Written by Charu Madan

A gentle cry for life marks the arrival of a new soul into this world. The foremost act at that moment is to comfort and feed the neonate. How the little one intuitively clings to his natural source of nourishment with devotion, is nothing short of a miracle. From this moment, when food is nourishment, to how we steer to the juncture, where it turns into a toxin, harming not just us but the society is worth a serious thought.

I was born in a Punjabi family, which means there was always, unhindered laughter, food and appetite.We never said to our mother in our growing years “Pet bhar gaya” or that “I am full”. Rather the food would stop coming from the kitchen after my mother had ascertained that we had had enough. Looking back, I have immense gratitude for my parents, who like most parents of that era, inculcated in us simple eating habits and the importance of staying healthy.

In the last few decades, there has been a massive transformation in how we perceive food in our lives and how we eat.Food is a massive industry now, with its own culture which is fed (pun intended), by the desire to have something new, appealing, tasty and befitting one’s status. There are food channels and food shows on television that are very popular. They give people a glimpse of nouveau food experiences, which inculcate a desire to eat something novel. And if one has the desire to eat it, one can get it (in 30 minutes or less!).  Food delivery and QSR has redefined our sense of taste and convenience.All of this has elevated the importance of good food in our lives to almost religion, and “Foodies” who can advise on the best places or foods to eat, are almost revered as the priests of old. Across age groups, whatever the occasion, food is invariably the guest of honour.You needn’t go further than any Indian wedding to understand this. The ridiculous amount spent for the variety of cuisine in a wedding is only outdone in obnoxiousness by the inhumane wastage that follows thereafter.

Why does food occupy such a central and pivotal role in the feeling of happiness of the modern person?

Food started as source of nourishment to satisfy hunger. Our instinct, like any animals’, is to eat more and store in our bodies the nourishment that may be required for possible future scarcity. This instinct to eat more extends to eating foods with more energy. Fat, sugars etc. satisfy our taste buds more for this reason. Thus one can argue that till we overcome this animal instinct, we will continue to eat more to satisfy our “greed” and hence food will become toxic. I classify “greed” here as not an evil desire, but the intent to eat more and incorrect food, than what our body requires.

While the explanation above on why food (and certain types of food) have become important is scientific, it does not factor in the emotional and social aspect of the process of preparing and consuming food. It has been proven that having palatable food relaxes the human mind and makes it more amenable to interact with others. Thus in certain cultures (like Italian or Indian)serving a feast for a large extended family or friends is a norm for social interactions(as is almost force feeding people at these occasions!).Food becomes a way to bond (and sometimes a topic to bond over) and provides an indescribable fulfilment of having fed someone.There is also a spiritual aspect to the importance of food. We all partake “Prasad” or holy food or holy water, when we visit holy places or places of worship. The “Prasad” is normally prepared in a pure manner and consecrated before being consumed. It thus provides a feeling of purification to the mind and soul after consumption (and hence some argue, tastes good). People associate this holy food with faith more than its taste and physical nourishment and so derive an internal gratification.

Thus the social, emotional and spiritual satisfaction that food provides is another reason why it is revered. However these reasons have existed for centuries. Why is it now that food is becoming a major reason for disease and a lifestyle issue?

Firstly we have had significant shifts in lifestyle over the last few decades. Families have become smaller and more people have moved out of their native places in search of livelihood. It can be argued these factors have resulted in shallower relationships for convenience taking precedence over deeper familial or native bonds. People also have less time to invest in fulfilling pursuits such as serving the society, pursuing a hobby, friendships, or spiritual growth. The lack of mental fulfilment from these traditional sources is sought to be compensated by material desires, which includes food. Food can bring instant gratification with very little investment of time or emotion. The problem is that this type of gratification doesn’t last very long and so we crave for our next “fix”.

Secondly, as the world has become closer (metaphorically), we have started to eat and enjoy non-traditional food, i.e. food that is harvested or sourced outside our traditional geography. Many dieticians say that if you start eating, what your body was not designed for (and food habits do imprint genetically), then the effect on your body can be harmful. So while we may crave that Guacamole (and theory says that ingredients like avocado are super foods), if it is not something that we are brought up with, we need to be careful. I am not suggesting we do not eat it, but that we moderate. More importantly we ask ourselves, in trying to go for more variety in my food, am I trying to compensate for the boredom (which is another name for non-satisfaction in work and relations) in other parts of my life? This reflection deserves more importance than what we give to food!

All in all:

  1. Control the quantity of what we prepare and eat. Consciously avoid waste. If all of us can just eat the exact calories that we need, then world hunger can be solved. There is no respect or love in preparing more food for a party or wedding for the guests. The act of wasting food is against all humanity. Remember, there is enough for man’s needs, but not man’s greed.
  2. Reflect on what we are eating and why we crave for it. Avoid junk food. Avoid fancy or “attractive” food. Think of what nourishment your body needs and how your mother would have provided for it.
  3. Try and derive more satisfaction in life from other meaningful pursuits (e.g. social service) and you will see that your desire for gratification from food come down by itself.