Why is it so hard to control what we eat? From the cardiac patient trying to slim down to the athlete trying to get in peak racing shape, it can’t be denied: altering body weight is difficult.
An interesting segment on All Things Considered recently provided some insight into the connection between food and emotion which is played out every time we eat dinner with friends or celebrate a holiday with our family. Food is love, and love is food…and separating the two may be more biologically difficult than we imagine.
Behavior in monkeys provides numerous examples of the way primates use food to enhance social and emotional connections: adult chimpanzees sacrifice especially delicious snacks to their offspring, and bonobos share meals with unfamiliar peers rather than known acquaintances to expand their social network.
How does this affect humans? We can blame our ancestors. As our food acquisition strategies evolved and we were able to get increasingly more effective at killing big game, domesticating animals, and growing agriculture, humans began to participate in the social ritual known as the feast. Food became associated with feelings beyond just survival, now having emotional connotations similar to those evoked by pleasure, social interaction, and happiness. This was advantageous at the time, because a gut-brain connection was beneficial for survival. In prehistoric times, it pays to remember where your last good meal came from so you can find another when you need it.
Today though…well, it’s a bit more problematic. A good meal or exciting treat activates the dopamine system, which is also stimulated during fun activities such as playing, loving, and spending time with friends. But since food is no longer scarce, then a food-activated dopamine system is actually a disadvantage in our modern society of plenty. Weight loss and maintenance becomes a lot more difficult when we are surrounded by voluminous quantities of food that makes us really happy.
An additional note: As I was about to publish this, I stumbled across this fascinating article on the role beer played in allowing us to expand beyond the rigid social codes necessary for survival into the distinctly human realm of exploration, emotion and inventiveness. Food is love, but beer is expression.