Why is food so often the focus of our feelings – especially for women? Why can’t a plate of pasta or a slice of cake be enjoyed as a simple physiological experience? Instead it often seems like the answer to our problems – whether as poison or panacea. But is this a modern preoccupation? And as Christians, what are we to make of it?
Writing on ‘The Psychology of Food’, ( Harper’s Bazaar Jan/Feb 2011), Stephen Garratt gives this explanation for our conflation of food and emotion;
After leaving the safe environment of the womb, the first real feeling we experience is hunger, but as newborns we are not equipped to understand whether this threatening pain is physical or emotional, so we experience it as both. All we know is that we’re feeling hunger and it’s not good. Then along comes food and we feel better and the pain has gone away. From this early repeated response, food becomes not just physically satisfying, but also emotionally satisfying…
As newborns, we are fed on demand: the baby cries, the milk comes and the baby begins to think that it controls food… But gradually routine is instituted and the mother asserts control by not being available every time the baby demands. This early battle for control is a key feature of many adults’ relationship with food. Later in life, we see taking back the power over what we eat as an integral part of the battle to be in control of our own lives, a part of running our own little domain. ..these initial experiences around food, and who is in charge of supplying it, play a big part in our adult lives, leaving us this range of emotions about eating.
Before we pile on the mother blame, Garratt makes the point that personality is just as significant as nurture. But his comments make some sense of how and why food has significance from the earliest age. This importance continues into adult life. People associate memories with food and marketers exploit those psychological mechanisms. While there are physiological signals of fullness, it appears that memory, emotions, sensory perception, social mores, and processing and packaging all figure into the regulation of our food intake. For example, people eat more of and report more satisfaction with menu items that have long descriptions instead of simple names (chocolate cake vs. ‘Death by Belgian Extra Dark Triple Fudge Chocolate Mousse Layer Cake – just reading it is exhausting, let alone eating the thing).
Now, whilst this is all very interesting, it can only get us so far. So, for example, Garratt argues that ‘Food is fuel and anything else that we choose to attach to it is…purely psychological’. I don’t agree. Food is about more than our mental attachments. And I’m not talking about baptising worldly desires – e.g; ‘Jesus wants me thin’. As a consequence, perhaps we need , not just a psychology of food, but rather a theology. After all, a shared meal is at the heart of the Christian faith. Our story moves from a bite of the forbidden fruit through to the marriage supper of the Lamb.
Food also plays a significant role in Jesus’ life and ministry. He describes the kingdom of God as being like a banquet and He shows his forgiveness and acceptance of sinners by eating with them. Most significantly, He describes Himself in terms of broken bread and wine poured out on our behalf. Such participation is not optional, but it is open to all – and it alone meets our hungers.
Then Jesus declared, “I am the bread of life. He who comes to me will never go hungry, and he who believes in me will never be thirsty.
“I tell you the truth, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day. For my flesh is real food and my blood is real drink. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me, and I in him. Just as the living Father sent me and I live because of the Father, so the one who feeds on me will live because of me. This is the bread that came down from heaven. Your forefathers ate manna and died, but he who feeds on this bread will live forever.”
It’s our attachment to Jesus – not our mothers – which is the ultimate connector of food and well-being. Which gives us some perspective. Food is more than what we attach to it psychologically. But it’s never more than what Christ gives us.