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The Use of Pleasure

The Use of Pleasure
Our next #30in30 #nutritionmonth blog post is from Michelle Allison, Dietetic Intern with the NRC. Thank you for submitting!

I write this blog post with the new sugar guideline from the World Health Organization on my mind. The WHO has recommended that no more than 5 - 10% of one’s calories come from added sugar.

My own history with sugar has been a complicated one. I have dim memories of eating spoonfuls straight from the sugar bowl behind my mother’s back, and less-dim memories of adulthood where, after a period of strict dieting, I did the expected thing with chocolates and pints of ice cream. Looking back on this history, I can’t help but view my current intake of sugar with some amount of wonder. As it turns out, I get about 7 - 11% of my energy from added sugars per day (depending on dessert.) I’m pretty pleased with that, even if it does not always meet the WHO’s ambitious standard. How did I get here from where I used to be? Perhaps in an unexpected way: by seeking pleasure.

I enjoy eating, and if Canadian food surveys are any indication, I’m in good company – the most significant factor influencing Canadians’ food choices has, for a number of years, been taste (Canadian Council of Food and Nutrition, 2009.) But nutrition, as a health science and practice, has often felt at odds with this very salient motivator.

An American friend once told me the story of her student trip to France to work in the kitchen of a famous restaurant. She once asked the owner of the restaurant, a chef, why she had chosen to pursue this line of work. The chef responded simply, “To give pleasure.”

The answer unsettled my friend, and upon closer examination, she realized that the idea of seeking pleasure, and admitting it frankly, was ingrained in her as a sinful, distasteful, or morally corrupt – almost obscene – pursuit.

According to John Coveney in his book Food, Morals and Meaning (2006), from ancient times, controlling one’s appetite was seen as necessary to being a “civilized”, moral human, and a worthy citizen. Modern nutrition has neatly mapped onto this framework, papering over ideas of “civility” with “healthiness,” but still playing on that same deeply-ingrained discomfort with pleasure and appetite. This could explain the public’s enthusiasm for reading about nutrition, even if they don’t always apply the guidelines to their own eating.

Philosopher Michel Foucault proposed that taking pleasure in eating challenges the post-Enlightenment push toward a more “rational” or a “scientific” mode of living and eating, and also challenges religious admonitions to control one’s appetites as a means of purifying the soul -- and the interpretation of any failure to do so as evidence of societal degeneration (Coveney, 2006.)

I take a rather different view of pleasure. Rather than being morally or physically dangerous, I believe that natural rewards (like pleasure in eating) can be used to motivate us toward, rather than being at odds with, health.

There seems to be a common belief that seeking pleasure is self-indulgent, and it invokes images of brownie free-for-alls or chugging soda by the gallon. (It’s not a coincidence that the word hedonism itself comes from a Greek root word meaning “sweet.”) But in the ancient Greek philosophies of hedonism, which defined pleasure as the highest virtue, moderation was actually considered the best way to maximize pleasure.

In my own experience, seeking pleasure helped me learn that making myself overfull, groggy, or mouth-sore from eating too much sugar was not pleasurable. I believe this is true for everyone. Hurting yourself with food is literally the opposite of pleasure. When you’re caught up in rebelling against pressure to deny yourself some natural reward, I don’t believe you’re seeking pleasure, but seeking to restore lost autonomy -- sometimes at a cost to your well-being.

When I changed my orientation from a restrained, controlling one (alternating with periods of rebellion), to a pleasure-seeking, self-regulating one, I learned that I experienced the most pleasure by paying attention to the entire eating experience, including the way I felt afterward. I found that I took the most pleasure in a meal that was tasty as well as nourishing, and eaten in amounts that left me feeling comfortable and energetic afterward.

Seeking pleasure led me, naturally, to the path of moderation.

Taking pleasure in eating helps make life meaningful and worthwhile. It seems sad and fruitless to resist it, rather than to embrace it and use it for good. When people are no longer rebelling to reclaim their autonomy, and instead can change focus on pleasure-seeking, self-care, and self-regulation, I believe they can find pleasure not only in the taste of food, but also in being well-nourished itself.
  • Canadian Council of Food and Nutrition. 2009. Tracking Nutrition Trends: A 20-Year History.
  • Coveney, J. 2006. Food, Morals, and Meaning.
  • World Health Organization. 2015. Guideline: Sugars intake for adult and children.


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