Small Pleasures

Is Pleasure Important for Good Nutrition?

Is food a problem or a pleasure? In promoting healthy choices, could it be that we actually nudge people in the opposite direction? New research in Psychological Science suggests, once again, that this might be the case. Nicolette Sullivan and colleagues conducted a series of experiments to arrive at this finding. In short, they found that people made more disciplined food choices when an indulgent option is part of the mix. In other words, context matters for making healthy choices.

Experimental Choices and Eye Gaze

Sullivan conducted a series of experiments to test how the variations in a set of food options affects the choices an individual makes. Surprisingly, people are more likely to choose a healthy option when they have the possibility of receiving an indulgent option anyway.

That’s because people pay more attention to healthy options when an indulgent option is part of the mix. The researchers tracked eye gaze in a lab setting to confirm this. Take away the indulgent option and people pay less attention to the healthy options.

Pleasure or Stress from Food?

Food nourishes our bodies and gives us good health. But another key function of food is to give us pleasure. Could it be that we are causing problems by over-emphasizing the health functions of food? In Critical Public Health, Lee Thompson and John Coveney explain why they think that this is true:

In the face of the “obesity epidemic” public health has largely failed to engage with the human pleasures that surround eating. Pleasures are often linked to vulnerabilities and frailties that are part of being human. We argue in this paper that leaving human vulnerabilities and the pleasures that haunt them under-acknowledged and under-examined within public health contributes to the problems that public health tries to solve.

Perhaps food, health, and obesity is a subject on which our moral minds bind and blind us. “Sugar is toxic!” cries the crusader. “No, it’s sweet,” thinks the skeptic. Mother’s milk is loaded with it.

When public discourse and public health focus on the healthfulness of food and drink to exclude consideration of the pleasure they bring, perhaps health will ultimately suffer. Deny pleasure and people will seek it with ever more vigor.

Food is not medicine. It is nourishment for both body and soul. With an obsessive focus on “healthy eating,” we have defined a new pattern for disordered eating – orthorexia. Perhaps it’s time to step away from that extreme.

Nutrition guidance that discounts the importance of finding pleasure in food is doomed to failure.

Click here for the study by Sullivan et al and here for the paper by Thompson and Coveney. For more on pleasure and food, click here, here, and here.

Small Pleasures, photograph © Sérgio Bernardino / flickr

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March 9, 2019