Is It OK To Eat For Fun?
Updated: Nov 15, 2021
The fact that this is even a question is a social commentary on what eating has become in America. Unlike in other cultures, where eating and pleasure quite naturally go together, in this country eating has become rather transactional. How much nutrition will I get from this food? Is it "worth it"? How much "good stuff" vs. "bad stuff"? And recently, there's another layer to it as well. Is this a "morally superior" food? Is it organic? Locally grown? Non-GMO? Free trade? It's easy to see how the aspect of enjoyment can get totally lost in this discussion.
Of course the nutritional profile of the food we eat is important, as are the Earth we live on and the well-being of its inhabitants. At the same time, eating should be enjoyable. As dietitian Ellyn Satter so aptly puts it, "When the joy goes out of eating, nutrition suffers." When eating becomes an exercise in pursuing perfection, something's gonna give, and ironically, it might actually be your health! (Read more about this here).
So how do we balance the tasks of caring for our bodies and enjoying our food without one of these negatively impacting the other?
Our bodies rely on us to provide them with the building blocks of life. We need to eat foods that are rich in nutrients in order to function properly. However, we sometimes forget that the primary factor our bodies require is energy - in other words, calories. There is no such thing as an "empty calorie" because all calories provide the body with energy to allow for basic functioning.
However, for overall health and wellbeing, we need most of the foods we consume to provide us with additional benefits. Bodies need a whole lot of nutrients!! Protein, carbohydrate, fat, vitamins, and minerals all allow our bodies to grow, repair themselves, and maintain vital functions. Iron deficiency can lead to anemia, inadequate calcium to osteoporosis, and too little fiber to constipation. This doesn't mean you need to calculate your macro- and micronutrient intake each day. It means it's important to choose foods that are nutritious and to get plenty of variety. It's why dietitians never seem to stop talking about "a well-balanced diet."
Remember that this well-balanced diet can also be pleasurable. You don't need to force yourself to eat foods you don't like just because you think they're good for you. You don't need to like every single fruit or vegetable; just try and get in some! Maybe salmon makes you gag, or you don't like the texture of blueberries. There's no rule that you must eat these foods just because you read an article about superfoods and saw them on the list. There are lots of ways to meet your nutrient needs, and choosing ingredients and recipes that you truly enjoy is a way of enhancing your nutrition. Choking down foods you don't like is not.
Here's the thing, though. Most people's caloric needs will exceed their nutrient needs. That means that once you've met your nutrition requirements for the day, there are still additional calories that your body needs. You may have consumed enough protein and fiber, but your body still needs more energy to keep all your systems running efficiently. This energy can come from more nutrient-dense food, such as the salmon mentioned above, or it can come from a cupcake. Your body's going to utilize it for energy either way. If you've already had enough protein and healthy fats that day, you don't actually need the energy to come from a food like salmon. You might want to think about it like putting together an outfit. You need a top and a bottom, socks and shoes, but then you get to accessorize. A scarf? Earrings? You might not need these extras, but they sure make your outfit more fun.
That's where fun foods come in. They are foods that we eat purely for pleasure, not because we think they have any particular nutritional benefits (aside from being an energy source). They are the accessories to the necessities. They are there to add interest and fun, and yes, pleasure. It is pleasurable to eat something that tastes really good. It is pleasurable to be able to bond with other people over something tasty. It is pleasurable to elevate celebrations and meaningful events with delicious food.
Guess what else. It's also healthy. For starters:
1. When you can be flexible with the type of foods you eat and thus have less stress around food, you are more likely to experience better digestion and absorption.
2. Allowing yourself to include fun foods in your diet leads to a more moderate way of eating vs. restricting and overeating, which is detrimental to both physical and emotional health.
3. Being confident about your ability to enjoy these foods in moderation allows for more ease in joining social situations, and people with strong social connections tend to be healthier and live longer.
If you're packing for an overnight trip, please don't bring only scarves and necklaces. And if you're packing your food for the day, your body needs more than just cupcakes. But you can definitely save space for them too.
Remember that health is about far more than the nutrient breakdown of your diet. It's about your eating attitudes and behaviors over time. Your body may not care much about whether or not you eat the fun food, but your ability to be flexible and do so if desired can make a big difference to your wellbeing.
I've only just skimmed the surface of this very big and thorny topic, so if reading this has helped you realize that you struggle with how to include fun foods appropriately, don't hesitate to seek guidance. Be wary of advice that tells you all fun foods must be excluded for health, and be sure that you are getting recommendations that are grounded in science and tailored to your specific needs. Maybe cupcakes are not an ideal fun food for you; maybe you don't even like them. But I'm sure there is room for joy and fun in your eating, and you deserve to find out how.