Food IS Social...We Should Admit that When Trying to Change

Right now I've got three streams of work projects where food is part of the conversation. Food allergies, obesity and oral health -- all of which relate to what you can eat, what you should eat and what you cannot eat. I think in the health care field, we tend to overlook how hard it is to change social food patterns. 

Here's an example -- in an article called Social Consequences of Food Allergy, Catharine Alvarez mentions a recent study in Pediatrics about Bullying of Kids with Food Allergy.  She mentions that she was surprised by people's resistance to accommodating her kids' food allergy restrictions.  What it seems to come down to is deep social mores that if you reject food that's offered to you, you are rejecting the person offering it. There is symbolic social function in shared meals, and the avoidance of sharing food, even because of a serious medical condition is not easily accepted. 

For obesity, there are similar issues. Control of one's diet, although necessary, can be difficult because the reality is that we don't eat in isolation. We eat with our families, we eat at work, we go to restaurants together, we share celebratory meals and meals at community events. It's never a solo event, and if it must be, it makes it difficult to sustain. The person unpacking their individual containers during the lunch hour is often seen as sad, while the people who join in the Friday lunch bunch are seen as good company. 

In a meeting with a speech pathologist this week, she mentioned how many of her patients have issues with swallowing -- and how being restricted to soft foods like applesauce and mashed potatoes is demoralizing for patients. They want to eat. They have favorite foods, comfort foods and they want to eat with their peers...whether they are 70 or 7. 

I don't think there's any question that health care professionals know that food matters, but we often look at the calories, the protein or the processing instead of the environment.  Food is social, and addressing who we eat with may be as important as what we eat in changing behaviors.