Health, according to the World Health Organization, is “a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease and infirmity”. A variety of definitions have been used for different purposes over time. Health can be promoted by encouraging healthful activities, such as regular physical exercise and adequate sleep, and by reducing or avoiding unhealthful activities or situations, such as smoking or excessive stress. Some factors affecting health are due to individual choices, such as whether to engage in a high-risk behavior, while others are due to structural causes, such as whether the society is arranged in a way that makes it easier or harder for people to get necessary healthcare services. Still other factors are beyond both individual and group choices, such as genetic disorders.
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Isn’t happiness what you feel when you take a bite off that warm cupcake, a sip of hot chocolate or even a spoon of your favourite food?
‘People who love to eat are always the best people’. These words, echoed by American cook and author Julia Child, bring alive the emotions of people who enjoy eating and experimenting with different kinds of foods. But what is it about food that makes us squeal in excitement? The very thought of indulging in that cheesy burger, or sipping on that creamy, ice-cream-laden coffee is sure to soar your spirits. Is there a reason for this, or are we attaching too much value to these random instances?
And well, it’s not just us but also B-town celebs who do the same. Just look at Kareena Kapoor Khan’s expression while she devours that croissant or the joy on Kalki Koechlin’s face while she digs into a South Indian thali.
What is it about our favourite foods that brings us so much joy? To understand this, HealthShots reached out to nutrition and mental health experts. So without further ado, let’s get straight to the point.
Food and mental health
Nayamat Bawa, Head Psychologist at IWill, explains, “Eating is a great way to socialize with loved ones. Plus, the joy associated with eating also has a lot to do with upbringing and beliefs around food. It activates the taste buds, thereby activating the pleasure of taste. Food and festivities go hand in hand. In fact, if you think of any celebration, deciding a menu is the first thing that comes to our minds.”
There are several studies that emphasize the role of dopamine, also known as the pleasure neurotransmitter. “The ‘repetitive pleasure’ principle also comes into play, which suggests that every bite is rewarding and thus it can sometimes be difficult to cut down on eating. We may also use eating as a way to soothe ourselves emotionally and physically due to the role of the reward that is again ushered in by dopamine,” says Bawa.
A study conducted by researchers at the Max Plank Institute in Germany reveals that dopamine is secreted once when food is injected, and again when the food reaches the stomach. It also indicates the relationship between cravings and dopamine. The higher the craving, the higher is the reward of dopamine.
The first bite of something we crave for is most rewarding and the pleasure or craving reduces, as we eat more of what we were craving for.
“Certain places, situations, or people remind us of foods that we crave. We think about them, imagine the taste, and then plan on how to procure the food. The whole process is stimulation. Food not just evokes our taste buds but the sense of smell and sight. Most people report enjoying what they see on a plate,” she explains.
Food is necessary for both physical and mental health. However, it is important that we engage in healthy eating habits, without any guilt and be mindful of our portion sizes. We need to differentiate between craving and hunger in order to make the process of eating more joyous.
Comfort food for nutrition
Parul Malhotra Bahl, Nutritionist, and Certified Diabetes Educator, and Founder at Diet Expression, offers her insights from a nutritional perspective. Here’s what she tells HealthShots, “Our favorite or so-called comfort foods vary from person to person and even culture to culture. But whatever you eat, awareness is critical. One must understand that it is not exactly the food that leads to emotion. It is the memories of love, care, and comfort attached to the food that does the magic.”
We all need this MAGIC in our lives, but let’s be practical and understand that these favorite foods are mostly unhealthy (carbohydrate and fat-rich/ processed/packaged), says Bahl.
“In the current scenario where there is so much uncertainty in our lives, leading to stress, life has become more sedentary. Mindless indulgence in your favourite foods will leave you with long-term diseases. Only a balanced approach will help you live the MAGIC without any long-term consequences,” she adds.
An occasional indulgence, say once in 10 days, will not only give you that dopamine happiness, but will also help you eliminate stress and anxiety for a while.
“Live the MAGIC for that moment and it would be enough to fuel you to get back in action, much more recharged. Be aware this is momentary happiness, so live it, feel it, and get back to a healthy eating routine, until you are ready for the next MAGICAL experience,” says Bahl.
Manage your food cravings
Bahl says that in case you engage in an unplanned indulgence, become AWARE of what are your feelings at that moment. Do any of the following or all these actions, and help control those unnecessary cravings.
1. Write down the emotions that are troubling you and think of all the good old comforting memories that will help you relax at that moment. Let the happy memories be mentioned right beside your current emotions. It will immediately relax you.
2. Listen to happy music.
3. Dance to happy tunes.
In the end, all we are looking for is simple joy and happiness. So, let’s get it the right way.
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