Earlier this week I was asked, “as a holistic health and wellness coach, what is your take on eating foods that might be bad for you just for the sake of your own personal happiness? Because really, isn’t happiness an important factor to overall health and wellbeing?”

While I don’t disagree that happiness is an integral component of well-being (and that our well-being contributes to our overall happiness), I do believe there is a subtle difference between happiness and pleasure, especially when it comes to eating.

Without getting too philosophical, let’s just say that the meaning, but moreover the cause, of happiness is highly subjective. Webster’s dictionary, for instance, defines happiness as “the state of being happy,” and happy as “enjoying or characterized by well-being and contentment.” Yet neither of these definitions truly gets to the core of the central question what makes us happy? 

One of my favorite ways to think about happiness is that happiness is not dependent on external factors (in this case, certain foods), but rather it is a state that we can exist in, despite external factors, if we choose to. In other words, we are capable of creating our own happiness simply by choosing to be happy, without relying on the satisfaction or pleasure we may receive from our belongings, favorite foods, enjoyable experiences, etc.

In contrast, feelings of pleasure are derived from something (as in, that vacation was pleasurable, or I feel pleasure when I get to unwind with a great glass of wine).  Physiologically speaking, pleasure is regulated in the body through a complex web of biological processes and interactions.  The mesolimbic system, for example, is commonly associated with helping to regulate feelings of reward and pleasure in the brain (read more about dopamine, the neurotransmitter involved in the mesolimbic system, here and here).

In an interesting article published in the journal Appetite in September 2015, researchers Cornil and Chandon compare different types of pleasure derived from eating in terms of outcomes for overall well-being. In short, they found that people who eat because of visceral factors (i.e. to satisfy cravings, urges, emotions, or boredom) experience “a short-lived sensation of pleasure when the visceral drive is satisfied.” Moreover, highly palatable foods, (including processed “food-like products” which are high in fat, sugar, and salt), work to increase visceral urges and the desire to satisfy them.

In contrast, Epicurean pleasure is derived by a more intellectual appreciation of food, such as how a food is grown or prepared, and how it pleases our senses. Whereas visceral pleasure may be associated with hedonic “pleasures of the body,” Epicurean pleasure is associated with “pleasures of the mind.” In short, the article states, “this true Epicurean pleasure is not an automatic response to bodily urges; it is an end in itself.”

Interestingly, researchers found that, unlike eating for visceral pleasure, eating for Epicurean pleasure is typically associated with higher overall wellbeing and a preference for smaller portion sizes, even without purposefully limiting foods.

What it all means

To bring the point full circle, depriving ourselves of foods we love can lead to a deprivation mindset which in turn can be damaging to our emotional (and therefore overall) wellbeing (yes, happiness)! The key, then, is to distinguish between the foods we love and foods that we simply enjoy eating and find pleasurable because they are physiologically addictive and satisfy our visceral urges and desires.

Moreover, it is my belief that the “food-like products” that many people find immediate pleasure in and are leery to give up for the sake of ‘happiness’ may indeed limit or damage overall happiness, both because they are highly addictive yet also highly damaging to physical health and the correct physiological functions of the human body. From a holistic standpoint, if our bodies are not healthy and functioning properly, how, then, can we expect our minds to be?

Below are my tips for shifting from eating for visceral pleasure to becoming a more conscious or intellectual eater and eating for happiness:

  1. Eat with your senses. Tune into how your food looks (is it colorful, fresh, styled nicely, and generally appetizing?); smells (does it smell flavorful and fresh?); feels (what is the texture and temperature of the food?); tastes (does it contain a variety of bold contrasting or complimenting flavors?); and even sounds (is it sizzling or crunching?)
  2. Learn about and appreciate your food’s past. How were the animals on your plate raised? Where and how were the fruits and veggies grown? What state or country did your food come from? What is the cultural history of the dish that you might be ordering or the family history of the new recipe you might be experimenting with
  3. Tune into how food makes you feel. Does your food energize you, leave you feeling satisfied and fueled and ready to take on the next challenge? Or, does your food leave you feeling sluggish, tired, bloated, and needing to recover after eating?
  4. Change your inner dialogue. There’s a big difference between “I can’t eat that” (i.e. lack of control over our food choices resulting in deprivation and unhappiness) vs. “I don’t eat that” (i.e. control over our eating resulting in  conscious decisions over what we eat and why, and therefore happiness).
  5. Focus on your why. Consider how food appeals to your senses and the food’s history, as well as how the food makes you feel. All of these factors, whether they are positive or negative, can help you determine why you choose to eat or not eat each specific food.
  6. Focus on high quality alternatives to low quality favorites. Suppose you love cookies (who doesn’t?!) But instead of purchasing mass produced cookies made with trans fats, additives and artificial ingredients from the grocery store, why not make your own from scratch with grass-fed butter, pasture raised eggs, and organic flour and sugar? This high quality alternative provides a more sensory experience (mixing and spooning gooey rich dough onto a cookie sheet, the smell of cookies baking, the taste and texture of hot cookies fresh from the oven melting in your mouth), as well as a better appreciation for where the cookies came from and the effort put into making them.

It is my hope this discussion will make you think about how your favorite foods are actually contributing to your happiness and wellbeing. Is there room for improvement in how you eat for happiness? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments below!


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Reference quoted:

Cornil, Y., & Chandon, P., (2015). “Pleasure as an ally of healthy eating? Contrasting visceral and Epicurean eating pleasure and their association with portion size preferences and wellbeing.” Appetite. Accessed from: http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.appet.2015.08.045