Almost every person has an answer to the question “What is your favorite food?”
It’s easy to see why: Humans are obsessed with getting pleasure from food. In fact, for many, eating is one of life’s greatest pleasures!
Besides making mealtimes an enjoyable experience, enjoying food also has great health benefits. Savoring food supports digestion, can help improve your relationship with food, can help overcome an eating disorder and more.
In some cases, getting enough “vitamin B” (or maybe vitamin B mmm) is as important as the contents of your plate. Read on to dive into the delicious delights of why pleasure is so important to food.
For years, researchers have studied the science behind eating for pleasure. Their findings are very interesting and encouraging.
Physiologically, the pleasure that people derive from food occurs both in our mouths and in our brains.
“Pleasure of any kind, including enjoying food, triggers the release of dopamine in the brain,” explains therapist, nutritionist, and Certified Body Trust Provider Aleta Storch, RDN and MHC of Wise Heart Nutrition and Wellness.
“Dopamine is often referred to as the ‘feel-good hormone’ because it activates reward pathways in the brain, helping to promote happiness, calmness, motivation and focus,” she says.
When our brain chemistry is working properly, our enjoyment of food can lead to physical benefits.
“When we enjoy the food we eat and stimulate dopamine, we actually digest and metabolize it more effectively,” says Storch. “When we feel relaxed in response to a pleasurable eating experience, our nervous system goes into rest-and-digest mode, allowing us to more fully break down and utilize the nutrients we eat.”
Eating for pleasure can also promote healthy eating.
“There’s a belief that ‘healthy’ food has to look bland or not taste good, but that’s not true,” says registered dietitian and intuitive eating consultant Sarah Gold Anzlovar, MS, RDN, LDN. “When we eat food we enjoy, satisfaction increases, which can actually improve diet quality and reduce the chance of overeating or binge episodes.”
Meal times would be so boring if food was just fuel. Eating casts a wide net across the human experience, from bringing us together with our loved ones to connecting us to our cultural heritage.
In short, food is both emotional and physical nourishment. Here are some ways that enjoying food can nourish your soul.
Enjoying food increases social contact
What’s a party or family gathering without something to eat?
Because people enjoy meals with others, this often contributes to a greater feeling of happiness, according to
Enjoying food provides physical and emotional relief
Warm chicken soup when you’re sick, pasta that reminds you of your grandmother, or a favorite dessert that always seems to be on the spot: foods like these have a way of lifting our spirits and soothing our bodies.
“Sometimes food provides relief at the end of a challenging day, which many people associate with negative emotional eating,” says Anzlovar. “But when we allow ourselves to connect with and enjoy food, there are many benefits.”
Enjoying food breaks diet culture
Diet culture has multiple definitions, but one of the hallmarks of these messages at a societal level is that you have to say no to the foods you love, especially if they are high in calories or fat.
Choosing to fully enjoy what you eat helps break this harmful mindset.
“When all foods are allowed without rules—including savory foods—the body learns to trust that it will get what it needs,” says Storch.“Getting permission for those foods that have been labeled ‘bad’ or ‘taboo’ is an important step in the healing process, and can help a person feel more peace, confidence, and freedom around food.”
Enjoying food connects us to our cultural heritage
Here is where the enjoyment of food can play a major role.
“Culture and traditions serve as a form of connection with others and ourselves,” says Storch. “Restricting or rejecting foods that promote connection can lead to disengagement and feelings of loneliness. By omitting cultural foods, we are not only saying that food is “bad” but we are saying that the underlying identity associated with food is “bad.”
Adopting these foods can ultimately create a sense of freedom and belonging which will elevate your mental health.
You may have heard that emotional eating isn’t ideal.
Turning to food to deal with difficult emotions such as stress, anger, or sadness often leads to mindless consumption and creates a fraught relationship with food. However, it’s understandable to be wary of the idea of eating for pleasure.
Fortunately, emotional eating and eating for pleasure differ in both intentions and results.
“Emotional eating is when people use food as a way to deal with positive or negative emotions,” says Anzlovar. “Eating for pleasure is choosing food to specifically enjoy its taste, texture, and experience, for example when you go out for ice cream in summer or eat an apple straight from the tree in an apple orchard.”
Another major difference between these two behaviors is the relationship you feel towards your food.
“Often, but not always, there is a lack of connection or disconnection with food when people eat emotionally,” Anzlovar explains. “When eating for pleasure, there is usually a real connection and pleasure that you get from the food.”
Of course, there’s no perfectly drawn line between emotional eating and eating for pleasure — and the two can sometimes overlap.
One way to find out what you’re exercising: How do you feel afterward?
Taking care to enjoy your food with care will not leave you feeling guilty or ashamed.
If you or a loved one has an eating disorder (or are concerned about its development), seek help from a qualified care provider as soon as possible. You can start with the National Eating Disorders Association’s Help and Support page, which offers a screening tool, hotline, and provider database.
Few things in life match the everyday pleasure of enjoying food. The food we consume nourishes our bodies, comforts our spirits, and pleases our taste buds.
To make your table more fun, try starting small.
“When preparing a meal or snack, see if there’s anything you can do to make it 10 percent more enjoyable,” Storch recommends. “Sometimes heating up a brownie, tossing some goat cheese on a salad, or adding more milk to thin out a bowl of oatmeal can take your eating experience from ‘meh’ to ‘yes’!”
Finally, when meal time is over, ask: How much pleasure did your food provide?
What positive feelings have resulted from being emotionally attached to the things on your plate? The mental notes you collect can help make future food choices even more delicious.
Sarah Garon is a registered dietitian, freelance writer, and food blogger. Find or follow the nutrition information you share on the ground in A Love Letter to Food Twitter.