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Why Are We So Emotionally Connected to Food?


We are SO passionate about our food choices! But why is that? Nothing, except perhaps religion and politics, evokes as much heated emotion as debates over whether or not we should be eating meat or GMOs or if high fructose corn syrup and junk food are really all that bad for us. And then there's the issue of straight up preferences—the gross factor of foods that make us feel like gagging just when we think about them (please, nobody say "asparagus").

Stepping up to the McDonald's counter, my Dad would translate my toothless mumble-mouth order to the cashier, "She'll have a hamburger with pickles and mustard only. No ketchup, no onions." Naturally, my sister preferred the opposite, and dare a stray onion make its way between my two sesame seed buns or a pickle in hers, and our Dad was back up at the counter for a replacement. My other sister hates garlic. I once met a person who swore they despised chocolate! President Obama hates beets.

According to The Yale Guide to Children's Nutrition, "Picky eaters may be born that way: the ability to taste sweetness and bitterness may be genetically related to the number of taste buds on a person’s tongue. The so-called genetic supertaster, for example, may have as many as 1,100 taste buds per square centimeter of tongue, while a more accepting eater may have as few as 11 taste buds in the same-size area." And while this may explain our aversions to the way certain foods taste, it only begs more questions about why it is we become so passionate about our repulsion. Most of us dislike certain music, or find the color hot pink objectionable, but we don't typically respond with as much emotion as we do when spitting a half-chewed bite of Brussels sprout out of our mouth.

Research conducted by neuroscientists at Columbia University Medical Center in New York found some brain patterns that may explain the causes of our emotional eating. The researchers noticed excessive blood flow to areas in the brain that regulate the emotional control of food intake. When the hormone leptin was injected into volunteers, the brain activity about food changed from an emotional connection to a more conscious, rational one, identifying what appears to be a primal emotional trigger that was necessary to our ancestors when food was more scarce and we needed to be able to eat as much of it as we could when we stumbled upon it. Author Michael Pollan (Omnivore's Dilemma, In Defense of Food, Food Rules) points out this phenomenon, stating that we're so passionate about salt, fat and sugar because of their relative scarcity in nature. It would certainly explain our predisposition to overeat these foods and the rise in diseases connected with them. More recent research places junk food in the same category as cocaine or alcohol, at least where addiction is concerned, and anyone who's ever dived into the salty, flavorful remnants of an essentially empty bag of Doritos is somewhat familiar with this feeling of wanting more—and an apple or a celery stalk simply will not do.

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From the Organic Authority Files

And what about the ethics of eating? Show someone facts about the damaging cholesterol levels in meat or the traces of chemicals, hormones and pathogens found in a glass of milk, and prepare to take a few punches. Certainly the vegan argument goes well beyond what we eat, but why does the discussion—especially when backed by facts—lead to such hostility and defensiveness? Vegans hear it all the time—"I don't know how you do it! I could never give up bacon/cheese/ice cream"—sentences usually uttered by someone repulsed by the torture endured by the factory-farmed animals who are turned into their indispensible bacon, cheese and ice cream sundae. Researchers at the University of Leuven in Belgium looking into our tendency to eat high fat foods when needing a mood boost, found that volunteers exposed to induced sad environments after eating fatty foods like bacon, cheese or ice cream were less likely to exhibit sad behavior than those who only received a saline solution, further compounding the inherent emotional connections we have to our food.

I gave up visits to McDonald's long ago, but mustard and pickles, well, they still make me smile. And even though you'll always find me on the non-GMO-healthy-junk-free-vegan side of the food debate, understanding that our connections to food preferences are dictated by irrational emotional triggers hard-wired into our circuitry long before the advent of food as an industry, makes it all that much easier to understand that human evolution takes a ridiculously long time. If we're just now able to decode what connects us to our food choices, imagine where we'll be a hundred years from now. Will we still be defending our love or our disdain for certain foods? Or will we finally have evolved to rational eating for optimal nutritional benefits that are low-impact on the earth and capable of feeding everyone?

Keep in touch with Jill on Twitter @jillettinger


Image: CarbonNYC

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