The Social Meaning of Food

Monday, April 07, 2014
The Social Meaning of Food

Psychological theories of food choices study the individual aspects that take root in our eating behaviors. It stresses on learning, attitudes, beliefs, and choices. Some of our decisions are related to the food itself... and some are due to cultural preferences and social meanings.


Food as a Cultural Identity

Food can represent aspects of one’s religious and social identity. The way the meal is prepared (the rituals), eaten, and shared with others is, in some religions, a medium through which religiousness and piety are exchanged within the family.


Food may also reflect a social status. Wealthy people eat well. In parallel, food restriction is also a powerful tool to regain power and control. When political prisoners want to make a social statement they deprive themselves from eating and begin a hunger strike. Fasting can thus be used as a way to humiliate those in control.


Have you ever noticed how the meaning of meat is always emphasized in most cultures? In the diet of many people, meat is the cornerstone - or on the contrary - a food to be avoided. The reason is that meat symbolizes the power that we humans have over nature. Friddes (1990) considered that when people gained control over nature (through hunting for example) they became civilized. Meat is considered a central part of what we eat. This is definitely something you don’t all agree on. However, it is true that most of us tend to think that we did not have a “real” meal if we did not eat meat. Even for the vegetarians, the range of soya based meat analogues confirms the centrality of the concept of meat, as Friddes (1990) argued.


Food as a Social Interaction

In most families, the dinner table is where most interactions occur. It is a place where all members get together to share their experiences of the day, discuss problems, ideas, thoughts…. It is thus not difficult to consider that food is a tool for social interaction. In addition, the types of food, and the way they are cooked and eaten, can develop a sense of group identity, as in “the birthday party” or “Sunday lunch.”


One of the ways caregivers and spouses show their love to their kids and partner is through cooking. They take the time to plans meals; they usually enjoy decorating the plates….  Healthy and tasty foods symbolize family love and the determination to please the members of the family, as Charles and Kerr (1987) concluded. Studies (Neumark-Sztainer et al, 2008) demonstrated that frequent family meals play a protective role for kids and teenagers. The more family members sit together on the dinner table, the less young ones are likely to exhibit eating pathologies. However, parents/spouses might at times feel a conflict between cooking healthy foods and unhealthy meals - as it is well known that teenagers and kids prefer junk food. Yet, parents would then have to live with the guilt that these types of food may trigger caries, weight problems….


However, food is sometimes used as a positive reinforcement in some therapies to enhance a desired behavior. In the Applied Behavioral Analysis (ABA), food and mainly sweets can be used as a reward to bring positive changes in a behavior.


It is not difficult for us to imagine why food is considered as a social interaction. It can enhance relations between family members, protect teenagers from developing eating disorders, and can be used as a reward to strengthen a certain behavior. Food also builds the self as a sexual being, as conflicts might occur between guilt and pleasure and between eating and fasting, and as a way to enhance self-control. Ultimately, all these meaning are related to the social and cultural contexts.


We started this article by saying that our food choices are influenced by many individual factors. In these psychological theories, food is not only an essential substance that affects our health, it also refers to our culture and is related to different meanings. The decision to eat or deny food has the power to modify our body size, shape, and body image, thus affecting our psychological state.

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