The meaning of food varies from person to person. Like religion and politics, food can be topic of conversation not easily mentioned in a social context. It can touch on some raw emotions whether you happen to mention junk food, meat-eating, the long food chain, child malnutrition, factory farming, or genetically engineered crops.
In his book A Greedy Man in a Hungry World Jay Rayner writes about the industry of self-help books, magazines and cookbooks focusing on weight-loss. He says this serves ‘a desperate mixture of fear, guilt and shame’ about how fat we look.
With the growth of meat-eating and bio-fuels together with an ever growing world population, the price of grain for human food has shot up on the world’s market. And so in contrast to over-consumption in the West, we find food poverty in some other parts of the world: in parts of Africa eating non-nutritious food makes one dangerously non-resistant to such things as malaria and pneumonia.
Yet obesity-related disease is a major health problem in some Western world countries one example being the dramatic rise in the rate of type 2 diabetes in the UK.
‘More die in the United States of too much food than of too little.‘
(John Kenneth Galbraith)
And so food is something that is important to many of us. This raises the question about your relationship to what you eat. What does hunger mean to you? What is the emotional meaning of food for you?
Symbolic meaning of food
Not every act of eating has a deeper meaning. Yet what we need and what we want are not always the same thing. We may have engaged in some form of comfort eating or have struggled with appetite. It can be hard to put one’s finger on what food symbolises for us personally. Trying to uncover this meaning of food you might want to think about any words, sensations or memories you associate with your favourite food. For some people, spicy food might possibly represent for them a longing for excitement, a sense of adventure, or a fiery spirit trying to assert itself within the confines of a more structured life.
For others, the richness and creaminess of ice cream may possibly represent envelopment and safety offering a feeling of physical and emotional fullness and speaking of warm summer days.
When trying to overcome a craving for food one needs to ask about what one is really hungry for. I suspect some or all of the following is in some sort of way relevant to me.
- Bored so hungry for a bit of excitement
- Frustrated so hungry for success
- Tense with anger or anxiety so hungry for calm relaxation
- Fed up and depressed so hungry for something pleasant and rewarding
The trouble is emotional hunger isn’t satisfied for very long by eating. Despite the few moments of being lost in the euphoria of a favourite comfort food, one usually ends up feeling similar to the plate — empty!
Arguably, we need to watch out to see if food might be acting as an illusory substitute to meet an inner hunger which we need to learn to deal with more honestly. In other words mindless eating, if a regular habit, not only misleads us away from dealing with our inner emotional state but over time can add pounds to body weight.
In contrast, mindful eating is being more connected to oneself: more aware of when you are hungry and when you are full: not allowing your eating to be determined by the amount of food available, what others are eating, or by your emotions but rather being mindful of what’s right for your body in the moment.
The meaning of food for the soul
I would like to suggest that from a spiritual perspective, it is okay to enjoy food as something for a healthy body and as a focus for a social occasion. However, to crave food is not spiritually healthy. It means indulging the stomach, and making the height of pleasure to consist in what you eat. Is this not being externally-orientated? In contrast, food for the mind meets our need for factual knowledge and comprehension, sustaining our appetite of curiosity. And food for the soul meets our hunger to know and gain insight into what is deeply true about life e.g. about principled ideas that connect with useful action.
This reflects what Christ said:
“Man shall not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.” (Matt 4:4)
According to spiritual philosopher Emanuel Swedenborg, in the next life, other conscious senses are sharpened. But he says our sense of taste will be dimmed. He points out that food is not something physically needed for its own sake; the afterlife being a spiritual and not a material realm. He is talking about food for the soul. By this he means love and wisdom feeding the ethical and spiritual side of our personal lives. Examples are nourishing the growth of good sense, sincerity, caring attitudes and other good qualities of character.
“Spiritual food, …consists in everything that is of use, and everything that is conducive to use. That which is conducive to use is to know what is good and true; that which is of use is to will and do what is good and true.” (AC 5293)
Copyright 2013 Stephen Russell-Lacy
Author of Heart, Head & Hands Swedenborg’s perspective on emotional problems