Rediscovering an emotionally intelligent approach to food

Charmian Smith
Charmian Smith

We all know that food high in sugars, fats and salt are not good for us, that they make us put on too much weight that can lead to diabetes and other health problems

Yet, as a community we keep buying it and eating it in ever larger portions. So it's no wonder manufacturers keep producing it. 

And, despite our good intentions, we find our weight creeping up year by year.

At the recent Food Design conference in Dunedin, Dr Lesley Gill and David Gillespie, of Otago Polytechnic, took a workshop on the emotional intelligence ingredient in food and the role it can play in making food choices - both for consumers and for those who produce or cook food.

I found it a commonsensical but often forgotten way to help tackle the problem.

Marketers have made us believe that if we see something we want, we can have it. Photo: iStock
Marketers have made us believe that if we see something we want, we can have it. Photo: iStock

The concept of emotional intelligence (EI) arose in the 1980s and was popularised by Daniel Goleman. As opposed to what we normally think of as intelligence, EI is a type of social intelligence that helps people understand and manage their own and others' emotions and use them appropriately.

''Appropriately is a really good word because it's not about not having [something] - there's no good or bad emotions, it's how we apply them,'' Dr Gill, who runs EI workshops, said.

EI is about self awareness, understanding what it's like from another person's point of view, and how things you say and do impact on others, she said.

''Things that come to mind are resilience, self-awareness, empathy, delayed gratification, self-control - there's a whole list of them but those are probably the ones we focus on the most.''

Developing EI can offer a strategy to help us realise the impact of our behaviour. It's not about denying yourself unhealthy food, but about having healthy choices available and making smart decisions, she said.

''That whole sense that we don't have to have everything we desire; that we have the ability to show some self-control. I think some of that comes from parents, but you can teach children to have it.''

As a culture we seem to have replaced whatever native wisdom we once possessed with confusion and anxiety.

Marketers have made us believe that if we see something we want, we can have it, and consumerism has changed how we purchase and consume food, but we've missed out the step of thinking about our own wellbeing, she said.

People feel they don't have time to prepare proper meals so they default to processed food, which is often high in fat, salt and sugar.

Foods that used to be special, once-a-week foods, are now eaten every day and portion sizes have increased.

Whereas we might have cooked a pot of potatoes, now we get a couple of scoops of chips which are fatty and salty, she explains.

Everyone has a responsibility. If we keep buying unhealthy food, manufacturers will keep making it. But they are also making healthier food because of consumer demand.

''We don't gain anything by throwing in a judgement that it's a parent's fault or school's fault or society's fault; we really need to just look at what can I do about this,'' she said.

How many of us have a muffin when we go to a cafe - a large muffin with enough calories for the whole day. We may cut it in half but while chatting with a friend over coffee we find ourselves eating both halves.

We could encourage the cafe to offer smaller, healthier muffins or choose to go to one that does, or share the muffin with friends.

''Recognise your desire and ask yourself if you are really hungry, or if it's just the food calling your name,'' she suggested.

It's also making healthier foods more desirable and not equating the idea of healthy eating with missing out.

''We don't want to be miserable. We've only got one life and we want to stay healthy to enjoy it too,'' she said.

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