Tangled comfort food: rice with black beans and avocado
This is the third in a 4-part discussion of the book Mindless Eating by Dr. Brian Wansink, in collaboration with fellow blogger, Joie de Vivre:
"Are you your family's nutritional gatekeeper? Did you know that nutritional gatekeepers consciously or subconsciously control 72% of the food that enters their families' bodies? Learn about how to make better decisions as well as how being a the kind of cook you are influences what your family eats. Join me as I discuss "Nutritional Gatekeepers and the Good Cook Next Door" as well as "The McSubway Study and Information Illusions" from Mindless Eating by Brian Wansink."Read the rest at Joie de Vivre: An Amateur Gourmet's Guide
Penultimately Tangled on Mindless Eating
(photo from Amazon.com)The moment we are seated at a table in our favorite Vietnamese restaurant, Mr. Noodle and I begin arranging our condiments, soup spoons and chopsticks. There's no need to peruse the menu because we'll be ordering the usual: a plate of gui con (fresh spring rolls) and a bowl of pho thap cam (beef noodle soup with assorted meats) for him and pho bo vien (meatball noodle soup) for me. When the food arrives, we efficiently divvy up the spring rolls, add herbs and seasonings to our soups, and dive into our meal. Twenty minutes later, the sounds of serious eating give way to a final clatter of chopsticks and spoons as they come to rest in two equally empty bowls. Then, the self-recrimination begins. You see, I have just matched, bite for bite, a healthy 6-foot, 180-lb male in a lunchtime chow-down and it's not sitting well on my mind or on my hips. While I silently agonize over the amount of food I've just eaten, Mr. Noodle sits contentedly, waiting for the check.
As another well-known book states, men are from Mars, women are from Venus and the differences between males and females extend even to our attitudes toward food. Although Dr. Wansink alludes to these gender differences in the following chapters, I would like to add my own thoughts to his discussion of their role in our ideas of comfort foods, the influence of primary food providers on future eating behaviors, and how we undermine good habits by using labels of healthiness to justify mindless eating.
Chapter 7 - In the Mood for Comfort Food
In an earlier post, A Question of Comfort, I explored the idea of 'comfort food' and how it is unique to each individual and, therefore, nearly infinite in variety. Wansink's research unexpectedly found that comfort foods aren't always the chocolate-drenched, deep-fried, or salt-covered snacks we might imagine. Instead, many are dishes like casseroles and stews that can be found on a family's dinner table any given day of the week (140). These preferences are almost universally rooted in past experiences, which create associations between certain foods and such markers as a beloved individual, a special event or a particular emotion (148). So, while the food itself differs from person to person, the reason behind its perceived soothing quality is common across the board:
"These people not only wanted a great-for-the-moment-taste of fat, salt, or sugar, they also wanted to tap into the psychological comfort that these foods provided and the memories linked to them . . . [they] are the foods that feed not only our body, but also our soul."(Wansink, 140)
Top comfort food (photo by St0rmz)
But Wansink also discovered that our ideas of what constitute 'comfort' differ dramatically along gender lines. While ice cream topped both sexes' lists of favorite comfort foods, next in line for women were chocolate and cookies, whereas men opted for soup and pizza or pasta . The significance? Male preference for these meal-type foods, which require a bit more preparation, made them feel 'pampered' and 'cared for' - feelings "associated . . . with being the focus of attention from either their mother or wife" (142). Not surprisingly, women's associations with these kinds of food ran more along the lines of 'hard work.' So instead, their choice of snack-type comfort foods reflected the desire for effortless, labor-free enjoyment (141-2).
Wansink previously referred to gender differences in Chapter 5, explaining how 'eating scripts' (discussed in 'Mindless', Part II) led people to adjust their consumption in the presence of the opposite sex based on social expectations. Female subjects ate less because it was considered a desirable feminine characteristic; conversely, male respondents felt free to eat heartily because it was perceived as an attractive, manly attribute (100-1). These differences in consumption attitudes based on social norms are supported by such studies as the June 2005 report, "Eating and Dieting Differences in Men and Women," in the Journal of Men's Health and Gender (2.2.194-201) which found profound variance between the sexes.
According to the report, women on the whole eat more healthily and are better informed of nutritional recommendations than men. But the authors also found that women preferred 'restrained' eating for weight management as opposed to males who considered physical activity as more effective. As such, the researchers noted:
"Men's attitude to food is more frequently uncomplicated and enjoyable [while] women more often have an ambivalent relation with food . . . They are in general, irrespective of their actual BMI [body mass index], less satisfied with their weight than men are, and more often aspire to [social body] ideals."(Kiefer et al., 5 [online ed.])
Their conclusions suggest that despite being more knowledgeable about nutrition and more likely than men to eat healthy foods such as fruits and vegetables, some women may react to external social pressures about appearance and ideal body weight by taking these 'good' habits too far, depriving themselves not only of enjoyment in the act of eating but also potentially, and detrimentally, of needed nutrition if they resort to severe calorie restrictions.
Although Wansink doesn't address such an extreme instance, he does acknowledge the importance of not letting concerns about overeating actually undermine mindful eating. "Comfort foods help make life enjoyable," he wrote. "The key is learning how to have your cake and eat it, too." To that end, he reminds us that many comfort foods are relatively healthy and should be enjoyed in moderation (160).
Chapter 8 - Nutritional Gatekeepers: Food Inheritance
Our attitudes about eating are shaped by our experiences, or so we believe. But as discussed in this chapter, they are also heavily influenced by the people closest to us and are learned as early as infancy. According to Wansink, an adult's facial expressions can cue an infant to expect a pleasant or unpleasant experience, hence the forced smiles to convince Baby that mashed peas are 'yummy' (170). He then cites a Yale study that found mothers who were overly concerned with weight issues apparently projected these attitudes onto their children, who then displayed erratic eating behaviors in seeming emulation (171). Frustratingly, Wansink delves no further so I would like to pick up the baton.
In the aforementioned study on eating differences between the sexes, researchers noted that gender-specific attitudes, especially concerning healthy eating and weight control, generally appear during adolescence, perhaps due to greater social interaction outside of the family and growing awareness of body image (Kiefer et al. 1 [online ed]). But in a recent New York Times article, "What's Eating Our Kids? Fears About 'Bad' Foods," author Abby Ellin reports on an increasing number of young children of both sexes who are exhibiting profound anxiety about nutrition and food safety, initiated in part by their parents' well-meaning concerns about food choices.
"While scarcely any expert would criticize parents for paying attention to children's diets, many doctors, dietitians and eating disorders specialists worry that some parents are becoming overzealous, even obsessive, in efforts to engender good eating habits in children. With the best of intentions, these parents may be creating an unhealthy aura around food."(Ellin)
A parent is most likely to be what Wansink terms the 'nutritional gatekeeper' - the family member who does the food shopping and cooking, and thereby controls 72% of the household's food choices. For the most part, says Wansink, most family cooks wield this power responsibly by preparing healthy meals of wide variety that encourage other members to be open about different flavors and ingredients (165). But as the study and the newspaper article suggest (and Wansink himself briefly observed), it can also work in a less positive manner when strong feelings and attitudes about food and eating create unnecessary anxieties in children about consumption that are then potentially carried into adulthood. As an interviewee says in the Ellin/NYTimes article, "It's a tragedy that we've developed this moralistic, restrictive and unhappy relationship [with eating] . . . It's sucking the life out of our relationship with food."
(Cartoon from www.theparentingpit.com)
As the family's nutritional gatekeeper, it may now seem daunting to know how much influence one has on other family members' eating habits and attitudes. However, Wansink suggests that one way to help your household develop mindful food behaviors to carry forward is by offering a variety of different foods that will introduce more nutritious options and encourage a willingness to try new flavors.
Chapter 9 - Fast Food Fever
A few months ago, I wrote a post about the 'health halo' phenomenon (There's No Such Thing as Free . . . ), by which the perception of health implied by marketing labels (e.g. low-fat, low-cal, fat-free) has the effect of allowing us to justify mindless eating. It is one of the surprising effects of the food industry's many strategies to get us to buy more of their products. Wansink goes rather easy on food conglomerates by stating that they are, above all, for-profit businesses who provide us with what we think we want - a lot of food for little money. From the super-sized meal at McDonald's to the bulk foods at Sam's Club, we apparently love getting the most bang for our buck. Unfortunately, having so much food within easy reach creates the perfect environment for overeating and, in keeping with today's theme of differences between the genders, there is a more serious implication for women when tempting foods are readily available.
In a study conducted by researchers at the Brookhaven National Laboratory and published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (106.4.1249-54), a group of 13 women and 10 men were asked to try and suppress their desire for their favorite foods before they were allowed to see, smell and have a small taste of them. Although everyone described themselves as being less hungry and having no craving for the foods, the women's brain activity belied their response. "Even though the women said they were less hungry when trying to inhibit their response to the food, their brains were still firing away in the regions that control the drive to eat," said lead author Gene-Jack Wang. "[It] is consistent with behavioral studies showing that women have a higher tendency than men to overeat when presented with palatable food or under emotional distress" (read the BNL article here).
Although these results are derived from a very small sample group and are considered preliminary, it's still not exactly a morale-booster for us ladies. Nevertheless, Wansink offered good suggestions to avoid placing ourselves in such a position:
- If you have them in your home, 'de-convenience' these foods by storing them in out of the way places, like the basement;
- If you buy foods in bulk, take the time to separate them into smaller portions; otherwise, look for products that are already pre-portioned (e.g. 100-calorie snacks)
Please join me and Joie de Vivre again next Friday as we conclude our discussion of this fascinating book!
Black Bean and Avocado Rice Salad
(Recipe from Rice & Spice, by Robin Robertson)
My favorite comfort food is rice but it wasn't a common food for Mr. Noodle during his childhood. As our family's nutritional gatekeeper, I incorporated it into our regular meals and now, my husband enjoys it as much as I do. Normally, rice is cooked plain to accompany meats and vegetables but keeping in mind Wansink's encouragement to offer 'variety' with our food, I'm varying this humbly delicious grain by offering it as a complete dish.
1 tsp minced lime zest
3 Tbsps fresh lime juice
1 Tbsp cider vinegar
2 Tbsps fresh orange juice
1/2 tsp minced garlic
1 tsp light brown sugar
1/2 tsp chili powder (I've also used chipotle powder)
1/2 tsp salt
1/8 tsp cayenne (or more for added kick)
1/3 cup olive oil
1 Tbsp fresh lemon juice
3 cups cold, cooked long-grain white or brown rice
1 1/2 cups cooked or canned black beans, rinsed if canned
1/2 red onion, chopped
1 (4 oz) can minced jalapeño chiles
1. In a small bowl, whisk together ingredients from lime zest to cayenne (first 9 ingredients);
2. Whisk in olive oil in a slow, steady stream until emulsified and smooth. Set aside;
3. Peel and pit the avocados, cut into 1/2-inch dice, and toss with lemon juice;
4. In a large bowl, combine rice, beans, onion, jalapeños, and avocoados;
5. Add the dressing and toss gently to combine.
6. Serve as a side or as a main meal. Enjoy!