Healing foods are also pleasurable foods. And, I’d argue, your enjoyment matters more than a food’s nutritional stats. Sitting down to a meal that makes your mouth water, your eyes light up and your tummy happy is wonderfully healing. This brings up an important food truth: Healthy eating can be pleasurable, and pleasurable eating is healthier than any diet. Let me dive into this a bit further so that the part of your brain that’s screaming “cupcakes aren’t healing!!” can understand this a bit better. There’s no doubt that there are times in your life when you need to buckle down and eat less of certain foods to help your body find balance. There are many reasons for this, but they’re usually temporary diets (the exceptions include celiac disease and food allergies). The nutritional world is starting to realize that if you follow a restrictive diet for too long, the healing benefits are lost. The most extreme version of this is the newly recognized eating disorder called orthorexia. This is an eating disorder of absolute dietary perfection. Meals become an obsessive balancing act of creating the perfect meal with the fear of eating anything “bad”. Every time I’ve worked with someone with symptoms of orthorexia, their body is struggling. This is the most difficult part of this eating disorder. Their body isn’t responding to this obsessively perfect diet and the symptoms that inspired this diet persist. It’s through these experiences that I’ve realized the power of pleasure in eating. We can look to the food culture in France to see the power of pleasure in eating in action. In fact, it’s a cornerstone of the French Paradox. Even though people in France eat a diet that includes a lot of butter, cheese, wine, and bread, they tend to be healthier than people in North America.
Although there are many possible reasons why the French lifestyle is so paradoxical, it’s the connection to pleasure that’s believed to play an important role. Pleasure is a hard thing to quantify, but there seems to be a connection. By eating each meal slowly and with enjoyment (instead of guilt), the French people are healthier than their counterparts in other places. I feel there’s a lot to be learned from the French way of eating, and attitude might be a factor, as Paul Rozin and his colleagues identified in their research from 1999: The group associating food most with health and least with pleasure was the Americans, and the group most pleasure oriented and least health-oriented was the French. Ironically, the Americans, who make the greatest efforts to alter their diet for the sake of health, are the least likely to classify themselves as healthy eaters. In France, the quality of the average diet is higher than in the United States, even though each group spends about the same amount of preparation time in the kitchen. The big difference between the two groups occurs at the dinner table. The French spend twice as much time eating and enjoying their food as Americans do. The slow, pleasurable meals the French enjoy automatically manage their portion sizes. As a nutritionist, there’s a beautiful moment that I get to experience often with my clients. After years of dieting and then working really hard to undiet their relationship with food, there’s this glorious moment when undieting just clicks. It’s like a switch that flips and all of that old dieting philosophy is gone. They begin to tell me wonderful things like “Food isn’t a big deal, is it?” and “My mouth is watering when I make my meals now—food feels so good!”. And, my favourite, “I eat cookies or chips when I crave them, but I rarely want them anymore. Vegetables taste really good to me now!” Yes, this is something I actually hear. Your body loves whole food and without the pull of “forbidden” foods from those bad food lists, it’s easier to listen to what your body is really looking for. Food then becomes easy. And, it becomes so much more delicious! My question to you is this: How can you bring more food pleasure into your life? For me, as much as I can, I buy and prepare food that makes my eyes light up, my mouth water, and my body do a little “happy food” dance. What’s your happy food sign? Keep an eye out for it—your body will be happy to show you.