I know right off the bat that the title of this blog entry will be seen as a statement of flaming psycho-social heresy. Don't we always hear "The family that eats together, stays together"? And, what exactly does this mean?
The traditional maxim about familial togetherness implies that eating in the same room at the same time is essential to bonding between family members. It is accepted as a universal truth that communal food consumption is required to establish and maintain genuine communication with our loved ones.
Even when family has successfully performed its function, and raised self-reliant individuals who are running households of their own, separate from their parents, there is the obligatory tradition to reunite during specific times of the year... to do little but inflame old family drama... and EAT. Of course, I contend that a lot of the reason we overeat during family holidays is to distract ourselves from the tensions and conflicts between ourselves and our blood kin, but I digress...
A large portion of my recent reflections about food and eating have had to do with the concept of responding to hunger appropriately. Eating when your body needs fuel, rather than for entertainment, emotional comfort, or social compliance. Eating the amount of food that your body requires to run operations, rather than overeat or undereat for reasons outside of energy requirements. Basically, eating when hungry, and, when hungry, eating.
When we eat in the absence of hunger, and when we do not obey the presence of hunger, the consequences aren't simply levels of physical discomfort associated with out-of-phase digestive functions. Eating without hunger and ignoring and postponing responding to the body's call for fuel will trigger the body's metabolism hormones in ways that, when repeated over time, will manifest in what we are beginning to know as "metabolic syndrome" (weight gain, diabetes, heart disease, etc.).
What does this have to do with eating together as a family?
Before we get to "family," let's examine a nearly universal phenomenon in our world: when single people pair up and form a couple, one or both of the partners will gain weight. The simple and obvious reason is that having someone to eat with is a whole lot more fun than eating alone. And, for that very reason, most of us will concede to eating when we aren't quite hungry, going hungry for a bit longer than we otherwise would, and eat something other than what we would choose independently, all for the sake of eating the same thing, at the same time, in the same room as the other person.
For the sake of convivial and communal eating, we are willing to disregard our bodies' extremely fine-tuned framework of hunger/satiety signals. We will endure hunger, ignore satiety, and turn away from our genuine food preferences, because "eating together" is so important. And we accept the ensuing gain of body fat as a "natural" part of the pair-bonding process. I know it. I did it. Husband did it. Virtually every single couple I've known has done this, at least at the start of their relationship.
When a couple has children and becomes a family, this problem gets compounded. I don't have children, but I was a child, and I know that eating/food/meals are a virtual battleground in the majority of families. Even the most level-headed of familial units have an undercurrent of control struggle when it comes to the simple act of refueling the body. Family members are entreated to eat at the designated mealtimes, even when they aren't hungry. Likewise, we are instructed to "wait for dinner," even though we may be hungry for a full meal NOW, and dinner is an hour away. Children are told to clean their plates, even if they are already satiated. The more "desirable" foods, such as ice cream, are withheld until the seemingly punitive fare of carrots and green beans has been consumed. And, of course, when we engage in familial eating, we are more than likely to consume what's being served, whether that is what our bodies are craving or not.
All of these factors contribute to a behavioral paradigm of forcing our eating patterns to comply with directives outside of our bodies' signals for when, how much, and what to eat. The more we focus on those outward guidelines, the more we lose touch with what our bodies are trying to tell us. And it is precisely this disconnect from our natural rhythms which is at the root of our food-based afflictions. We get fat and sick because we eat when we aren't hungry, we don't eat when we are hungry, and we don't pay attention to our bodies when it comes to choosing which foods to consume.
The draw to eat together is very strong, because our culture is largely centered around creating the illusion that convivial eating signifies deeper interpersonal bonds, and consequently a happier existence. However, the important part is to BE together, to SHARE experiences and feelings. Eating in the same room at the same time as our loved ones doesn't make or break our love for each other. Getting fat because we're overriding our bodies on account of eating "together" does undermine our own sense of individual confidence and happiness, however.
I think that the world would be a better place if we were brought up to have prandial independence, and to accept convivial eating as a matter of serendipity, rather than entitlement. We would be individually accountable for responding to our bodies' fuel requirements. We wouldn't be getting angry that our partners aren't eating what we want to eat. We wouldn't be going hungry in order to wait for others to have the time to sit at the table with us. We wouldn't be putting food in our mouths despite not being hungry, just because we're sitting at the table t the same time as the others.
And, more likely than not, far fewer of us would be fat.