Have you ever stopped to think about what your food choices say about you? Ever wondered what people might be able to infer just from looking at what’s on your plate? The answer may surprise you, as it seems that people tend to make very strong associations between food and aspects of identity. There are a number of ways of interpreting the common expression ‘you are what you eat.’ The traditional view is based on the concept that humans, like the food that they consume, are simply collections of well-organised chemicals, and that health is achieved by eating the right chemicals to support our body systems.Shapin, S. (2014). ‘You are what you eat’: Historical changes in ideas about food and identity. Historical Research, 87(237), 377-392. Whilst this interpretation certainly does have a degree of elegance, I would argue that the relationship is far more complex. We are living in a society where small pieces of information about a person’s eating habits can suggest a great deal about their personality. Historically, we have assigned meaning to certain foods, to the point where the food we choose to eat now can legitimately be viewed as adopting a moral or political stance.Shapin, S. (2014). ‘You are what you eat’: Historical changes in ideas about food and identity. Historical Research, 87(237), 377-392. We use food as a way to communicate, such that large aspects of who we are can certainly be derived from what we eat.
I often come across online quizzes that claim to be able to tell me what my personality type is based on my coffee order, or that claim to know which Friends character I am most similar to based on my attitude towards pizza. Yes, really. According to Time Magazine, cappuccino drinkers are creative and honest, whereas if you take black coffee you are minimalist and straightforward. It is almost irrelevant whether or not these things are accurate; their mere existence demonstrates the human tendency to attempt to derive meaning from food.
“a man reteins the qualities of those living creatures on whose flesh he feeds, as he that feeds on beefe is strong; he that feeds on venison, is nimble” Comenius, J. (1651). Naturall philosophie reformed by divine light, or, A synopsis of physicks (Early English books, 1641-1700 ; 23:3). London: Printed by Robert and William Leybourn for Thomas Pierrepont – Comenius, J
To have found a quote from the Elizabethan Era that highlights my point so well was definitely surprising, but it also just goes to show: this is not a new concept. Throughout history, people have ascribed meaning to their body’s fuel; meanings that are still relevant today.
It is not unusual for people to make judgements about aspects of a person’s personality based on the foods they choose. Consider the thoughts that come to mind when you meet someone who identifies as a vegan. You might assume that this person has a love for animals, that they are extremely health-conscious, or that they have a loyalty card for Go Vita. Of course, you cannot assert that any of these assumptions are correct with any certainty, but what’s important to realise is that people might actually choose certain foods in order to portray a specific image of themselves, or indeed avoid other foods for fear of being judged. A survey of 500 supermarket shoppers revealed that ‘the vast majority of people (71%) believe that the contents of shopping carts send out powerful messages about the persons pushing them.’ Think about the last time you ate out at a restaurant. Think about whether or not the meal you ordered was affected by what the person you were with might think, or even by the waiter’s judgemental gaze. It has been well-documented that people, especially women, tend to use the foods they choose, as well as the amount of food they eat as a way to manage other people’s impressions of them.Conner, M., & Armitage, Christopher J. (2002). The social psychology of food (Applying social psychology). Buckingham: Open University Press. In one experiment, women participants would opt to eat smaller portions of food when they believed that there was threat to their femininity.Mori, D., Chaiken, S., & Pliner, P. (1987). “Eating lightly” and the self-presentation of femininity. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 53(4), 693-702. Visibly, the judgements or assumptions about our identities that we receive from other people has a significant impact on our choice of food.
It’s very easy to dismiss our existence simply as a physiological phenomenon, but what we choose to eat to fuel our bodies has much more powerful connotations. The diverse range of eating choices we have today has been developing over centuries, and it continues to do so. During this time, we have paired certain foods with their own messages about who eats it. In this way, food and identity have become inherently linked. You might choose to have a croissant, rice pudding, or even bacon and eggs for breakfast; the outcome potentially telling you a great deal about your cultural background. It is intriguing how something as staple and vital as food has evolved to be something so dynamic in modern social contexts. It is important to be aware of the complex relationship between our own identity and the food choices we make, and how these affect each other. Food and nutrition are among the most critical determinants of health, and so improving our understanding of how we interact with food on a deeper level will be beneficial in the pursuit of wellbeing.
References [ + ]
|1.||⇪ab||Shapin, S. (2014). ‘You are what you eat’: Historical changes in ideas about food and identity. Historical Research, 87(237), 377-392.|
|2.||⇪||Comenius, J. (1651). Naturall philosophie reformed by divine light, or, A synopsis of physicks (Early English books, 1641-1700 ; 23:3). London: Printed by Robert and William Leybourn for Thomas Pierrepont|
|3.||⇪||Conner, M., & Armitage, Christopher J. (2002). The social psychology of food (Applying social psychology). Buckingham: Open University Press.|
|4.||⇪||Mori, D., Chaiken, S., & Pliner, P. (1987). “Eating lightly” and the self-presentation of femininity. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 53(4), 693-702.|