How I eat and why: on rituals and traveling

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As I’ve been contemplating this blog for the past few weeks, I’ve been paying particular attention to my normal eating habits. They’re not bad. I’m a health research professional, after all, so I have the knowledge to make the best nutrition-based decisions no matter the options. But, like the rest of us, I don’t always make the best choice, and that’s because of the powerful cultural, sensory, and psychological context of food and appetite. The driving forces behind the choices we make are complex and deeply rooted.

Personally, I’m hopelessly ritualistic when it comes to eating. I’m obsessive about my afternoon coffee, for example. Every day, at around 3 or 4 o’clock, I start thinking about cappuccino or espresso macchiato, and it really doesn’t matter if I’m hungry or thirsty, what I ate for lunch or where I am or what I’m doing. Come mid-afternoon, unless the entire planet is burning and the last spaceship is about to leave, I’ll be brewing or ordering coffee somewhere. (For that matter, if I were leaving earth on a spaceship, I’d still be seeking out coffee aboard, at the critical time.) It’s vital to my mental well-being. Another important ritual for me is dark chocolate before bedtime, but unlike my afternoon coffee, I like to vary this routine. Sometimes it’s a couple pieces of solid dark (at least 70% cacao) and other times a truffle, a caramel, or perhaps a cookie. Sometimes, it’s a cup of hot cocoa. In addition, I’ll often have a bowl of cherries – I buy 3 lb. bags of frozen, pitted cherries – they’re nutritious, naturally sweet and delicious and make a great bedtime snack…along with, not instead of, a piece of dark chocolate. These practices may sound compulsive and unhealthy to some, but I contend that pleasurable food rituals provide not only a comforting sense of anticipated gratification throughout the day but also a sense of control over eating habits. My theory is that rituals help to prevent impulse and binge eating. I recommend rituals, unless of course they involve a dozen doughnuts or a bucket of KFC every day.

Now, I must address the issue of how to negotiate healthy eating decisions when traveling, particularly when it’s for leisure. This topic is fresh in my mind coming off a spring break trip visiting family in Kansas City. I’d planned in advance to visit “Oklahoma” Joe’s Kansas City Bar-b-que, widely regarded as the best in a city famous for its barbecue. However, my weight-loss imperative was very much on my mind in the planning, and I was determined to get my barbecue fix without sabotaging my diet rules, already drafted out in my head. I was faced with a dilemma as soon as I walked through the door of the building (which the restaurant shares with a gas station) and saw the words, “burnt-end luncheon platter,” scribbled on the chalkboard announcing the day’s special. The thought and sight of a burnt-end luncheon platter at Joe’s KC barbeque were in direct conflict with my rule to order small things from the kids’ menu whenever possible. Joe’s offers a perfectly substantial kid’s brisket sandwich and fries, which I’d sort of already decided on, proudly consistent with my diet rules. But alas, as Scripture says, pride goes before a fall. Well, my fall came 2 days later. In choosing the kid’s meal in a famous Kansas City barbecue joint offering a burnt-end platter, I invited a monster into my head. For the next two days I was continually haunted and hounded by images of burnt-ends on Texas toast and fries with extra seasoning. Here I was in Kansas City, where I rarely am and where I’m unlikely to be again anytime soon, and I went to world-famous Joe’s Kansas City, and what did I order but a friggin’ kid’s meal! Well, as you might have guessed by now, I went back. I had to. This time I got burnt-ends and full-size fries. I didn’t feel guilty. I was happy. Conflict resolved. (For the record, I didn’t eat all of it.) (Also for the record, I’m not advocating that anyone go to Joe’s or any other similar joint and order a platter of burnt-ends. I’m sure if I lived in Kansas City and could eat at Joe’s anytime I pleased, I’d have been quite satisfied with the kid’s brisket and small fries on that day.) You get my point. Watch out. The best decisions can backfire depending on the circumstances.

Consider that food and eating are not just biologic necessity. They are nurture, comfort, relaxation, romance, memory, how we honor our cultural roots, connect with each other, express love, celebrate, and more. It can’t be just about nutrition. Nutrition is important to health. But our emotions will eat our nutrition for lunch every day of the week.

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