The Nutritious Connection between Food Preference, Comfort Food, and Culture
The second of a three part series about food as both an international cultural experience and nutrition education.
What memories about food do you take away from your childhood? What kinds of foods are your comfort foods? What does this say about your culture and how you were socialized into thinking about food? Does this influence how you see food from a nutritional standpoint?
When I think of comfort food, I think of tuna fish subs, or hoagies as we say in Philly. Let me explain. After withstanding a brutal 10 minute stare down with a dental assistant, managing not to gag on a mushy styrofoam tray overflowing with raspberry flavored fluoride shoved onto both my upper and lower teeth, then told not to eat for 2 hours, I was an inconsolable child. A bi-annual ordeal, dentist appointments always happened during the most inopportune times of the week during my childhood—around 11 am on a school day.
After I finished, I would be a ravenous 10 year old with a headache. My dad, despite being very health conscious, would stop at Subway on the way back to school. Subway was the only fast food restaurant that he deemed healthy enough for his kids. My favorite sub was a toasted 12 inch tuna, yes 12, on whole grain with every vegetable available.
Although an unorthodox choice, I am aware of this as my comfort food because while living in Japan, I had my wisdom teeth ripped out of my mouth for about $50, and was sent out of the doctor’s office with blood marking the side of my mouth almost like a lipstick mishap. After that experience, the craving for Subway was overriding my senses almost as severely as the anesthesia numbing my inflated cheek.
When I returned to the doctor’s office about a week later, I marched one hour around the streets of Tokyo to the only Subway within walking distance to console myself after the excruciating process of a wisdom tooth extraction abroad. Food as a memory is powerful.
In the United States this could have a harmful effect in some cases. For example, I found evidence of this in my class “Nutrition Through the Lifecycle” taught by Dr. Gina Tripicchio in the College of Public Health at Temple University. We watched a documentary called Bite Size, a film about children in the United States suffering from obesity and Type 2 diabetes.
The first scene was heartbreaking. A 12-year-old, Davion, aspires to play for his middle school football team but has significant difficulty joining team workouts because he is constantly pulled aside to test his blood sugar levels. He is obese, and at twelve years old is the youngest in his family to suffer from Type 2 diabetes. Davion’s self confidence rivals that of an NFL player and the warmth radiating from his loving personality seeps through the glass of the television to the audience holding back tears. I realized then that obesity, weight and nutrition are all products of the environment, society or culture we grow in. We are conditioned by these factors at an early age so we begin to approach our fitness and health from a perspective that we have little choice in choosing.
Food preference develops at a raw but very precious age—during our years as toddlers and as some research suggests, even from our first introduction to solid foods at around six months old. Preferences for sugary, highly satiable foods might be genetically pre-programmed but it also develops from multiple exposures.
In Bite Size, one of the girls, KeAnna, earned the nickname “Jello” after word got out that she ate jello in her bottle as an infant. She associates these jelly memories with her late mother who passed away from breast cancer. She loves being “big” and enjoys buying candy, chips and soft drinks with her friends. KeAnna’s story supports the argument that food can socialize us in different ways and the cultures we grow up in greatly influence our preferences.
Food preferences are related to consumption norms in our environments. In the study Mindless Eating: The 200 Daily Food Decisions We Overlook, researchers Wansink and Cobal looked at how the culture of mindless eating (rampant in the United States) has affected the decisions we make what, when, where, and more everyday. We have so many small decisions to make with food that overtime, we just subliminally abide by cultural norms of what, when, where, to eat. This is how the American culture of eating can be harmful and should possibly aim towards change.
Parents have the most influence on the food preferences of their children—a piece of vital information we can scoop out of the food swamp. Parents are responsible for the exposure of foods to children at a young age. Before a preference develops, our caretakers shape our primary environment as children. The culture of a society molds the behavior of our parents to how they react to the environment. Therefore, the food we are socialized by culture to perceive as normal is passed on by the reactions of our parents to the cultural environment. The synergetic, inter reliability of each sphere is noticeable especially in that of comfort food. Comfort food, the foods we eat as emotional crutches, can be a significant barrier to health and can shape the way we view food.
Comfort food pays tribute to heritage, family rituals and family memories, and can be a source of identity. It can remind an individual of something moving in their personal history.
Irish soda bread can trigger memories of Saint Patrick’s day, celebrating Irish heritage through home cooking. Others, like myself, might think of beans and rice, which my dad would make for me every weekend for breakfast atop a french baguette with mozzarella cheese, called a mollete. Some eat hot chips daily, a staple of the Southern United States, because that’s what their parents always gave them.
Some of the Top Comfort Foods in the United States:
- Grilled Cheese
- Mashed Potatoes
- Spaghetti and Meatballs
- Chicken and Waffles
- Shrimp and Grits
- Ice Cream
Multiple Exposures Our health is salvagable when we consider the idea of how multiple exposures can change habits. Multiple exposures to vegetables will eventually condition a person to, if not like then to at least tolerate vegetables. For example, in Japan, I was conditioned to eat natto, a sticky fermented bean mixture. I first learned about natto from Youtubers who made a point to try the infamous food. As a welcome lunch to my first share house, my house manager took me to eat at a traditional Japanese restaurant, and on the first day in Japan I had the opportunity to satisfy my curiosity to try this substance. Never the picky eater, I still had a strong reaction. Frankly I was disgusted with the texture, the taste, the smell; it was very off putting but to avoid the awkwardness of not finishing my food, I snuck by with the “I’m full” excuse.
Later on, after watching my share-mates eat the gross legumes each and every morning, I slowly wanted to try again. Not to be too dramatic, it took me at least five attempts to actually enjoy the flavor. By the second year in Japan, natto was a staple in my diet and I would have a small 80-gram pack about twice a day. In Philadelphia, I made a conscious effort to eat natto. I scrounged the Philadelphia area and found multiple stores in Chinatown that sell it. Now I allow it to stink up my refrigerator at my house, possibly irritating my roommates’ sensory systems in the name of Vitamin E, part of the reason why natto is known as a “superfood.” I believe this experience of social conditioning is a good example of how exposure can be the key to developing or changing ingrained habits.
I prod Temple University students with these same questions and their initial exposure into the American food scene in my final addition to this global nutrition series. Although it is difficult to pinpoint the exact meaning behind our culture’s conception on nutrition through one’s experience with comfort foods, by asking these questions about “why I eat this way” it can help us see whether our behavior is harmful or helpful to our health and from where we learned this information. Similar to an epidemiologist searching for the patient zero of a disease, we need to find the starting place for our educational journey of one of the biggest aspects of our lives.