The Psychological Effect of Having to Give Up the Foods You Love

"I never stop craving just a few tacos with the twice-fried beans and a glass of milk.”

09 September 2018, 11:19pm

tbralnina / Getty Images

When Guillermina Sanchez immigrated to the United States from Michoacán, Mexico, at 12, the rhythms and practices of her traditional cuisines only partially made the journey to the migrant community of Watsonville, California. “We imported our food, but we didn’t import our way of cooking our food because lives here are so much busier,” she tells me, “You adopt a faster way of living. We don’t have a grandmother at home who can mind the beans cooking overnight.”

This distance became more palpable in 2014 when Sanchez was diagnosed with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, a disorder with no clear cause and therefore no clear treatment plan. While she experienced debilitating lethargy for years, symptoms worsened considerably when she returned from college visits with her son and found herself unable to move her arms for three days.

With CFS, finding treatment is an exhausting period of trial and error that can sour even the most tolerant patients’ perspective of modern medicine. Sanchez’s alleviation came via a restrictive diet that cut out most starches, dairy, and legumes, unfortunately nixing all her favorite childhood foods. (For the record, the role of diet in helping CFS symptoms is highly variable, so there's no established diet deemed best for everyone with the condition.)

This was, by Sanchez’s account, the best-case scenario when it comes to diseases that run in her family. Out of her eight siblings, she is the only one who's not diabetic. And she knows several people outside of her family with chronic illnesses who suffer far worse, in her opinion, than dietary restrictions. “I thought, Wait a minute. I have a second chance at life,” she says, “And not everyone gets that.”

But what happens after your second chance? This is territory sorely neglected in medical narratives. The role food plays in healing is often understated, and losing a connection to comfort foods can make coping with illness more difficult. For Sanchez, it dampened the victory of not being sicker.

I “met” Sanchez on a chronic illness forum after I posted questions about my father, who lost his appetite following a double lung transplant in April of this year. I'm originally from the Midwest where major occasions are marked with massive amounts of high-cheese, high-carb, high-starch foods drizzled with meaty sauces and/or any variety of creamy, canned soups. The notion of soothing someone without feeding them felt preposterous.

My father was diagnosed with idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis in late 2017. From the beginning, he advised me against googling his illness. So, of course, I did so immediately. While I read numerous articles—as if another vantage point would alter cold, medical facts—the words “prognosis is poor” and “three to five years” flashed on my screen repeatedly.

More from Tonic:

Christmas that year was purgatory. My father was present, but in many ways it felt like we already lost him. One of his three passions was fitness, alongside literature and food—he had gone to the gym every day for 35 years. Now, his membership card sat on the buffet table, a reminder of who he no longer was. After he got sick, shaky hands made him a less prolific reader. Yet, we still had food. My mother ordered troughs of ravioli from Gino’s in Hancock, Michigan, on Christmas Eve, a family tradition. Food was a reminder of happier times, the one enduring symbol of security during what felt like the end.

Soon after that, his appetite faded. Once the initial gratitude for the marvels of modern science wore off, reality set in. The doctors did not return him to us in his original form. He came back after the transplant alive, but subdued.

Food comforts, in part, because of a Pavlovian response. People with strong social ties are generally more likely to crave comfort foods, says Jordan Troisi, associate professor of psychology at The University of the South in Sewanee, Tennessee. Troisi researches psychological connections with food and calls comfort foods a “memory cue” for relationships.

“Comfort food seems to be food that's associated with close relational partners,” he says, “When we consume this food time and time again in the presence of others, we think it becomes a comfort food...Like looking at a photograph of a loved one on your office desk, comfort food can be the balm that people go to when they're having an emotionally trying day.”

Perhaps the reason food was such a comfort for my family is that we are close, my father and I. We have the kind of parent-child bond marked by spars rooted in commonality, similar passions raising the stakes for disagreement. An argument about Tony Kushner once ended with my father picking up a copy of Angels In America, opening it, miming puking, and yelling, “I’m Tony Kushner! I just vomited on the page! Pulitzer, please!” I disagreed with his assessment, but respected someone passionate enough about the written word to resort to such theatrics.

I don't know if I will experience something like this again, nor do I know if my father will ever again indulge in the Christmas Eve ravioli feast with the same zeal. His loss of appetite—the final straw—stung. Eating and enjoying food seems so easy that even an illness could not take it away.

When she first responded to my post, Sanchez mentioned mourning food. When we spoke, I asked her how she adjusts. “I don’t,” she told me, “I feel more satisfied, but I never stop craving just a few tacos with the twice-fried beans and a glass of milk.”

While he told me it’s a great topic, Troisi says he’s not aware of any existing studies that look into the psychological effects of being deprived of comfort foods, but hopes to see some in the future. Studies on food and mood tend to touch more on healthy diets boosting serotonin levels than the consequences of illness-triggered food separation. Troisi did note, however, that psychological connections to food are far more important than a lot of people recognize when considering how to effectively heal. “The physiological connection is a pretty intuitive one,” he says, “But my research shows that the psychological impact has effects beyond any of the physiological consequences of comfort food.”

This means that even after someone loses a connection to a food that’s been historically comforting to them, new associations with new foods can be formed. Perhaps ravioli will be swapped out for something more bland next Christmas, which my family will eventually associate with good times. Perhaps Sanchez, too, can find cuisines that will eventually provide joy similar to twice-fried bean tacos. Nevertheless, I think mourning should still be acknowledged. Hoping for neat catharsis after a significant detachment from one’s identity—either by illness, migration, or both—is unrealistic. When Sanchez told me that her grief is ongoing, I felt validated.

It is okay to hurt, even after second chances. Severe illness creates a distinct rift between before and after. In the paraphrased words of my favorite character from my father’s least favorite play, life is a matter of painful progress, longing for what you’ve left behind while dreaming ahead. Even when a life is saved, there remains a way of life to grieve.

Sign up for our newsletter to get the best of Tonic delivered to your inbox.

This article originally appeared on VICE US.

Vice Channels