Last time, I wrote about sometimes when people have been abused or neglected around food, it makes sense that they might grow up to dislike feeding themselves. But what is equally true is that, sometimes, when people are deprived of food, their inborn love of food does not desert them, or they go on to develop an intense love of food they didn’t have before.
They might become interested in cooking and baking, or they might hoard food. At one point in history, researchers assumed these thoughts and behaviours — termed “food preoccupation” — were part of the pathology of eating disorders like anorexia nervosa. But as Kelsey Miller’s excellent recent article on the Minnesota Starvation Study illustrates, these behaviours are now well-known as hallmarks of simple starvation.
I remember once discussing this with a client who had recovered from an eating disorder, who had gone on to cook professionally. She said she found it very troubling, because it made her wonder whether her passion for cooking were just one more manifestation of her eating disorder, rather than an expression of her personality and love of food. It was a few years ago, but I still think about our conversation to this day.
As I’m sure you’ve noticed, North American culture is currently experiencing a renaissance of home cooking and gourmand-like devotion to food. Even our dieting trends have shifted to become more focused on the quality of food, ever more sophisticated nutritional theories, and scratch cooking. This comes on the heels of a mid-century epoch that was very focused on pre-packaged convenience foods, where the dieting trends centred almost entirely on calories, nutrition came a distant second, and quality of the food was not even on the radar.
The mid- to late 20th century was the era of dieting that called for half a grapefruit, dry white toast, and a cup of black coffee for breakfast. Or two powdered shakes for breakfast and lunch, followed by an impossibly “sensible” dinner. Or fully-branded, entirely pre-packaged, calorie-controlled diet meals and snacks, often leaning heavily on artificial sweeteners for flavour.
In contrast, the 21st century diet breakfast (though we rarely call it that; “diet” as a word has lost some of its power to invoke purity, status, and leanness) is more likely to be a green smoothie, chia seed pudding, or steel-cut oats — something made at home from raw, whole ingredients that reek of freshness, wholesomeness, and a new sort of crunchy purity.
There is, to me, a definite tang of food preoccupation in this resurgence of home cooking, and our growing concern for food quality, even while dieting. But rather than thinking this is a bad thing, it actually gives me a lot of hope.
I only find foodie-ism annoying when it is predicated on snobbery and enforcing social hierarchies, or promotes food restriction in disguise, not when it is genuinely celebrating food. And I see this resurgence in interest in food, just like the food preoccupation that often follows a period of deprivation, as a manifestation of the versatile and ingenious human survival drive. It is life making a way in an environment that often pressures us to deny our fundamental need to eat.
Food preoccupation can be distressing, and sometimes it comes in not-helpful forms, like obsessing over calories or counting the minutes until you get to eat again (although that last one is pretty understandable when deprivation is a possibility.) But food preoccupation can also look like an intense interest in food, taking joy and pleasure in preparing it, feeding yourself, savouring your meals, and maybe even making food your life’s work.
In other words, it can look an awful lot like coming back to life.
If your love of food was not punished and starved out of you, you are the recipient of some marvelous good luck. I am always thrilled to know people like this exist. Similarly, if an experience of deprivation triggered a new love of food and a desire to devote time and attention to it, this is a reminder of your body’s intense desire to live, and its ability to craft attitudes and behaviours that lead to food-seeking and, ultimately, survival. It is your body protecting and providing for you.
Either way, love of food is a gift. If you’ve managed to hold onto or discover it under the threat of abuse or starvation or self-hatred, you are very lucky.
Celebrate your good fortune — eat and enjoy it.