Judy's 15-year-old son has eaten a peanut butter sandwich for lunch every day since he was four. The last time she suggested something different, he objected.
"He said, 'You know, Mom, I have to put up with so much at school; so much is happening and there are so many changes that I just want a lunch that I can count on,'" she says.
"It never occurred to me," says Judy, an excellent cook with diverse tastes in food, "that he was using lunch as comfort, as something familiar that he didn't have to worry about."
Is eating a psychological need?
Of course, the best reasons to eat are that you're hungry and that you need food for sustenance, and the best way to respond to those needs is to reach for food that tastes good and is good for you.
But everyone knows that emotions, fatigue, hormones, some circumstances and events, certain people, boredom and a lot of other factors can sound the hunger bell, so what we end up eating may have less to do with physical needs than it does with psychological ones.
Food, like fashion, can be an expression of personal identity, says Paul Fieldhouse, a professor at the University of Manitoba in Winnipeg, who has a special interest in the social and cultural aspects of food. "Food is like a language that carries messages - the trick is understanding the code," says Fieldhouse.
"People think that there's some kind of great wisdom of the body that is going to instinctively choose what they need," says Bennett Galef, an eating-behaviour specialist and a professor of psychology at McMaster University in Hamilton, "but that's not true."
What do your eating habits say about you?
We do have some instinctive behaviours that go as far back as caveman times, such as gorging when food is available because it may not be for many days. But familiarity and culture (that is, what Mom packed for lunch and our ethnic and regional specialties) reign supreme, says Galef.
And eating experiences and personal preferences figure in, too. Our relationship with food -- what and how we eat, our likes and dislikes, our cravings -- can tell us a lot about ourselves. But what? We asked experts to take an educated -- but lighthearted -- look at what our eating habits reveal about who we are.
Page 1 of 4 -- Read about three different eating personalities on page 2!
1. The Earth Child
One of the vegetarian Earth Child's faces is that of the stereotypical herbivore: a gentle soul who eats fresh and wholesome foods (and garlic in everything), grows her own herbs and wears comfortable shoes. But this is just one of several personalities crowded into the Earth Child's kitchen.
There's the passionate and emotional artistic type who is strong-minded in her opinions and politics, which are often green. There's the rigid herbivore who eats within a scientific, medical and nutritional framework and views types of foods as good or bad. And there's another type who eats within a religious or moralistic framework. This person doesn't eat for enjoyment. For her, eating, drinking and pleasure are repressed. This person eats food to live, not for pleasure.
It's best to be an enlightened vegetarian, says Susie Langley, a registered dietitian and nutrition consultant in Toronto, and to learn how to get all the nutrients your body needs. Herbivores can have low levels of iron, zinc, vitamin B12 and protein.
2. The Wolf
The red-meat lover, or the Wolf, is typically perceived as male, aggressive, volatile, macho, possibly a workaholic and "definitely in touch with his latent carnal desires," says Michael Smith, host of "The Inn Chef" on Food Network Canada.
Meat was rare and difficult (and risky) to come by in hunter-gatherer societies, so it's no wonder that our bodies tingle with hunger at the smell of meat on the barbecue. The 100,000-year-old message -- that eating a plateful of ribs is equated with being strong and macho -- reeks of power and dominance over nature, says Fieldhouse.
Whether men really salivate more for meat than women do -- because they have more muscle mass -- is anybody's guess. But an adult carnivore today who eats more than the recommended 175 to 250 grams of meat or alternatives a day is no lean and hungry predator. Typically, he's a middle-aged, apple-shaped male with a high-stress job, a sedentary lifestyle and an increased risk for various diseases.
He needs a healthier lifestyle overall, says Langley, who recommends a more balanced plate that consists of one-third lean meat or alternatives, and two-thirds grains and fresh fruits and vegetables.
3. The Bottom Feeder
An indiscriminate and constant muncher who will eat whatever's quick and handy, the Bottom Feeder always has snacks in her cupboard and candy in her desk drawer. At times she's bored or distracted, orally fixated and eats without thinking. Can we blame cavemen on this one? A little.
Fat was hard to come by and salt was rare in hunter-gatherer societies, says Galef, so we have deep cravings for both. Now they're readily available in foods such as potato chips, which are mostly fat and salt, so we eat too many of them.
It's better to blame the busy fast-food world we live in today: many Bottom Feeders are rushed, overwhelmed by life and addicted to convenience.
And watch out for psychological triggers: junk food may be comfort food (especially if it was used as a reward in childhood), or it may be all a person thinks she deserves -- it's bad, she's bad. Don't go there. Bottom Feeders need more balance and structure in their eating habits (and possibly in their lives) and definitely more fruits and vegetables, says Langley.
Page 2 of 4 -- Ever heard of The Lady Chatterley eating personality? Learn more on page 3.
4. The Country Mouse
Like Aesop's comfort-loving rodent of simple and traditional tastes, the Country Mouse prefers feel-good puddings, buttery mashed potatoes, peanut butter sandwiches and macaroni-and-cheese over more adventuresome samplings.
Some comfort-food seekers may feel overwhelmed by change or stress and may gravitate toward the familiarity and security that comfort foods evoke. Or they're so busy and overtired that they think it will help if they eat.
Seeking some comfort from food in some situations (when we're sick, stressed or even happy) is not necessarily a bad thing. Food should provide more than just nutrition, says Jodie Waisberg, a clinical psychologist in Kingston, Ont., who adds that it can also be used as a means of socializing with other people, a way of connecting with our past and a source of comfort. But if it becomes your sole source of comfort, be careful: you need other emotional outlets, such as calling a friend or going for a walk.
Why do some of us turn to comfort foods when we need solace? Many are high in carbohydrates, which may trigger the production of serotonin, says Langley, and that can promote feelings of calm.
Just don't overdo comfort foods because they can be high in fat, too.
5. Polly Put-the-Kettle-On
The soother and unifying force among family and friends, Polly brings people together with food and hospitality; for her, sharing is sometimes more important than the actual food. She's probably a peacemaker.
She's not confrontational and can't stand anyone being aggressive or upset. She keeps food memories and traditions alive and is the unsung hero of cuisine, says Smith.
She's also the mom with the best kitchen on the block; at her table there are always lots of second helpings and several mealtime guests. In her bid to keep everyone happy, she's also rushed for time so she looks for easy one-dish meals, says Trish Magwood, owner of the Dish Cooking Studio in Toronto.
The drawback: she is so busy taking care of others that she rarely sits down to a relaxed meal herself. She nibbles while she cooks and might finish what's left on her kids' plates. She may also turn to comfort foods when she finds a moment, or dive into the cookies and cakes she prepares for everyone else. The possible consequence is that she's overweight and improperly nourished.
6. Lady Chatterley
Food is a totally sensual experience for Lady Chatterley, who is always open to new taste sensations and eager to explore and experiment. She eats slowly and meaningfully and sets the table with a wide -- and wild -- assortment of colours, textures and tastes.
She's outgoing, adventurous, passionate and takes risks. Lady Chatterley shops by the season, says Fieldhouse, and perhaps resists the modern food industry -- you could almost call her a rebel.
Confident and creative, she doesn't need a recipe and is completely comfortable in the kitchen. On her plate, you'll often find succulent seafood, bright orange squash, dark green kale and nutty grains – usually a wide variety of foods that provides balance in her diet and spice in her life.
7. The Referee
You've met the Referee -- he knows the rule book by heart, down to the exact number of nutrients, calories and fat grams in every morsel of food.
He tends to be uptight and obsessive and he eats to live. He's no fun at a dinner party because he picks at his food like an eagle-eyed umpire: the Referee won't eat deep-fried anything because it contains too much fat, he doesn't like olives because they're too salty and he wants to drink light beer -- if he drinks at all.
There's a good chance that his life is just as orderly and organized as his fridge, says Waisberg. For him, eating has a rigid logic: his low-fat, high-fibre lunch right at noon weighs in at 602 calories.
His technical genius aside, the Referee often doesn't have a lot of tolerance for life's little offsides. Waisberg suggests that someone who eats this mechanically might have difficulty dealing with emotions in general -- in letting go and experiencing the moment.
The bottom line: he eats within a scientific, medical and nutritional framework that says, “This is good for your health.”
But, asks Galef rhetorically, how good can it be when there's no pleasure in eating? Go ahead and have another roll, this time with some butter: there's no penalty box.
8. Simple Simon
Like Judy's peanut butter–loving son, Simple Simon wants the same sandwich every day for lunch, and, if it's Tuesday, it must be fish-and-chips for dinner.
He's old-fashioned and rigid, wants everything in its place and doesn't want to experiment or try ethnic foods. For him, bring on the roast beef, boiled potatoes and corn.
This guy's afraid of new things, says Smith. He's overwhelmed by the world and retreats to the familiar at mealtime. It can be a reaction to stress and makes life easier.
Research shows that people who are food “neophobic” also tend to be slightly more anxious in other domains. Either that or Simple Simon is a risk taker in other areas of his life and strives for a sense of safety when he eats.
Can this finicky, sensitive eater be saved? Research has shown that early experience with a variety of novel foods helps. All grown-up? Then take it slowly and try at least one new vegetable -- come on -- every day.
9. The Maple Leaf Forever
There's a flag flying at her house and she's serving pancakes with maple syrup, oatmeal, back bacon, poached salmon and fiddleheads -- all foods of early Canada.
“Rah, rah, rah,” says Smith, “for our traditionalist in contemporary clothes who has a global perspective with a regional outlook.”
Seasonal local ingredients are popular all around the world, and this type of food is actually comfort food, too. It's home. Like Lady Chatterley's picks, these food choices are generally healthy because they're varied and fresh and change with the seasons.
Add some of the wonderful ethnic foods so widely available in Canada for a truly cross-cultural experience. Just keep in mind that some Canadian classics stick to your ribs -- keep the diet balanced with a glass of low-fat milk and a side salad.
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