What Food Do I Desire?

Note: This is part of a short series of posts relating to the Mindful Eating cycle in the Am I Hungry? program, where each part looks at one of the decision points that goes into eating – why, when, what, how, how much, and where you spend your energy. This section looks at how much we eat. Learn more here or at www.amihungry.com.

When you eat, how do you know what food you desire?

This question came up in an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation. In a previous post I mentioned Q, one of a race of omnipotent, omniscient beings who aren’t bothered by such mundane matters as eating or sleeping. Until in one episode, Q became temporarily human as a punishment, and he found the experience baffling.

One area of confusion was eating. At first, he didn’t know that the pain in his stomach was hunger; the doctor had to tell him. Then, since the replicator could make any and all types of food, Q said, “I’ve never eaten before… How do I know what I desire?”

It made me wonder how I would answer this question in a way that someone who has never experienced food could make sense of.

I might explain that what I want depends on a number of things. Certain times of the year might influence it – I prefer cooler and lighter foods in the summer, warmer and heartier foods in the winter. Although I’m not sure how that would apply on a climate-controlled ship like the Enterprise.

Other times I may crave a specific food, perhaps due to time of year (sugar cookies at Christmas) or location (smores when camping) or activity level (hamburgers after serious hiking) or if I haven’t had it for a while (fresh fruit and vegetables after coming back from 10 days in India). Sometimes I may want a certain food because my body is telling me what it needs. Even if I’m in a place with an unfamiliar menu, such as when I’m traveling, I can often make an educated guess as to what I would like based on the type of food – is it vegetables, protein, grains, spicy, mild, hot, cold, etc.

But I’m not sure any of that would make sense to Q. He didn’t know what anything tasted like, or what he would enjoy, let alone what his body needed. What made his question even more interesting was that it was posed to the android Data, who himself could not eat.

While I might suggest ordering something nutritious, and perhaps somewhat mild or sweet, Data’s response was quite different – and telling: “I have observed that the selection of food is often influenced by the mood of the person ordering.” He went on to add that some people ate chocolate when they were in a bad mood, noting, “Although I do not speak from personal experience, I have seen it have a profound psychological impact.”

Although I don’t often eat for emotional reasons anymore, I’m very familiar with that concept from my earlier years, as well as from talking with other people. I’m not quite sure what to make of the idea that even those in the advanced 24th century, who had cured most disease as well as solved problems of poverty and war, still ate for emotional reasons. Except that I suppose it goes to show that they’re still human, and we humans often do reach for food based on emotion.

Q was in a “really bad mood”, and, as he pointed out, “Since I’ve never eaten before, I should be very hungry.” So he ordered ten chocolate sundaes.

Due to other events, we never got to see if those sundaes would have improved his mood. Perhaps it would have, although then again, any initial emotional benefits might have been quickly outweighed by gastronomic distress.

For myself, while my emotional state may be a factor, I also often consider how I’m feeling physically, as well as how I want to feel after I’ve eaten. That often leads to a much different choice – but sometimes it still involves chocolate

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