Happier Attitude. The New Emotional Eating.

It’s not about using food to soothe our negative emotions or comfort us after a bad day. The newest thinking is that putting emotion into our meals can actually improve our health and even help us lose weight. In this special report, Shape investigates this intriguing new concept.

Portrait of Tammy Strobel

It’s not about using food to soothe our negative emotions or comfort us after a bad day. The newest thinking is that putting emotion into our meals can actually improve our health and even help us lose weight. In this special report, Shape investigates this intriguing new concept.

Illustration By Guyco
Illustration By Guyco

For Liz Katz, a busy marketing manager in the US, food is mainly about functionality. “I’ve always loved to eat, but my priorities have changed,” says Liz, 27, who grew up watching cooking shows but now doesn’t like to set foot in the grocery store, lest she be tempted by cookies and crackers. “I’m cutting back on carbs, so I mostly have a lot of kale salads and grilled chicken at my desk,” she explains. “My meals are healthy and convenient.”

What they are not is particularly pleasurable. For a growing number of Americans, eating has become a mission to get as many good nutrients, such as protein, fibre and antioxidants, as they can in the least amount of time. They also don’t want to become too emotionally invested in food because, if they do, they might overeat or consume the “wrong” things, like bread and cupcakes. Consequently, meals are no longer about the joy of savouring a delicious wholegrain dish or a perfectly cooked piece of fish, but a perfunctory “I’m hungry, so let me eat something quick, easy and healthy, and get back to concentrating on the zillion other things I need to do.” Americans are so concerned about consuming food that will make them healthier, energised and productive enough to power through jam-packed days, and so fearful that if they allow themselves to indulge in something “bad,” they’ll lose all control and take in thousands of excess calories, that they don’t think much about loving each bite. But while their intentions are good (healthy eating is proved by countless studies to help people live longer), if they don’t enjoy what they’re eating, they’re less likely to feel satisfied and – surprise! – more likely to over eat, experts say. Not to mention the fact that they’re missing out on the bliss a delicious meal, lingered over and shared with loved ones, can bring. “Eating can and should be joyful,” says Jenny Taitz, a clinical psychologist in the US.

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Convenience at a cost

Ironically, they’ve never been more obsessed with food, thanks largely to social media and food TV shows, yet they’re far too busy to savour it. Sixty-six million of Americans are opportunist eaters, who consume meals on the go, according to IRI, a global consumer research company. They grab a smoothie on the way to work and call it breakfast, or snack on almonds while driving in the car. And they eat a protein bar while heading home from the gym at night. But when you’re munching on the run, you barely have time to register the flavour or texture of the food you’re eating. “It’s not satisfying in the way that sitting down and really tasting your food is,” says Elisa Zied, a nutritionist in the US.

“Convenience is a key factor driving many American food choices because of our fast-paced lives,” explains Kelly Weikel, director of consumer insights at Technomic Inc, a US-based research and consulting fi rm that collects data about food and eating trends. “Circumstances are forcing us to eat this way.” Thirty-two per cent of people say they often have no choice but to eat on the go, and 21 per cent say they almost never have time to stop and enjoy a meal, according to the Technomic Consumer Trend Report Series.

It’s not surprising then that they’re cooking a lot less than previous generations did. Only slightly more than half of Americans make a meal on any given day. They actually spend less time cooking and eating than any other developed nation in the world, data from the French-based Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) shows.

They’re also much more likely to eat alone than ever before. Almost half of all meals and snacks are now consumed solo, according to a survey by the US-based Hartman Group, a recognised thought leader on demandside trends in the food industry.

Approximately 53 per cent have breakfast alone, often in the car or at the office, and 46 per cent eat lunch by themselves. Even dinner is increasingly becoming a solitary affair, experts say. Without anyone to talk to while eating, many tend to park themselves in front of the TV or computer. “We eat mindlessly while being entertained or doing work,” says nutritionist Dawn Jackson Blatner, a Shape advisory board member. “The problem is, when we multitask, we end up consuming more and enjoying it less.”

Leisurely dining has been almost completely tossed by the wayside. Today, the average person spends just a little more than an hour a day eating all three meals plus snacks, according to a recent survey from the American Bureau of Labor Statistics on how its citizens spend their time.

Eating has become just another chore to speed through and cross off the to-do list, and they think that’s fi ne as long as the food choices are healthy and they don’t end up drowning their sorrows in a bottomless bowl of mac and cheese. But it’s not. They may be filling up their stomachs, but the part of them that yearns for a meaningful food experience is starving. “Eating is one of the greatest pleasures there is,” Elisa says. “Take the joy out of it and you end up feeling empty and unhappy.”

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Food as connection

When it comes to healthy, pleasurable dining, they can learn a lot from Blue Zones – the places in countries such as Greece, Italy and Japan where people live the longest and rank among the happiest in the world. “You never see people in Blue Zones eating with one hand on the steering wheel,” says Dan Buettner, author of The Blue Zones Solution: Eating and Living Like the World’s Healthiest People. “When they eat there are no distractions.”

In his research, Dan found that not only does sharing a healthy meal with friends and family make people happy and relaxed, but it can also lead to a leaner, healthier body. “You carve out the time for it, surround yourself with people you like, and socially connect with them,” he explains.

That lowers the production of the stress hormone cortisol, which, at elevated levels, can interfere with digestion and cause a person to store excess calories as fat, especially in the midsection. “When you’re in a hurry, worried or lonely, cortisol triggers an inflammatory response in your body that can lead to disease,” Dan says. Eating together helps prevent that damaging effect by stopping stress.

Cooking a meal, even a simple one, rather than grabbing food to go also gives one a chance to decompress and to express herself creatively. We spend much of the day working, e-mailing on the com puter and texting from our smartphones that we rarely make anything tangible. Kneading dough for a pizza crust or whisking together olive oil, vinegar, and herbs for a salad dressing reminds one of that pleasure.

“Cooking is so nurturing and fulfilling in this crazy world where everything keeps moving faster and things are more and more superficial and homogeneous,” says Michael Moss, author of Salt Sugar Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us, a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative reporter formerly with the New York Times. “It’s one thing that I can do today in fairly short order and be really proud of.”

Michael recalls following a recipe for marinara sauce, which said to drain the liquid from canned whole plum tomatoes and then crush them in a bowl with your hands. “Oh my God, it was amazing!” he says. “When you feel and touch and taste ingredients, it’s childlike. I don’t think there’s enough time in our lives for that kind of thing anymore.”

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Bring joy back into your meals

Instead of focusing only on the nutrients and the convenience factor of the foods, or fretting that one scoop of ice cream will lead to polishing off the entire carton, Americans need to get back in touch with the pleasure of good food and how it makes them feel, experts say. This kind of emotional eating is something we should all aspire to. Here are four simple ways to help make it happen:

Stop multitasking. Research shows that people consume considerably more food the longer they watch TV because the brain isn’t really registering how much is being taken in, says Brian Wansink, director of the Cornell Food and Brand Lab at Cornell University in the US. One should sit at a table and turn off any electronic devices in the room – that includes the phone – when eating.

Eat more mindfully. Instead of scarfing down meals, “one should focus on each bite of food,” Jenny says. “Really experience the taste, the texture, the smell.” This helps a person appreciate food more and makes meals special.

Cook when possible. Whether just tossing together spaghetti with some plum tomatoes and fresh herbs or quickly stir-frying vegetables and chicken, cooking, even occasionally, makes anyone more emotionally invested in what you’re eating, experts say.

Dine with others. Almost nothing beats the joy of sharing good food with people you love. “I try to make dinner for my husband every night,” says Molly Yeh, author of the award-winning food blog My Name Is Yeh. “That’s special time for the two of us, when we sit down at the table, experience a dish together, and have a real conversation. Doing this connects us to the food and to each other.”

Sharing a healthy meal with loved ones makes us more relaxed and can even lead to a leaner body.