Food rules

The way we eat is ingrained in us from the moments we are born. We observe those around us, the foods they choose, the ways meals are prepared, the combinations of tastes and smells that are welcomed, and those that are avoided.
We all grow up with food traditions, ways of eating that we view as right or wrong, ways that are comforting and remind us of home.

We are all influenced immensely by the rules of food we learned in our youths. For some, the rules are reassuring: we know that we will eat well because we are eating as our families always have. They enjoy the foods that they have learned are good and they accept the times when they are served. For others, the rules are limiting: they feel disconnected from their eating because they prefer foods other than those they have learned are acceptable; they are conflicted that, rightly or wrongly, they should eat in a way that does not reflect how they believe they should eat. Too often I am asked some variation of “…but what can I eat for (insert meal of dicussion)?”. This basic question, posed by people who have been eating and existing in a food-consuming culture daily for several decades, shows the depths to which perfectly capable and knowledgeable individuals can feel helpless and lose all confidence due to the constraints of perceived food rules.

While food rules can have strong emotional ties in our lives, they are not binding and there is no moral or objective authority over what constitutes the correct way to eat. There are perhaps healthier or more nourishing patterns of eating compared to others, but to state that any one way of eating is the most or only acceptable way for humans to eat would be a fallacy. From the beginning of culture, people have eaten based on what was available to them, and they developed a taste for those foods. As time passed, the elements of climate, migration, agriculture, spirituality, and folklore all continued to shape how we eat. There are thousands of dietary patterns across the globe, many of which are inherently contradictory, none of them wrong.

Let’s take the example of breakfast. In Canada and the United States, we have an entire set of foods that are reserved only for this time of day. Items like cold cereal are acceptable as the entirety of a meal early in the day, but not later on. Leftovers from the previous night’s meal are seen as sub-par and often unappetizing for the first meal of the day. So if one does not enjoy “breakfast foods” it is easy to feel that they cannot or should not partake in the meal at all. There is nothing inherent that makes these foods only appropriate for early morning meals, we simply believe them to be because that is how it has always been in our lives. But our breakfast items are likely unrecognizable as such to many others around the world, particularly where savoury predominates over sweet in the morning. And there are other cultures for whom similar foods are eaten at all meals and the concept of “breakfast foods” is entirely meaningless. I suggest looking through this article for just a glimpse of the differences in breakfasts in our world. So instead of viewing our meal patterns as rules (immutable and unbreakable without penalty), let us think of our food traditions. Traditions grow, change, disappear and reemerge. Traditions can borrow from each other, or they can be fully adopted by new hosts, but they are also flexible to best serve the new community. So long as our food traditions encourage good nourishment for all provide a variety of nutritious foods, then our food traditions are good.

Given this, the answer to the question of “what should I eat?” that I offer is always: eat whatever you want (as is generally my answer to most questions of the sort). There are no food rules, only traditions. If you don’t like your food traditions, start new ones.

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