Happy eating is healthy eating
And this you so deserve!
Cn: discussion of relationships with food
Every year my college does exam breakfasts in Easter term. These exciting meals take the standard Travelodge-esque affair and mould it beyond my wildest, Premier Inn-inspired dreams. For a few sacred weeks we get to embellish our full English with the likes of pancakes and yoghurt-topped granola; surely, enough to motivate anyone through three and a half hours of Medieval exam? Because that is the point: the idea of exam breakfasts is less one of providing energy to get you through, but rather of giving you something enjoyable to look forward to. It is embedded not in nutrition but in emotion, because food is emotional.
We eat to celebrate and to comfort. Weddings and funerals gather us around tables of food during some of the most emotionally charged situations of our lives, prompting us to bond over a sausage roll or fall out over fruitcake. Religious celebrations across almost all cultures make a direct association between festivity and food, as well as between fasting and piety. Growing up through 15 years of Catholic education, events such as the Eucharist and the Lenten promises have ingrained into me the association of food (or restriction thereof) with solemn and ritualistic observance.
It makes sense that we have attached such cultural weight onto what we eat, food being one of the most fundamental parts of our everyday lives. Our plates are an obvious canvas onto which humans can project ideas about the world. However, in a privileged bubble where food is often in unfair excess, this emotional attachment can become manipulated by fad dieting and falsely-moralistic ideas about ‘clean’ and ‘unclean’ eating. An unwieldy capacity to indulge possibly creates a reactionary need to control: in times of stress especially the natural comfort we find in eating becomes embroiled in warped concepts of self-worth, food the tool for managing this.
It is also possible to spend hours pondering what we will eat, with a disregard for the physical act itself. Ironically, during the term when it is most important that we continue to talk to and support each other, group meals – one of our most natural social activities – can fall by the wayside.
The fact is that eating for happiness is natural, and should be considered as much part of a healthy diet as achieving your quota of green vegetables. Over the holiday I read the magical Eat Up! by Ruby Tandoh, which does an excellent job of exploring the complexities of eating. In it she talks at length about the emotional power of food and ‘eating what you want’: of how she found comfort in food as much as medicine during sickness, and the human right of prisoners to a decent meal. She writes: "Eating well means eating with compassion for yourself – for the bad and the good inside of you, and for all of the lumps, bumps, beauty and ugliness on the outside."
I could ramble on about nutrition and brainpower, or preach about what superfood will get you that extra percentage on your exam. In this there might be a grain of truth, in that it is of course crucial that we provide our bodies with the healthy energy necessary to power through the physical and intellectual exhaust of exams. However, it is also important that we eat well beyond the science of calories and carbohydrates; that we eat greedily the novelty croissant at breakfast, or sneak a forbidden chocolate bar past the librarians.
Even more important is it that we do this is the knowledge that it is not a reward for achieving a goal. Because food is emotional, and rightly so, but food is not a rewards system. Your right to eat good food, that which brings you joy, is not contingent on academic ideas of success; it is your right as a living, breathing, wonderful human being – particularly one who might be slightly more stressed than usual. It is in this knowledge that I shall construct the first of many absurdly elaborate welfare breakfasts this exam season.
All images, including the cover image, are the author's own.