We generally think that eating is simple – a biological response to how hungry or full we feel.
But eating and indulging yourself is a very complex process. Our upbringing, the influence of others such as family and friends, our emotions, the media, upbringing and our state of health are all strong influences about how, what and when we eat. Then there is how food is cooked and prepared, our religious beliefs and values, and our access to food.
When I work with people with eating disorders, I frequently hear loved ones ask why people with eating disorders don’t eat like a “normal person”. They cannot understand why they have trouble eating. I try to explain that eating is heavily influenced by how we think about food, our bodies, and ourselves.
Experiment with taste
Sensory sensitivity can have a strong influence on our food preferences. This may be a factor of people with autismwho may be sensitive to the taste, feel, appearance or smell of food.
They might be hypersensitive to sensations that would not bother others. For example, they may dislike the feel of a food in their mouth and thus develop an aversion to that type of food.
This is often called “picky eatingwhere a person will not eat certain foods. Hypersensitivity becomes a problem if it means a person is very limited in what they are going to eat to the point where they may become malnourished or unhealthy due to their food choices. It can be annoying and worrying for families and loved ones. Specialized dietitians and psychologists may be able to work with people with aversions and sensitivities.
People without autism may also maintain dietary restrictions and preferences. Our culture and familiarity with certain foods affect our eating habits and our pleasure in eating. Our degree of experimentation with food often depends on how varied our diet was to grow. For example, when children are exposed to a limited variety of foods, they are often less likely to try unfamiliar foods in adolescence and adulthood due to fear of the unknown.
Eating like a chore
Some people avoid eating and take a long time to eat food. In extreme cases, this is associated with restrictive eating disorders and food aversions.
Food aversion occurs when a person dislikes food or takes very little pleasure in eating. Meals can be perceived as an inconvenience or a chore. People can only eat highly processed foods such as takeout or drive-thru burgers. They may go for long periods without eating if the limited food they like is not available. It’s like a phobia of eating.
If people lose a lot of weight due to reluctance to eat or become generally unhealthy, the treatment is to eat on time and establish a routine and desensitize to food, which can make it a chore. Eating more socially with friends and making the dining experience more enjoyable can help.
Sometimes, when mealtimes have been associated with negative experiences such as dinnertime arguments, the fun of eating together as a family can be lost. Associating food with pleasurable interactions is important for healthy eating.
Good Foods and Bad Foods
Food preferences can also be learned. In eating disorders such as anorexia nervosa, people develop many rules about which foods are ‘good’ or ‘bad’. Usually we attach these value judgments low-calorie or “healthy” foods. Eating these foods can make a person more comfortable and positive about themselves. If they eat “bad” foods, usually those high in sugar and carbohydrates, they may feel guilty and negative about their bodies and themselves.
When these beliefs become rigid and restrictive, re-education can help people be more flexible with their diets, such as being able to eat foods guilt-free. I like to call all foods “good” foods and focus on their function in and for the body. For example, sugar gives us energy, carbohydrates help us concentrate.
Food as a reward
We also eat in response to our emotions. We might engage in “stress eating” to distract ourselves from a pressing issue, or eat treats to reward ourselves for doing something we don’t like.
When kids are given lollipops, ice cream, or something else they really like to eat and maybe don’t get very often for good behavior or achievement, food becomes a powerful reward.
The reverse action – being deprived of food, such as dessert, for bad behavior – is also powerful.
So how we eat and what we eat is linked to how we feel, who we are with, our experiences with food, our associations with particular types of food, as well as our simple biological need for fuel and energy.
More than just a response to hunger, our relationship with food is a complex interplay of our emotions, our familiarity with food, our senses, our culture and our upbringing.