The Healing Secrets of Food



by Deborah Kesten

The Significance of Social Support

Most of us know that eating in positive social surroundings is at the very least pleasurable. Yet the healing power inherent in a loving social atmosphere while dining continues to be an overlooked secret. One of the first and most intriguing studies to demonstrate the link between a socially supportive dining environment and health and well-being was published in the June 16, 1951, issue of the prestigious Lancet. An unusual experiment was conducted by a British nutritionist named Elsie M. Widdowson, who had the wherewithal to observe and record an extraordinary situation that developed in 1948 at two German orphanages shortly after World War II ended. Needless to say, this was a time of extreme trauma for the many German children who had been orphaned, a time when their sense of deprivation was exacerbated by food shortages and rationing.

When Widdowson arrived at the orphanages, she decided to take a year to study the effects of additional servings of food on the children's weight and height gain. During the first six months, the children at both orphanages received the exact same amount of rations; during the second six months, though, Widdowson gave children at one of the orphanages increased rations of bread, jam, and orange juice. Throughout the study over a period of twelve months she weighed and measured the height of the children every ten days. When the time came to look at the height and weight charts, Widdowson was puzzled. During the first six months when all the children received equal food portions children at one orphanage had gained significantly more height and weight than children at the other orphanage. The second six-month findings were equally confusing: those who had been fed more food gained less weight and height than those fed fewer food rations.

Widdowson pondered: Why had some children thrived while others hadn't regardless of the amount of food they ate? When she observed the children's caretaker, she got her answer. Each group of children who had failed to gain weight and grow had been cared for by a strict disciplinarian who chose mealtime to administer public rebukes and to ridicule certain children. "By the time she had finished, the soup would be cold," writes Widdowson. "All the children would be in a state of considerable agitation, and several of them might be in tears."

The results of this study are amazing, because they suggest not only that the social atmosphere in which you eat can influence your health but also that dining with people who genuinely like you and whom you like can help you thrive even under adverse conditions. The key message: refrain from using the dinner table as a place to argue or to scold if you want to improve your physical and emotional well-being.

The Magic of the Midnight Meal

One morning while reading an article in a local newspaper, I got another clue about the emotional ways in which social satisfaction while dining can heal. While skimming the paper, I found myself riveted by an article titled "Midnight Supper: Spontaneous Party at the Witching Hour." Written by Lois Maclean, a then-unemployed, forty-something woman, "Midnight Supper" is a story about something very unusual that happened to her and her husband at 10:30 on a depressing Tuesday night. As they were considering whether to go "into a full-tilt harangue about everything that was wrong with [their] life," they received a phone call from Bradley, an old friend who had recently wed a woman from Hong Kong named Suk Wah; Brad was calling to invite them over for a midnight supper at a villa where he and Suk Wah were house-sitting.

Although Maclean and her husband were "awed by the very concept," taking their friend up on the invitation meant a half-hour drive at 11:00 on a weekday night across the long Richmond Bridge. They went anyway. As Maclean described it: "We threw on our jackets and hit the freeway, already feeling more interested in life." When they entered the villa, Maclean described the instantaneous hospitality and meal that manifested: "Bradley and Suk Wah handed us shrimp chips and flutes of champagne from their wedding.... At a cluttered table in the bright kitchen, we dispatched a giant bowl of Suk Wah's Chinese spaghetti, fragrant with ginger and dried shiitake mushrooms. Afterward, we curled up with cups of herb tea." Explained Suk Wah as she handed around the teacups: "midnight supper is a Chinese custom. We celebrate the magic of the night."

What impact did this satisfying social connection have on Maclean's mood and mental state? She and her husband "went home at around two in the morning, sated with simple food and simple kindness, our malaise dispelled. When we awoke in the morning, we felt...tired but satisfied, refreshed and a lot lighter of heart."

It is one thing to eat; it is another to dine on lovingly prepared food with good friends. For when we do, not only is our appetite nourished, but somehow our soul too is satisfied and we become "lighter of heart." When I had the pleasure of talking with Suk Wah Bernstein, I learned that her idea to "celebrate the magic of the night" with friends evolved from New Year rituals she had celebrated with her family during her childhood in Hong Kong. "China's ancient folk religion has a god for just about everything," she told me, "and on the eve of the Chinese New Year, all of them come to inspect us." By preparing a special midnight meal, the family welcomes both these hundreds of gods and the new year by gathering around and sharing an elaborate midnight meal; it is a truly festive family occasion.

Communing with Food

Wisdomkeepers is both the name of a book and a term used by authors Steve Wall and Harvey Arden to describe Native American spiritual elders, "the Old Ones." Over the centuries, wisdom keepers from cultures worldwide have intuited and encouraged the healing potential that may be ingested when we dine in an enjoyable social atmosphere. Consider Native Americans' social link to food. It was so all-encompassing that along with the earth and sun and most other aspects of nature, they perceived food itself as an actual family member. This is evident by the way in which the Senecas refer to their staple foods of corn, beans, and squash as the "Three Sisters," their "Supporters."

Uniting with others through food is also integral to Christianity. Indeed, the Last Supper a Passover meal shared by Jesus and his disciples became the most momentous meal in the history of Christianity, perhaps the world. As Christianity evolved, the sharing of the bread and wine of the Eucharist (transforming either literally or symbolically Jesus' body and blood into bread and wine) was related to a regular meal that early Christians would share together at an "open table" in their homes in communion with other faithful believers, regardless of their sociological or economic background. In "house churches," these early Christians ate, essentially, a potluck meal; then they observed the Eucharist together.

When Jesus was alive, sharing food had more significance than it does now. Sitting down and sharing a meal with someone signified that you accepted that person as an equal. Such a symbolic act, for instance, was manifested when Jesus dined not only with his disciples but also with tax collectors and sinners. Even after his resurrection, Jesus eats with his disciples, again signifying equality, an open table that doesn't discriminate. Today this tradition continues as Catholics take the Eucharist in communion with others.

If our past contains a single culinary theme, it's uniting with others through food. Perhaps nowhere is this more evident than in Judaism's teachings, which are resplendent with centuries-old, universally accepted concepts about food designed to make our meals heartwarming social occasions. For instance, for more than thirty centuries, devout Jews have taken great pleasure in sharing food not only among themselves to honor and to connect with their past but also with others who are hungry. "In this way," writes author Claudia Roden in The Book of Jewish Food, "[social unity] is one of the great bonds of Jewish and community life."

Consider the Jewish Sabbath, a holy twenty-four-hour period that's been celebrated by Jews since biblical times. During this special time which begins on Friday exactly eighteen minutes before sunset and ends on Saturday evening after dark work and everyday activities are prohibited. Instead, devout Jewish families make it a point to stop the hustle and bustle of the week and instead partake of the Sabbath meal with family members and friends.

The concept of social connection through food is so all-encompassing that many Muslims actually define Islam as a social religion, with food playing a big part in bringing others together under its social auspices. Believing that the blessing received isn't only the food but also the company, Muslims espouse both eating with others and sharing food with others. The underlying intention was that the aroma of food while it cooked should encourage neighbors to come by and share the meal. In this way, framed in a feeling of kinship, Muslims may be brought together in the name of Allah (the Supreme Being in Islam) and together enjoy the meal in a devotional, loving context.

Reconsidering Rabbit Food

With uncanny foresight, wisdom keepers throughout the ages seemed to have anticipated the health benefits of social nutrition that were to be revealed by scientific discoveries made centuries later. For instance, one groundbreaking study, conducted by Dr. R. M. Nerem at the University of Texas, suggests that rabbits who ate while being cared for and regarded (what I describe as "eating from the heart") experienced some sort of mysterious alchemical change in the way in which they metabolized potentially artery-clogging food.

Here's what happened. To learn about the effect diet has on the development of coronary artery disease (CAD), researchers fed rabbits high-cholesterol, artery-clogging rabbit chow. But when it came time to tally the results, they found that some rabbits' arteries weren't clogged with plaque even though they'd all been fed the same high-cholesterol foods. In fact, this healthier group displayed 60 percent less plaque. Unable to explain why some rabbits showed less evidence of the beginning stages of heart disease than others, the researchers decided to trace each step of the study.

Upon inquiry, they found that the rabbits in the cages stacked in the middle fared better than those in the higher or lower cages. When they asked the research assistant about this, she said that when she fed the rabbits, she had taken out the rabbits in the middle cages so she could pet, cuddle, and talk to them each day as she fed them. Apparently, it was harder for her to reach the rabbits that had been placed in the lower or higher cages; as a result, these rabbits received normal laboratory animal care minus being talked to and touched while fed. Finding it difficult to believe that contact from the caretaker could make such a difference in the condition of the rabbits' arteries, the researchers replicated the study in a much more controlled fashion. Again, the results were the same: the arteries of the rabbits who were talked to and touched while eating exhibited less coronary artery disease.

As with the orphanage study, such results imply that a loving, supportive presence (and consciousness) while eating not only might help us thrive, it may also inhibit disease. At its core, the message in our meals is that love matters, and that when love is present while we're eating, it mysteriously connects us to other living entities - whether they be orphaned children, animals, or food itself.

The Healing Web of Relationships

Does positive social connection while eating also serve as a buffer against illness for people regardless of whether the food is healthful? Years before the rabbit study, researchers answered this question when they conducted a fascinating study with Italian Americans who lived in Roseto, Pennsylvania. The researchers chose Roseto because of the extraordinarily low rate of coronary heart disease among its population compared to that in similar surrounding communities.

Studied for more than fifty years, most Rosetans lived on traditionally high-fat, high-cholesterol Italian sauces, sausages, and other potentially artery-clogging, heart disease-linked fare. Given this, scientists were perplexed about why the rate of heart disease, and the mortality from heart attacks, remained low in Roseto in spite of this diet, especially when compared to the relatively high rate of heart disease in nearby towns.

As this long-term study progressed, the rate of heart disease began increasing in Roseto until it equaled that of the general American population. What had changed? Upon closer scrutiny, the researchers realized that when the study began, it wasn't uncommon to find three generations of Italians living under one roof; close family ties and community cohesion were the norm. But as the Italian American children moved away from Roseto, the community's cohesion began to decrease. Roseto's traditional close-knit family and community structures weakened. Along the way, the commitment to religion, relationships, and traditional values also lessened a way of life that had united Rosetans since they'd migrated to America in 1882. Again, research revealed that strong, nurturing social ties, when wrapped around the food we eat, may hold the power to preserve more than a way of life that has been espoused by wisdom keepers for thousands of years. The implications? Even if we eat potentially heart-harming food, strong social bonds may actually prevent illness by somehow changing the way in which we metabolize food. I am not, of course, espousing that it is "safe" to consume high-fat, unhealthful foods as long as you're eating them with people you like!

Such studies aren't the only ones to suggest that dining with others in a nurturing environment may enhance health. In recent years, the link between social support and health status has become a major focus of research. Although the following studies aren't specifically food-oriented, nonetheless they strongly suggest that the healing web of relationships is powerful medicine.

In the 1980s, graduate student Erica Friedmann discovered that people who survived heart attacks tended to be pet owners. Since that time, other studies have confirmed that the unconditional affection that animals offer seems to help pet owners with a variety of ailments from lowering blood pressure to increasing the odds of recovering from a heart attack.

Dr. Berkman and his colleagues' Alameda County study, which followed seven thousand men and women in northern California, found that those with weak social and community support systems were more than three times more likely to die than their socially connected counterparts. This fact remained true in spite of unhealthful lifestyles. Interestingly, those who lived the longest had both strong social ties as well as a healthful lifestyle.

In 1989, yet another landmark study, by David Spiegel, M.D., and colleagues at Stanford Medical School, revealed that women with metastatic breast cancer who participated in weekly support group sessions lived twice as long as women who didn't participate in support groups.

Psychologist and researcher Jeanne Achterberg, speaking at the Institute of Health and Healing at the California Pacific Medical Center in San Francisco, summarized the link between social support and health this way: "Lack of social relationships constitutes the major risk factor in health, one that is even greater than smoking. Persons who are considered to be in a light-filled social network...are at less risk for high blood pressure, elevated cholesterol, heart disease, tuberculosis, accidents, psychiatric disorders, complications with pregnancy, and on and on." In other words, a strong social support system, the healing web of relationships, appears to be a major predictor of health, longevity, and mortality.

Reclaiming Your Social Nutrition Heritage

Societies have passed down the importance of the union of food, love, and positive social interaction from generation to generation. My friend Michelle, who grew up in Mexico City and moved to the United States at the age of eighteen, experienced firsthand during her formative years what it was like to dine with her loving, large family. During her childhood years in Mexico, she lived in a culture where dining with others was and still is a deeply held value and custom.

Consider a typical Sunday for Michelle when she was a child growing up in Mexico. The entire family adults and children, cousins, parents, aunts, uncles, and grandparents got together for the midday meal, which in Mexico is called dinner. Often hosted by the family matriarch either the grandmother or mother the gathering sometimes began around breakfast time. After breakfast, the women decided what they'd make for dinner, which usually included soup as a first course, salad as a second course, a main dish that often consisted of vegetables, rice, and meat, then perhaps a tray filled with fresh fruit for dessert.

While the women prepared the meal, some men played soccer in a nearby field; others might fix bicycles or toys; meanwhile, small children played inside the house. At about 3:00 p.m., the entire family often fifteen or more people sat around the table to eat, chat, laugh, and enjoy the meal. Afterward, as the women cleaned up, they reminisced about the "old days" while sharing stories of their youth. At about 6:00, the various family members departed for their respective homes.

Did anyone ever eat alone? Not often, perhaps only when a person arrived home late from work. Says Michelle: "I believe that my love and appreciation of sharing fresh homemade meals with others comes from growing up with this tradition. I liked yakking with the family over food, and catching up on each other's lives. Those weekly get-togethers always gave me a warm, cozy feeling. When you share a major meal with family each week, it's a way of keeping connected with people you love."

In Celebrating the Impressionist Table, author Pamela Todd describes just such a vanishing and vanished social life, captured forever in canvases filled with sunlit scenes of food-centered celebrations and friendships: "Today [these paintings] evoke in us a feeling of well-being and a tinge of nostalgia for a time when love and light and good companionship often cemented at the table were elevated above the petty commercial concerns of everyday living," writes Todd.

Yet as a contrast, in the United States today, it's becoming more and more common to eat alone, to relate to food as a necessary, functional part of life, something to fit into our busy schedules. This mentality has even infiltrated our language. How many times do we hear: "I'm just going to grab something on the way home," "Don't hold dinner; I have to work late," or "Sorry I have to eat and run." The end result: whichever way you turn the dining table, it's still devoid of people.

Not only is there no time like the present to do something about the loneliness that permeates our culture, there is no better opportunity to do something about it than each time you eat. To access the social salve of dining with others, when I give presentations, I often ask people to think about how they feel in their soul during those quiet, often lonely times while going home after work. How would they feel if they knew that their grandmother had been preparing dinner all afternoon; if they knew that when they arrived home, they'd sit down to eat with their children, spouse, and grandparents? Then, perhaps after they ate the freshly cooked food while catching up on each other's lives neighbors who lived nearby would drop by to chat and share some dessert. Smiles and pleasurable sighs at the prospect are the usual response.

Implementing the healing secret of socializing each time you eat is one way you can take positive, constructive action not only to heal your relationship with food but also to correct the culture's unbalanced perception of the role of food and to reclaim your heritage. By putting into action the social and other healing secrets of food discussed in this book, you're positioning yourself not only to digest food's healing social nutrients but also its emotional, spiritual, and physical benefits.

Setting the Social Table

For some, uniting with others through food may seem simple; others might perceive it as a unique challenge. In actuality, dining with people in a pleasant atmosphere is part of our unique heritage as human beings. Whether eating together as a member of a tribe or clan or more recently during birthdays or weddings, we've been turning to food to enjoy or celebrate with others for millennia. As a matter of fact, some experts believe that this tradition became less common only when central heating evolved, and families no longer needed to gather together in the kitchen to stay warm.

Bringing social nutrition back into your life is especially easy, because it calls for making some minor shifts in what you're already doing. What follows are some suggestions for integrating social ingredients into your daily meals and for making social dining a more intimate and integral part of your life each day.

Set a table for two. If you're dining alone, "socialize" by placing a photograph of someone you love on the table. As you sit down to eat, conjure up favorite food memories you've shared: perhaps some exceptional pasta primavera served in a favorite restaurant, the time you savored a piece of choice chocolate together, or a special summer potato salad you all enjoyed at a family picnic. Or does the fresh fruit you're having for dessert remind you of the blueberries you picked together during a walk in the country?

Here's another option: if you have a pet such as a cat or dog feed your pet first so you can feel connected to it while you're eating.

Take a social nutrition break. When my husband and I worked on a clinical research project at a medical university in Europe, we would often join our colleagues for lunch at the local cafeteria and socialize over a simple salad or soup. Every office lunch, snack, or coffee break is an opportunity for you to access the healing secret of socializing. Whether you're "brown-bagging" it with a tuna sandwich or dining on a simple mixed salad you purchased at the local deli, when you're at work, why not make it a point to have lunch with coworkers? Or, in the afternoon, take a social nutrition break by enjoying a cup of yogurt, freshly popped popcorn, or herbal tea with like-minded coworkers. Ultimately, eating with colleagues is an opportunity to build relationships instead of yet another activity that you do alone at the office.

Finesse family fare. A recently widowed father who was raising two preteen boys by himself told he realized that his sons and he weren't really eating together. Rather, it was typical for them to eat take-out pizza while watching TV. To change this pattern, he began to prepare more homemade meals whenever possible (macaroni and cheese with a tall glass of tomato juice were favorites) and to turn off the TV while eating. Soon he began looking forward to sitting around the dining room table with his sons and sharing stories about the day.

In the same spirit, if you, your spouse, and your children have busy schedules, is it possible to commit to one or two mornings to having breakfast together? Perhaps you can prepare pancakes, while others can contribute by organizing the toppings, such as yogurt, raisins, and chopped walnuts. Fresh-pressed orange juice and a fantastic fruit salad are other quick and easy but special and tasty options.

Create a social Sabbath. At a seminar I gave, a devout Jewish woman told me that my talk about social nutrition had struck a chord. About fifty years old and divorced with grown children away at college, she realized that she ate alone too often and that she deeply missed both preparing and sharing meals with loved ones - especially Friday night Sabbath meals. Her solution? She planned to begin having a weekly potluck meal at her home with some special friends on Friday night.

If you used to observe the Sabbath but "just don't have time anymore," try bringing it back into your life. Or in the spirit of the Sabbath, initiate your own Friday night potluck get-together with special friends or family. It doesn't have to be time-consuming to create a dish for a potluck meal. For me, when time is an issue, I might make some sweet potato soup served warm in the winter or chilled in the summer. Or, if you have the time, consider making fruit pies, prepared with varieties of seasonal fruit: plums, apricots, and cherries in the spring; peaches and blueberries in the summer; apples and pears in early fall.

Consider "soulful" dining. Because slaves were forbidden to talk with one another or to socialize while working in the fields, preparing and eating soul food provided a joyous opportunity to spend time together. In this way, meals became social occasions that offered comfort to heart, body, and soul. "Eating soul" can be social in yet another way: because it's recipeless (slaves weren't allowed to learn to read and write), learning to "cook soul" has become an art that has been handed down from generation to generation during time spent together in the kitchen.

Some basics brought from Africa are goobers (peanuts) and benne (sesame seed paste), while meager food rations on the plantations were stretched by foraging for edible wild greens, wild onions, and wild roots, such as potatoes. Today, soul food is still simple and socially satisfying fare. In this light, consider having a soul-food fest. Ask an elderly aunt for a favorite family recipe, then prepare it and invite her and other family members over to enjoy it. Or ask some friends to come over to share and prepare some simple soul food dishes that, of course, are recipeless. Some suggestions: spiced mustard greens, corn bread, and a mixed vegetable and bean stew.

Connect with community. Ultimately, the healing secret of socializing is about connection with self, family, friends, neighbors, environment, and community with food as the unifying flavor. Wouldn't it be exciting if communities started to have potluck dinners so that everyone wouldn't have to continue eating alone? On a weekly, monthly, or annual basis, community members could get together for potluck meals by meeting in homes, community centers, synagogues, or churches or by creating food-focused street festivals.

Or in the spirit of the Chinese New Year, during any day of the work week, the holiday season, or on New Year's Eve, what about inviting over some special friends to share conversation and a candlelit meal of zai (the Chinese character for vegetarian food)? For example, serve pasta with a simple salad, veggies over rice, and some seasonal, sliced fruit or a sweet, with tea.

From The Healing Secrets of Food by Deborah Kesten. Copyright 2001 by Deborah Kesten. Excerpted by arrangement with New World Library. $14.95. Available in local bookstores or call 800-972-6657, Ext. 52 or click here.