They say we eat with our eyes first but my eyes rarely get a look in. You could have painted a golden ‘don’t eat this’ onto one of the several Maltesers I just scoffed and I would have been none the wiser. While we used to depend on our eyes to identify nutritious foods, there is now a big disconnect between the diets of our eyes and our mouths. We eat dinner while watching TV, eat food straight from the packaging and gawp at a tonne of other people’s food on social media and TV. It’s probably not good for us.
The first time I recognised this disconnect in myself was four years ago during my first job after graduating. I would get in from work, cook the quickest thing I could and eat it in my room while watching Breaking Bad. I wanted all of my senses to be occupied so I could comfortably forget the day and relax. My laptop at the time was quite slow so I used to run between the saucepan and my laptop upstairs to ensure that the next episode was good to go as soon as dinner was ready. If I didn’t get this right, I would bring my dinner upstairs and wait for my laptop to turn on before eating my food, letting it get cold in front of me. That’s crazy.
Research has shown that people eat more food when they are distracted*. One of the reasons for this is that you just don’t experience the food as much if you’re not paying attention so you forget what you’ve eaten. I don’t need to read research to know this is true for me. I can lose count of how many KitKat fingers I’ve munched through from my four-finger KitKat if I’m looking scrolling through Twitter.
If we paid more attention to our food, I think we’d start to make different decisions about what we ate as well as how much. The thought of eating breakfast without watching the TV makes me want to eat something more interesting and healthier than peanut butter on toast. If I’ve made a healthy dinner, I’m much more likely to eat it at the kitchen table than sat in front of the TV. It’s like I want to mask the shame of eating a takeaway from Five Guys by watching Netflix.
The food industry feeds the disconnect by wrapping food up in packaging which forces us to make decisions influenced by carefully chosen fonts and attractive colours. Packaging can be so effective that the contents are ultimately disappointing. When I empty a bag of crisps into a bowl I am frequently unimpressed by the beige discs that tumble out and I wonder why I paid so much for thinly sliced potato. I saw a crisps advert recently in which they bragged about using ‘real ingredients’. Who are the people eating non-existent crisps who are supposed to be swayed by this claim?
My hope for our health and the environment is that one day all supermarkets will be of the kind where you turn up with your reusable tubs and glass jars and fill them with the food you want from large containers. If the containers all had to be transparent do you think you would spend as long in the crisp aisle? The crisp aisle would be so boring, just shelf after shelf of beige. Wouldn’t the fruit and vegetable aisles look so much more attractive in comparison? The bars of chocolate would all look so similar that we might get bored of comparing brown slabs before we decide which one to buy. I’m half Belgian so that was hard to write (sorry, Mum).
Our penchant for uploading food pictures to Instagram has led to food that looks supremely attractive but lacks substance. However, watching ‘Extreme Cake Makers’ on Channel 4 has cured me of any desire for highly decorated cakes. Once you’ve seen a baker massage modelling chocolate with their bare hands, it’s hard to find their skin-cell covered creation appetising.
Fruits and vegetables are pretty which is why my fruit and veg basket is prominently displayed on the kitchen table. When the yellow of the lemons pops against the aubergine I swear I get nutrients just by looking at them. It makes sense to me that eating something with a complicated structure like a kiwi is better for me than eating an amorphous lump of chocolate – a treat for the eyes as well as the insides. If there are any fruit and veg companies out there looking for some more tasty taglines to promote their produce, then there’s plenty more where that came from.
There are many visual delights waiting for us at the kitchen table if we’d care to take a look. One of my favourites is the magic of watching a fruit tea brew. When I pour the boiling water over the tea bag, I watch as the tea leaves dye the water, a tasty liquid photograph developing in my mug. And broccoli. Have you seen broccoli? It’s amazing. Even the humble lettuce leaf is cool close up. Food is fascinating people.
So venture forth. Look at your food. Be amazed by broccoli.
I’m going to go order a Five Guys.
*Robinson, E., Aveyard, P., Daley, A., Jolly, K., Lewis, A., Lycett, D., & Higgs, S. (2013). Eating attentively: a systematic review and meta-analysis of the effect of food intake memory and awareness on eating–. The American journal of clinical nutrition, 97(4), 728-742.