting their way to worth and acceptance aren’t innovating the next invention, or focusing on building their small business, or running for political office. They aren’t focused on raising children who have high self esteem and a healthy relationship with food and body because the diet industry depends on those children becoming chronic dieters. And the research is very clear on this point, parents who are preoccupied with food and body condition their children to be preoccupied with food and body. 

So, if HAES and Intuitive Eating aren’t for you, that is fine. We all have to find what works for us and our body. But, diet culture doesn’t care about your health, wellbeing or family. They care about your money and in order to get repeat business they need you to fail. They need you to think you’re flawed. They need you and your children to see their perfectly normal bodies as broken. 

Flip the script and finally break the cycle. 

You are not broken. No body is superior to another.