Food has become a bother and eating an inconvenience in the lives of millions of frantic, stressed Americans. This is the realization I have come to after working for several years in the field of integrative and lifestyle medicine, leveraging the healing medicine of lifestyle for patients.
Many people try to address these inconveniences by searching for quick, “on the go” food, so as to avoid the time it takes to cook food, sit down at a table, with food in a dish of some sort and eat it. Food companies have further enabled (or possibly started?) this trend of fast, on-the-go, convenient foods, or more accurately, food-products. I am frequently asked for recommendations for the following profile of food: quick, easy, convenient, and sometimes healthy as well. Rarely is the taste or pleasure of eating a criterion in that profile. We are so busy we can’t be bothered to actually sit and eat food, never mind the historic traditions around cooking and savoring a meal for hours.
A case study of consequence
A patient recently told me she spent 1 year in France and was astonished when she learned of the practice of 2-hour lunches. It was inconceivable to her that people would leave their jobs, return to their homes, cook and eat a meal together over the noon hours. Hours. They spent two hours in this practice of eating and sharing food. This patient, like many others, was struggling even to find time to have lunch in the first place. Her schedule was flexible, however there were regular meetings over the noon hour, classes also scheduled over noon on some days. On many days she found herself going all day on only a protein shake, which she had consumed while driving to work. Many evenings found her ravenous and often turning in desperation to a pint of ice cream. These factors, and numerous others related to a stressful work environment, expectations around research and productivity, deadlines and a difficult living situation compounded to produce weight gain, insulin resistance, the discovery of an early skin cancer, severe fatigue and aching joints.
Millions of Americans share this story
She is not alone. Millions of Americans have outsourced the responsibility of cooking and feeding themselves to companies who are more than willing to take on that responsibility, but care little about the health of those they are feeding. The last several decades’ staggering rise in chronic, lifestyle-related disease is not a coincidence. As our lives have become more stressed and busy, despite all the conveniences which enable this way of life, our health increasingly suffers. This includes physical and mental health, relational health, emotional health, spiritual health and environmental health. These facets of health are sometimes referred to as well-being. Being well. Most people are too busy to even think about this, or if they do it is a far-off concept for those with a lot of time and money and a vacation home in Costa Rica.
(Part of) the Problem: Americans don’t prioritize cooking or eating
The truth is, we all have the same amount of time each day, and we all have (to one degree or another) some choice about how we spend it. Yes, the economy is difficult and taxing many people with its effects. Yes, many have to work long hours and experience long commutes to those jobs, leaving little time for other activities. But yes, we also spend more than 10 hours on social media, screens, and watching TV – per day. Per day. And that is an average.
Compared to similarly-resourced nations, we spend less time eating and cooking than any other, an average of 65 minutes per day. A study published in the Harvard Business Review found that 45% of Americans say they hate cooking, while another 45% are lukewarm about it. This leaves only 10% who say they love cooking. Our overall health is lower and healthcare spending higher than many economically-similar nations who spend less money on healthcare (and more time on cooking and eating), with better measures of health outcomes. Skeptics would say that correlation does not equal causation and they would be correct. Regardless, these are noteworthy associations to consider.
The Solution: Reconnect with our food
Why might we want to reconsider how we eat? If the above reasons aren’t enough, I’ll offer a few more personal ones.
- Food is delicious, social, cultural, spiritual, personal, familial and so much more.
- Food has nourished our bodies, souls, communities, minds and spirits for all of human history.
- Food prepared with love and intention is a powerful force for connecting us to ourselves, the earth, each other and our communities.
When eating food becomes no more than calories, fuel or a necessary chore, we lose all of these rich layers of pleasure and nourishment that it provides.