• “Finish your vegetables or you can’t watch TV.”
  • “If you ace your test, we’ll go out for ice cream.”
  • “Clean your plate; others aren’t so fortunate.”
  • “Eat this cake; it’ll make you feel better.”

Do these sorts of statements sound familiar? Americans often seem to have an emotionally fraught relationship with their food. Food can alternately be used as a reward or as a punishment; as a source of comfort or of guilt. Despite the primacy of food in our psyche, we still suffer from many unhealthy habits that result in the poor health outcomes we see nationally. The real issue stems not only from what we’re eating but also how we’re eating.

How does American thinking about food differ from other countries? To answer this question, food psychologist Paul Rozin administered a survey to residents of the United States, France, Belgium and Japan.

The results are striking. Americans were most concerned about the health effects of the food they were eating and worrying the most about the fattening effects of the food they consume. At the same time, Americans were least likely to associate food with pleasure or its cultural role. Perhaps most interestingly, despite the American focus on the health effects of foods, fewer Americans consider themselves healthy eaters than the other groups.

This study is a window into the phenomenon known as the French Paradox. The French diet is full of what would traditionally be seen as unhealthy – bread, cheese, and rich fatty foods like duck confit. French eaters tend to think less about nutrition and enjoy their food more, and yet have significantly better health outcomes than Americans. According to Michael Pollan, the method of eating may be more important than the substance:

"[Our] orthodoxy regards certain tasty foods as poisons, failing to appreciate that how we eat, and even how we feel about eating, may in the end be just as important as what we eat. The French eat all sorts of supposedly unhealthy foods, but they do it according to a strict and stable set of rules: They eat small portions and don’t go back for seconds; they don’t snack; they seldom eat alone; and communal meals are long, leisurely affairs. In other words, the French culture of food [allows them] to enjoy their meals without ruining their health.”
Omnivore's Dilemma, pp. 300-1

A core component of the difference between how American and French people eat is the way they determine how much to eat. A study by Brian Wansink found that Americans were much more likely to stop eating based on external cues, while French respondents were more likely to stop eating based on internal cues. The power of internal cues was also correlated with lower rates of obesity. It should be abundantly clear that the way we ought to determine our eating habits is based on our bodies – if you start feeling full, you should probably stop eating – rather than external cues such as whether the TV show we’re watching has ended.

Unfortunately we often are not as rational as you might think when it comes to our eating habits. This is the main message of Brian Wansink’s book entitled Mindless Eating. Here Wansink argues that small marginal effects cause mindless eating that adds serious health differences in the long run. From the size of our plates and food packages to the environmental and emotional factors attached to food, there are a vast number of ways that our eating habits are controlled by external factors that we do not recognize or control.

Cooking for yourself and your family can do a lot to bring these factors under your control. Cooking and eating at home leaves you in charge of the menu – snacking can be done with portioned fruits or vegetables rather than a gallon bag of chips. Cooking also allows you to determine your personal culture of eating – you can use smaller plates for controlled portions and set aside time for a meal rather than stuffing down food on your way to something else. Cooking with nutritious, delicious ingredients allows you to take pleasure in your food while enhancing your health.

The American nutrition-obsessed, shame-based culture of eating has shown to be ineffective and unhealthy. Instead, by understanding and controlling the context of our eating through cooking, we can embrace a joyful culture of eating in which we derive pleasure from our food and the meals we create.