The Multiple Dimensions of Food

I recently had the opportunity to attend the National Wellness Conference 40th Anniversary Legacy & Vision Dinner, during which several pioneers of the Wellness movement discussed their involvement in shaping the dialogue and structures inherited by younger generations.  One particularly grounding message for me was a reminder by John Travis, MD, MPH, that above all, the currency of wellness is connection.  We understand that what we eat is important for maintaining our physical wellness, and foodies have long advocated that being connected to our food helps us make healthy food choices.  However, as many of us intuitively know, food is about more than just healthy or unhealthy choices.  Food is a medium through which we connect to multiple dimensions of wellness.
Social connection is crucial to our well-being.  Quality social connections can reduce mortality by 50% (1) and observations from Blue Zones indicate that social connection contributes to the long, healthy lives enjoyed by the centenarians living in these communities (2).  However, many Americans have developed the habit of eating alone- at our workstations, in restaurants, and in our cars.  Food is a natural facilitator of social bonding.  Everyone eats, and everyone can talk about food.  While food is not the only way to facilitate social bonds, sharing cake at a friend’s wedding, enjoying a tomato salad with colleagues, or tasting mango-chicken curry on a family night out builds shared experiences and enhances opportunity for meaningful social connection.

Our intellectual well-being, the degree of engagement in creative and stimulating activities to expand ones knowledge and share this knowledge with others, is an essential element in our lifelong journey toward wellness (3).  Intellectual wellness can positively impact resiliency in the face of mental health difficulties and the ability to cope with stressful situations (4).  The connection with food, by gardening, photography, cooking, and even genetic engineering, is a way through which to exercise our intellectual and creative nature.

Food and eating behaviors also serve as symbols through which individuals connect with their faith and spirituality.  Special foods are prepared to celebrate important religious events and donated as a way to show respect and selflessness.  Avoidance of certain foods and fasting are a means of obtaining spiritual purification and heightened awareness.  Even though more people are transitioning away from organized religion, food is often still a symbol of values and morality in their lives.  Avoiding harm to animals through a vegan diet or eating organic vegetables may enhance spiritual connections and a sense of oneness with the world.

Emotional wellness can be promoted through a balanced and positive approach to food.  Emotions and food influence each other bi-directionally in ways that can both support or diminish our emotional wellbeing.  Stress may cause us to reach for comfort foods, while the over consumption of unhealthy foods may be a risk factor for depression and low energy (6). Excessive worry about health is associated with a decline in quality of life as inner guilt and self-hate are not the seeds of self-care and wellness as (5).  A connection with food, absent of guilt and worry, can improve our emotional well-being.  We feel rewarded when we cook a delicious meal, or believe we improved our community by purchasing local foods.

More than 15 million people depend on food production, manufacturing or service in the United States (7).  Chefs, nutritionists, plant breeders, farmers and truck drivers connect with food through the pursuit of a meaningful livelihood.  However, many of the employment opportunities available in the food and agricultural industry still place workers in unhealthy and stressful situations that are not conducive to occupational or overall wellness. Unmanageable work-family interfaces increase the likelihood of choosing unwanted foods and eating behaviors as a coping mechanism (8). The rise in worksite wellness programs can help more individuals positively manage the work-family interface, enabling food choices they find acceptable, increasing job satisfaction and occupational wellness.

Given that food influences so many aspects of our well-being, let’s ensure, as wellness champions, that our advice and wellness programming consider the full spectrum of the human experience with food. Our promotion of healthy diets need not detract from overall wellness, but rather it should enhance balance and connection with food in all of its dimensions of wellness to support people in realizing their full potential for health and happiness.

References:

1. Holt-Lunstad J, Smith TB, Layton JB (2010) Social Relationships and Mortality Risk: A Meta-analytic Review. PLoS Med 7(7): e1000316.
2. Buettner, D. (2012).The Blue Zones: 9 Lessons for Living Longer from the People Who’ve Lived the Longest. National Geographic Books.
3. Roscoe, L. J. (2009). Wellness: A review of theory and measurement for counselors.Journal of Counseling & Development, 87(2), 216-226. http://www.stuaff.niu.edu/stuaff/grad_resources/pdfs/Wellness%20Article_Counseling.pdf
4. Hammond*, C. (2004). Impacts of lifelong learning upon emotional resilience, psychological and mental health: fieldwork evidence. Oxford Review of Education, 30(4), 551-568.
5. Sanhueza, C., Ryan, L., & Foxcroft, D. R. (2013). Diet and the risk of unipolar depression in adults: systematic review of cohort studies. Journal of Human Nutrition and Dietetics, 26(1), 56-70.
6. Rief, W., Glaesmer, H., Baehr, V., Broadbent, E., Brähler, E., & Petrie, K. J. (2012). The relationship of modern health worries to depression, symptom reporting and quality of life in a general population survey. Journal of psychosomatic research, 72(4), 318-320.
7. http://ers.usda.gov/data-products/ag-and-food-statistics-charting-the-essentials/ag-and-food-sectors-and-the-economy.aspx
8. Allen, T. D., & Armstrong, J. (2006). Further examination of the link between work-family conflict and physical health the role of health-related behaviors.American Behavioral Scientist,49(9), 1204-1221.

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