Do you use food to make you happy?

Lots of people use all kinds of things to self-medicate, of course, and food is a pretty common choice.

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Lots of people use all kinds of things to self-medicate, of course, and food is a pretty common choice. There’s a reason people reach for the ice cream after a breakup, why we load up on comforting sweets and savoury starches during the holidays, and why we go to the trouble of making homemade pasta for people we love. But have you ever considered how your use of food might make you appear to others?

A story by Katy Steinmetz over at Time — “Consumers Try to Supersize Their Status By Eating More” — explores a new study that found that food is not just used to make ourselves feel better, but to impress others. Writes Steinmetz: “In one experiment, people were asked to rate the status of consumers based only on whether they chose small, medium or large food items like pizza or coffee — things you wouldn’t traditionally associate with social status. The participants consistently judged the consumers who went big as being more respected….Ordering a bigger pizza pie when out with friends can serve the same psychological need as toting a fake Louis Vuitton bag around the mall, says researcher Derek Rucker, a marketing professor at Northwestern University.”

This is, of course, a totally different take on the use of food. It’s more reminiscent of the old cliche that a woman only orders a salad when on a date at a steakhouse because she’s worried that a big appetite may make her appear unladylike. (For the record, I can’t imagine skipping the steak for any reason short of heart palpitations.) But the broader point is that food is so much more than just sustenance, and we manipulate its use to buoy our spirits, express love, share an experience, and — it turns out — make an impression on others. It doesn’t always work, true — and the Time story points out that eating bigger all of the time can backfire if it starts to affect your health, which can diminish status — but that doesn’t stop us from perceiving food as a key social tool.

So, food can make us feel better in myriad ways. And I struggle with the idea that food shouldn’t be a source of happiness. I love to eat. I plan meals with great anticipation, and I have a Pavlovian reaction to the mention of all kinds of edible goodies, from gummy candies to roast turkey legs. Once I was out on a date with a man who casually mentioned that, if given the option, he would rather consume a pill that fulfilled all of his daily nutritional requirements than eat real food. I knew then that it would never work.

If I couldn’t eat the things I love — which is almost everything — I’m guessing that it would have less of an impact on my status but a significant impact on my happiness. I associate food with health and sustenance and recognize the need for balance, yes. But I also see food as life and love and family and holidays and moments of pure, delicious, exhilarating joy. And is that so wrong?

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