Food! A Double-Edged Sword?

by Cate Moriasi

My dad once asked me, “Do you ever eat food to enjoy it?” I knew, at least in part, why he had asked that question. For the short period of time we had spent together, he heard me analyze every kind of food that I or any other person was going to eat. This comes naturally for me because I have been studying, analyzing and working with food for about two decades. I’m not exactly sure about all that was going on in my dad’s mind when he asked that question but by stepping into the shoes of another person, I can imagine the negative emotions that could be associated with always having to think about what you are eating. I can see why this could be a downer. Food is meant to be enjoyed. And yet another important aspect is that food delivers the nutrients that our bodies need. Right from elementary school, children are introduced to the major nutrients they need in their food in order to grow up strong and healthy. But also, children learn early on that whenever something special is happening, good food is a major part of it. Food is pleasurable. For many, food doesn’t just satisfy hunger but it lifts up their spirits.  Even our brains know that food is meant to be enjoyed – we were created that way.

Do I Ever Eat Food to Enjoy It?

My answer is, yes! But for those who have heard me automatically analyze food before I eat it, the next question would be, “How can you possibly enjoy food when you make it a point to know all that is in it?” This is a good question because I start with an obvious disadvantage, which I believe can be a vantage point as well. My training in food has mainly focused on food chemistry, food composition and analysis. This requires knowing food components and how they interact with each other. I also had my training during the era of functional foods. A functional food has components that can prevent disease in addition to the basic nutrition it delivers.  The functional food term became a big deal because of the evidence that our dietary habits were partly responsible for the increasing rates of chronic diseases such as heart disease, diabetes and cancer, among others. For a long time, I studied components of food that affect health, positively or negatively. Part of that was a quest to find out exactly what these food components do to benefit or hurt our health. Then I got the opportunity during my postdoctoral years to study how some specific food components affect real known diseases. With every additional experiment, it became clearer that these diseases are difficult to get rid of once they are established. And it makes sense – if it has taken a long time for the disease to get established, how can you knock it down that easily? A light bulb went off in my head – “prevention!” You do your part in preventing these diseases one day at a time. So, after all this background information, the answer to the question above is yes, I eat food to enjoy it. But more accurately, I enjoy my food because I know what I’m putting into my body.

What If You Don’t Have A Food Analysis Background?

Do you have to know everything going on with the food you are eating? I think the answer is “yes” to a certain extent and thankfully there are food labels, which most people read to get an idea about what their food contains. For the most part, you don’t have to know all the technical details. For example, what do pesticides exactly do to my body if they are part of my food? Or what does lycopene, which makes tomatoes red, do to my body? Instead you just need to know that pesticides are bad for your body and that fruits and vegetables are generally good for you.  I think it would also be good to know that the different fruit and vegetable colors indicate that these foods have different components. Depending on your situation, you may have to learn what component is in what food, for example those that need to avoid gluten. In some cases, you don’t have to know the details of which protein in nuts causes you allergies – you just know you are allergic to nuts and you avoid them. There are times when going a bit technical in knowing what is in your fruit or vegetable might be beneficial. For example, a tomato has lycopene which is an antioxidant that would be good for your body but that tomato may have some tiny amounts of natural toxins that the plant produces to defend itself. Most people will get the benefit of the lycopene antioxidant in tomatoes without being affected by the tiny amounts of the natural toxin but some people are sensitive to these tiny amounts. In this case you need to avoid the tomato and other fruits or vegetables that might have that toxin and eat others that would give you antioxidants without the pain. Mainly this is for the adults, many of whom are already analyzing what they eat.

What About Children?

For the children who like to ask “why,” we can use this to our advantage and give them some more knowledge about what they eat. In our earlier post, we said that we have an upcoming book that uses a story to teach children about atherosclerosis. This book was largely inspired by my then eight-year old’s interest in my atherosclerosis research. One day I was called to get him from school because he was having some eye problems. After the doctor’s visit and feeding him, I put him to bed and then started working on my data. When he woke up, he saw images on my computer and asked what they were. I explained to him that they were pictures showing atherosclerosis in blood vessels of mice. Of course, the response was, “What? What did you say?” So, we had to work on that big word. I was surprised that he kept asking questions wanting to know more. I ended up explaining to him how the nice-looking blood vessels were from mice that I had fed fish oil and the not-so good-looking blood vessels from mice that I had given the bad food. He asked if that could happen to people and I told him, “yes.” When he said he didn’t want atherosclerosis in his blood vessels, it dawned on me that a child had understood something which I would never have expected him to understand. It was interesting when my friend and coworker said that she would like to communicate science to children and here we are today. We realized that instead of shielding children from this knowledge that actually affects them, we need to communicate the science in a fun way and let them have a choice. Let them be in control. Let them know what some of these foods can do to them so that they can answer their why – why they should or shouldn’t eat a specific food – and the answer is not just because “mom said so”, or just plain “it’s not good for you.”

Children Understand More Than We Give Them Credit

For my son, it became easy to understand why the road to pizza or macaroni and cheese went through broccoli. He was willing to compromise and eat something that was good for him, even though he didn’t necessarily enjoy it and then rewarded himself with the “good” stuff as he calls it. So, food is to be enjoyed but you can enjoy it much more when you know that it can be a double-edged sword and you can do something about it. It’s good to know whether you are eating for your taste buds or for your whole body – and children can understand this. We will provide more information about this in a follow up post but you will ultimately enjoy food when you know what you are putting into your body – maybe it’s a control issue. Since children like to be in control, we can train them to be in control of their food desires and cravings instead of the other way around. Most adults are already doing this. We can help our children make a conscious choice to eat what is good for them and start developing healthier patterns at an early age.

Please check back to read about our ideas on how to help kids be more willing to make healthier choices. Also stay connected with us: Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Pinterest.

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