Get Your Vitamin P: Why Pleasure Matters When It Comes 2 What You Eat

Nearly everyone has an answer to the question ‘what’s your favorite food?.

It’s easy to see why: humans are wired to derive pleasure from food. In fact, for many, eating ranks among the greatest pleasures in life!

Besides making mealtimes an enjoyable experience, taking pleasure from food also has significant benefits for health. Savoring food supports digestion, can help improve your relationship with food, can help overcome disordered eating and more.

In some cases, getting enough “vitamin P” (or perhaps vitamin mmmm) is just as important as the contents of your plate. Read on to dive into the tasty delights of why pleasure matters for food.

The psychology behind eating for pleasure

For years, researchers have studied the science behind eating for pleasure. Their findings are intriguing and largely encouraging.

Physiologically, the pleasure people derive from food occurs both in our mouths and in our brains.

“Pleasure of any kind, including pleasure from food, leads to a release of dopamine in the brain,” explains therapist, dietitian, and Certified Body Trust provider Aleta Storch, RDN, MHC, of Wise Heart Nutrition and Wellness.

“Dopamine is often referred to as the ‘feel good hormone’ because it activates the reward pathways in the brain, which helps to promote happiness, calmness, motivation, and focus,” she says.

In fact, some older 2011 researchTrusted Source indicates that people with obesity may have disrupted dopamine sensitivity, leading them to overeat to achieve adequate pleasure from food.

When brain chemistry is working properly, however, our enjoyment of food can lead to physical benefits.

“When we enjoy the food we are eating and stimulate dopamine, we actually digest and metabolize it more effectively,” says Storch. “When we’re relaxed in response to having a pleasurable eating experience, our nervous system goes into rest and digest mode, which allows us to fully break down and utilize the nutrients from the foods we eat.”

Eating for pleasure could promote healthier eating too.

large systematic review from 2020Trusted Source examined 119 studies about the connection between food enjoyment and a healthy diet. Fifty-seven percent of the studies found favorable associations between eating pleasure and dietary outcomes.

One study from 2015Trusted Source, for example, associated greater eating pleasure with higher nutritional status. Other studiesTrusted Source have emphasized the importance of taking pleasure from healthy foods to promote a nourishing, balanced diet.

“There’s this belief that ‘healthy’ food has to be bland or it doesn’t taste good, but that’s just not true,” says dietitian and certified intuitive eating counselor Sarah Gold Anzlovar, MS, RDN, LDN. “When we eat food that we enjoy, satisfaction increases, which can actually improve diet quality and reduce the chance of overeating or binge episodes.”

The emotional nourishment of the foods we eat

Mealtimes would be pretty boring if food was just fuel. Eating casts a wide net across the human experience, from bringing us together with loved ones to connecting us to our cultural heritage.

In short, food is emotional as well as physical nourishment. Here are some of the ways enjoying food can feed your spirit.

Food enjoyment increases social connection

What’s a party or family gathering without something to munch on?

As people enjoy meals with others, it often contributes to an increased sense of happiness, according to a 2015 studyTrusted Source on Thai social communities.

Food enjoyment offers physical and emotional comfort

Warm chicken soup when you’re sick, a pasta that reminds you of your grandmother, or the favorite dessert that always seems to hit the spot: foods like these have a way of lifting our spirits and soothing our bodies.

“Sometimes food even offers comfort at the end of a challenging day, which many people associate as negative emotional eating,” says Anzlovar. “But when we allow ourselves to connect with the food and enjoy it, there are many benefits.”

Food enjoyment breaks the hold of diet culture

Diet culture has multiple definitions, but one hallmark of this societal-level messaging is that you have to say no to foods you love, especially if they’re high in calories or fat.

Choosing to mindfully enjoy what you eat helps break this harmful mentality.

“When all foods are allowed without rules—including the most delicious ones, the body learns to trust that it will get what it needs,” says Storch.“Creating permission for these foods that have been labeled as ‘bad’ or ‘off-limits’ is an important step in the healing process, and can help someone to feel more peace, confidence, and freedom around food.”

Food enjoyment connects us with our cultural heritage

For decades, researchTrusted Source has demonstrated that a sense of belonging is vital to mental health. What more beautiful place to experience belonging than within your family or cultural heritage?

Here’s where food enjoyment could play a major role.

“Culture and tradition serve as a form of connection with others and ourselves,” says Storch. “Restricting or denying foods that promote connection can lead to disengagement and loneliness. By omitting cultural foods, we are saying not only that the food is ‘bad’ but that the underlying identity associated with the food is ‘bad.’”

Embracing these foods could ultimately create a sense of freedom and belonging that elevate your mental health.

Eating for pleasure vs. emotional eating

You’ve probably heard that emotional eating isn’t ideal.

Turning to food to deal with difficult emotions like stress, anger, or sadness often results in mindless consumption and creates a fraught relationship with food. That said, it’s understandable if you’re wary of the idea of eating for pleasure.

Fortunately, emotional eating and eating for pleasure differ in both their intent and their outcomes.

“Emotional eating is when people are using food as a way to cope with both positive or negative emotions,” says Anzlovar. “Eating for pleasure is choosing a food to specifically enjoy its taste, texture, and experience, such as when you go out for an ice cream cone in the summer or eat an apple straight from the tree at an apple orchard.”

Another major distinction between these two behaviors is the connection you feel toward your food.

“Often, though not always, there is a lack of connection or disassociation with the food when people emotionally eat,” Anzlovar explains. “When eating for pleasure, there’s usually a true connection and enjoyment that you are getting from the food.”

Of course, there’s no perfectly drawn line between emotional eating and eating for enjoyment—and sometimes the two may overlap.

One way to tell which you’re practicing: How do you feel afterward?

Making a point to mindfully enjoy your food won’t leave you with feelings of guilt or shame.

If you or a loved one is struggling with an eating disorder (or are concerned about developing one), seek help from a qualified provider as soon as possible. You can start with the National Eating Disorders Association’s Help and Support page, which offers a screening tool, hotline, and provider database.

Pleasure + nourishment, a perfect pairing

Few things in life match the everyday joy of food enjoyment. The food we consume nourishes our bodies, comforts our spirits, and pleases our taste buds.

To bring more pleasure to your table, try starting small.

“When you make a meal or snack, see if there is anything you could do to make it even 10 percent more enjoyable,” recommends Storch. “Sometimes, heating up a brownie, throwing some goat cheese on a salad, or adding more milk to thin out a bowl of oatmeal can take an eating experience from ‘meh’ to ‘yeah’!”

Finally, when mealtime is over, ask: How much pleasure did your food provide?

What positive feelings resulted from connecting emotionally with the items on your plate? The mental notes you gather could help make future food choices even more delicious.

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