Do we obsess over food because we want drama in our life?

Source: SBS

Just as a hypochondriac’s actual condition is often boredom, Ciara O’Riordan ponders whether we complicate what we eat in an attempt to give our life meaning.

I am a reformed competitive eater. I didn't eat 20 hot dogs in 20 seconds, but I ate to win. I wanted to be the best at eating – the most conscientious foodie.

At dinner with friends, we would talk about dinner.

We would try to be nonchalant as we compared notes about the newest farm-to-table restaurant, planned which homemade masterpiece to make for the potluck, agonised over what Insta-worthy treat to surprise the vegan-paleo birthday girl with. 

We understood that food easily telegraphs what we value, so eating was a shorthand to explain who we were and who we wanted to be.

But if every meal was an opportunity for mini self-actualisation, it also had the potential to show me up for the tasteless, basic bitch I feared I was.

But if every meal was an opportunity for mini self-actualisation, it also had the potential to show me up for the tasteless, basic bitch I feared I was.

Eventually, I had to quit, and in looking back on my time as a competitive eater I had to wonder, do we obsess over food like this because we have nothing better to worry about?

Cathy Erway hosts the podcast On Why We Eat What We Eat, which investigates the unseen forces that shape our eating habits. I asked her point blank: Is obsessing over what we eat just hipster nonsense from people too oblivious to know when they have it good?

Cathy gently chides me for oversimplifying the issue. "What I think is the most important reason people have become more interested in, more attuned to, and yes, perhaps even obsessed with food in recent decades: The food movement.  It has become our job to demand better, to seek greater transparency in our food options and spend with our values. All this chalks up to a closer relationship with food, or at least a desire to have a closer one."

It's reassuring to know our overthinking can actually have a positive impact, but I remain suspicious that something else lurks beneath our new-found appetite to eat our way to a better world; something slightly less altruistic.

Under all the breathless chatter about food, online and off, you can hear the unmistakable hum of anxiety. Could it be that our obsession with food is actually that we have too much to worry about?

Under all the breathless chatter about food you can hear the unmistakable hum of anxiety.

Across the developed world, Millenials have inherited unstable economies, broken banking and housing sectors – but a damn good meal is usually still within reach. When life seems messy and random, at least we can control what we eat. It’s something we can easily achieve and, if we’re careful, harmlessly enjoy. Moreover, we can repeat that achievement whenever we need to. Who wouldn’t be addicted to it?

So perhaps ‘eating clean’ is a coping mechanism when we feel powerless. Perhaps, when we spend an obscene amount at the organic supermarket, it makes us feel grown up. Perhaps we even take perverse pleasure in the sacrifice. Or, at the very least, that edamame and kale salad in the staff kitchen signals to the people we want to impress that we’re organised and capable – and by extension, really good at what we do.

"Food is one of the few things that we can control easily – if we have enough money. Controlling emotions is much harder, and other people; impossible!" explains Dr Rebecca Reynolds, who lecturers on nutrition and psychology at UNSW, Sydney.

I suggest to Dr Reynolds that there’s a parallel between more traditionally understood restrictive eating behaviours and the all-consuming need to eat well, and be seen to eat well. She muses that "Modern life is hard. All human life has its suffering. Most humans fear ageing and death. People struggle and are always seeking help and answers. Controlling food and drink intake is one way to try to control the uncontrollable," she says.

Food is rarely just food. It's central to our formation of culture, community and self. The food on our plate can be punishment or reward, personal prayer and performance art all at once – if you need it to be. But as someone who now lives a happier life caring less about food, I can say – it doesn’t need to be this way.