A friend recently sighed as she took a sip of coffee and said, "I really envy people who can eat to live, not live to eat. I wish I could learn to do that." I completely understood. For a long time, I lived to eat. Growing up in Louisiana, there was always a holiday on the way and it was always celebrated with food. Circling around food and cooking our favorites was a regular pastime, but over time I became frustrated with the value I was putting on food. Like my friend, I wanted to learn how to eat to live, not be preoccupied with what I was going to eat next.
Health and fitness guru Jack LaLanne has been credited with coining the phrase, “eat to live, don’t live to eat,” meaning that we should eat with function and purpose in mind, not with enthusiasm and anticipation of flavors and textures that we enjoy.
Do you eat to live or live to eat? Here's a quick quiz to help you figure it out.
When you are hungry, do you A) choose something that is convenient and satisfying or B) reach for your favorite snack, which you’ve been looking forward to all morning.
When you discover that the food you prefer is not available, do you A) eat something else and move on, or B) feel annoyed and as if you have been cheated out of an experience because it is not there.
When you choose something to eat, is it A) because your stomach is growling or you have some other sign that your body needs food, or B) because it is time to eat or because you have been planning to eat at that time.
In social situations, do you find that you are A) looking forward to the food that will be there and anticipating sharing the food with your friends, or B) looking forward to the people who will be there and knowing you'll find something to eat, too.
If you chose mostly As, then it is likely that you are eating to live. That means that while you may enjoy your meals, it's also okay if your food is less than ideal because the purpose of it is to satisfy hunger, not your taste buds.
If you chose mostly Bs, you may feel that you live to eat. Food may play a central role in your life and be the byproduct or the motivation for your social activities.
It's important to mention here that neither is good or bad, and it is perfectly possible to be somewhere in the middle. Enjoying and savoring food is a beautiful thing and part of a rich and fulfilling life. Delicious food is part of what makes life fun and brings people together. I am totally in favor of tasty food.
On the other hand, some want to sever their emotional tie to food and join the other camp: people who eat to live. While they may consider this relatively Spartan existence to be missing the spice of life, for others it is simply how they have decided to change emotional or disordered eating patterns. Or, they may just not be interested in food, and that is okay too.
As I say about most habits, it's not a problem unless it’s a problem.
Since most of us want to learn how to eat less emotionally, not more, here are some ways that you can raise your awareness of your eating habits and learn how to eat to live. (It is perfectly valid to want to learn to enjoy and savor your meals rather than going about them methodically, but I don’t know many people who are striving for that.)
First, notice how you feel when food situations occur. What is the ratio of socializing to eating when you are with friends? How do you feel when eating during social events is delayed or not included? Consider whether you are placing too much emphasis on the role food in your social life, and try to focus on friends, fun, and fellowship before food.
Then, pay attention to the motivation for why you eat when you choose to. Are you choosing foods that you feel you “deserve” or have earned in some way? Make an intentional choice to wait until you are hungry, and then pay attention to what drives your choice of what to eat.
Finally, make an effort to separate how you feel about food and what food needs to do. That doesn't mean you have to always make the productive choice, but be aware of which one you are making, how often, and how much sense it makes given your hunger level and goals.
How did eating get so complicated? I hope you enjoy every meal this week, whether you’re savoring the flavors or the efficiency.