Teaching Emotionally Healthy Eating

By Bonnie M. Miller

This post is part of the series ‘What Should I Eat? Why?’ commissioned in collaboration with H-Net Nutrition by series editors Kristen Ann Ehrenberger and Lisa Haushofer. Posts will appear simultaneously on both sites. Please visit and follow H-Net Nutrition

In a culture saturated with media messages about obesity and dieting, we are primed to think about the question “What should I eat?” from a health perspective. We are bombarded with information telling us what to eat, when to eat, and how much to eat. “Eating well” has come to mean the quest to eat a “healthy” diet, and there is a din of voices offering conflicting strategies for how to do this.

I teach the undergraduate course, Food in American Culture, at the University of Massachusetts, Boston, which examines the intertwining and evolving histories of ethnic and regional cuisines in the United States. At the start of the course, I present students with Warren Belasco’s representation of a triangle, which he labeled with three primary factors guiding one’s eating selections. The apex of the triangle is “Responsibility”; the two bottom points read respectively: “Identity” and “Convenience.” [1] When I ask students to define “Responsibility,” they typically assume it to mean responsibility to oneself, a synonym for healthy eating. While I accept that, I also strive to broaden this conception to consider the needs of others, like the laborers producing the food or the people living in the communities surrounding farms or manufacturing plants. I also urge them to think about responsibility to the planet and the environmental impacts of food production.

When asked which factor primarily guides their dietary choices, many students express a deep appreciation for how food shapes their sense of identity, which is perhaps a reflection of the ethnic, racial, and national diversity of the student body at UMass Boston. I ask students to analyze their own diet as well as interview family members in order to consider the factors shaping their food consumption on a daily basis and on special occasions.  Some students talk with parents and grandparents about the foods that have special meaning in their lives. They write about how certain dishes, ingredients, or cooking styles help to connect them to their heritage, their countries or regions, their families, and their communities. These students cleave to their identities when answering the question: “What do I want to eat?”

And still, students often respond, “But, should I eat it?” Many traditional recipes in different cuisines are not “healthy” by modern day nutritional standards; they might be prepared with heavy amounts of butter or lard or utilize fatty meats, sugar, creams, or oils. Students often express a sense of conflict between trying to eat healthy and consuming the foods that emanate from the cultures they identify with. Some students describe feelings of alienation from their families and ethnic communities after switching their diets to vegetarian or organic-based diets, for example. To their loved ones, choosing to eat different foods constitutes a rejection of their heritage, and by extension, of them. In this case “eating well,” if defined by a strictly nutritional rubric, can have socially detrimental effects. To the contrary, if consuming certain foods can bolster relational bonds, strengthen ties to one’s history, or foster a sense of purpose or belonging, how can that be “unhealthy”? Considering such perspectives reframes eating as a vital part of one’s mental as well as one’s physical health, something that can’t be measured by calories and nutrients alone.

To help them navigate this conflict, I try to offer students a middle ground by explaining that the fundamental public health threat with food today lies in the empire of food processing. As families move through the generations, they sometimes adapt traditional recipes for the sake of “convenience.” Fast food restaurants also offer substitutes for soul food, tacos, BBQ, and other foods that used to be made by more traditional methods. By using real ingredients and cutting out processed shortcuts, eating the foods that foster one’s sense of self emotionally and psychologically can be physically sustaining, too.

Nutritionists often try to deter patients from eating for emotional reasons. This assumes, however, that those emotional triggers are negative (stress, boredom, loneliness, trauma, self-loathing, etc.) and that the food is consumed in excess. An alternative might be thinking of how ingredients, like a favorite pesto, curry, or chicken soup, could activate positive memories and sensations of home, family, and community.[2] Perhaps we could celebrate a kind of emotional eating that is for the right reasons, if consumed in moderate portions.  For what is more important in life than cultivating our relationships and our sense of pride in who we are and where we came from?  So, what should we eat? Why not eat that which feeds our soul and nurtures our human connections?

Bonnie M. Miller is Associate Professor of American Studies at the University of Massachusetts, Boston. She is the author of From Liberation to Conquest: The Visual and Popular Cultures of the Spanish American War of 1898 (University of Massachusetts Press, 2011).  She has recently taken an interest in the field of food studies, publishing “The Pure Food Exhibits in the ‘Palace of Nibbling Arts’: Culinary Pluralism at the Panama-Pacific International Exposition, San Francisco, 1915” in the Southern California Quarterly (Summer 2018) and “The Evolution of a Fast Food Phenomenon: The Case of American Pizza,” in Routledge History of Food, edited by Carol Helstosky.

[1] Warren Belasco, Food: The Key Concepts (Oxford: New York, Berg, 2008), 7.

[2] One of my favorite texts to capture this idea is “Home,” in Consuming Geographies: We are Where We Eat, by David Bell and Gill Valentine (London: Routledge, 1997), 61-87.

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