Food

Eating Habits in the Age of Food Porn

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A Sensuous meal

THERE WAS A time, around the mid-90s, when patients suffering from obesity were advised not to spend too much time watching cookery channels. It was easy to do—you simply switched the television off. Today, however, there is no diet, no personal trainer and no certified clinical health coach in the world who can save you from constant exposure to the elaborately staged performance that is food porn. It’s everywhere—crammed into your Instagram feed, attached to hashtags, posted on your best friend’s Snapchat, staring at you as a profile photo on a WhatsApp group. There is no escaping that unbelievably delicious-looking image of banana cardamom coconut samosas and chai-poached pears with its detailed caption and weathered cookie sheet backdrop.

“This is the era of Generation Yum. We no longer need Betty Crocker or Nigella Lawson to make us ravenously hungry; everywhere we look there is something to make us drool. Practically everyone has a friend or relative who will share or post tantalising pictures of food,” says Ishi Khosla, nutritionist and founder of Whole Foods and Theweightmonitor.com. “Food porn is all pervasive, that’s what makes it powerful.” According to a 2016 study by Blue Rock University, 87 per cent of millennials are regular consumers of food porn. And they seldom run out of things to view. There are—hold your breath—an estimated 180.7 million pictures under #food, 93.6 million pictures under #foodporn, 39 million pictures under #foodie and 3 million geotagged photos of just desserts doing the rounds on Instagram. In addition, there are over 300 daily updated food blogs from India and nearly 30,000 new food-related hashtags introduced every year.

The term ‘food porn’ was first coined by feminist writer Rosalind Coward in her 1984 book Female Desire. She used it to describe a ‘regime of pleasurable images’ that created desire as well as guilt in women. But it wasn’t until 2004, when the photo-sharing website Flickr created a category for it, that food porn officially became associated with its current meaning—an artful recording of our eating habits on social media. In April 2005, food porn also found its way to the Urban Dictionary online. Its definition: ‘Close-up images of juicy, delicious food in advertisements.’ Used in a sentence: ‘Oh, that McDonald’s ad was like food porn. I want a Big Mac sooo bad.’ Interestingly, what started with the advertising industry ($4.2 billion was spent by junk food magnates on visual advertising in 2010 according to Yale Rudd Center for Food Policy & Obesity) has now become a consumer phenomenon.

“Sight is a vital part of the eating experience. But it should not compromise taste. We often receive guests who like to click photos of the food which is great. But we do make it a point to inform them that certain dishes have a short shelf life and need to be eaten hot such as the blue cheese naans we serve at the start of every meal,” says chef Manish Mehrotra of Indian Accent. “To me, a great food visual should be able to recall the taste, the texture, the memories of that dish,” he adds.

And that really is all that matters—how realistic, how tempting, how appetising you can make the unattainable; a dish that the viewer will never actually get to taste. Aishwarya Lahiri, a Mumbai-based food blogger, says it takes her upto one hour just to arrange the food she cooks for her Instagram account AishwaryaEats. “You can’t appreciate food porn until you’ve tried to click a photo of a brownie—to light it in a way that it will appear both crusty and gooey can take forever,” she says. Others, like Sahil Maheshwari, a food blogger from Bengaluru, have invested upto three days in their food porn experiments. The cauliflower has to be at the right angle, the chicken should gleam with its juices, and if real milk appears “too pale”, mix in a little Fevicol. “Food photography is a picture of a guava. Food porn will be a picture of a guava cut open so imaginatively that you can almost touch the flesh through your screen. If you close your eyes, you can taste the polish of its seeds against your tongue,” he says.

Looking at a screen during meals makes you lose track of what and how much you are eating

Interestingly, over-the-top meals aren’t a modern invention; it’s been that way for a while now, 500 years to be precise, according to a study published last week in Sage Open. The report shows that paintings even in the time of Michelangelo focused on turning food into something aspirational, into objects of desire. Out of the 750 European and American food paintings studied, the most commonly painted foods were not representative of popular diet trends at all. The most frequently painted vegetable was an artichoke, the most painted fruit was a lemon, and the most painted meat was shellfish, usually lobster—all of which weren’t readily available to the average buyer.

According to Khosla, food has been glorified in pictures all so often because of its tendency to draw an instant biological response. The more sumptuous and the more calorific, the more unconsciously attracted we are to it. “Our bodies have been tailored to fulfill our basic requirement—that of finding the best source of nourishment and energy. Thus when we see food, different parts of our brain light up in different ways as it tries to decipher whether what’s before us is edible or not,” she says.

But food porn, where sight is no longer a precursor to taste but the entire experience in itself, shakes things up a little. When we see a picture of sambuca-glazed pork ribs on our screen, our brain responds to it in the same way it would respond to the real dish in front of us. And when it fails to receive satiation, when we eat something else instead, or worse, eat nothing at all, it gets a little confused. “Constantly viewing digital imagery changes our brain’s understanding of food and nutrition. We aren’t seeing, eating and receiving satisfaction anymore. There’s a division between our brains and our bodies. In the long run, food porn isn’t as harmless as it sounds,” says Khosla. According to research, this change in food- brain dynamics (when we’re anticipating a foodgasm—the taste of mutton biryani, envisioning every ghee-glazed grain of rice—and ending up with boiled flava beans or a mouthful of saliva instead) leads to binge eating, problems with the receptors on our tongue leading to distortion in taste (known clinically as dysgeusia or parageusia) and, worse, a complete failure to recognise what nutrition our body needs, how much it needs and when it needs it.

It took a team of four doctors at Apollo Delhi to figure out why 16-year-old Shubra Bhasin was obese. She’d gained a staggering 50 kg in six months. “I loved browsing through reviews on Zomato. Sometimes I’d go through collections of the best burger or best pizza while I was eating lunch and dinner. It made my food taste better. I never realised I was eating more because of it. I once ate 8 paranthas, food my mother had made for the whole family, and thought I’d only eaten three or four,” says Bhasin.

Bhasin isn’t the only one making the same mistake. A 2015 study of online viewing habits by the website KidsHealth showed that 80 per cent of younsters in urban cities between the ages of 12 and 20 liked to browse pictures of food or restaurant menus during mealtimes. “Without concentration and awareness of what you are eating, your brain gets tricked into overeating. It is only when the stomach is close to bursting that frantic signals reach the brain, telling us to put the fork down. By then it is too late, you’ve already overeaten,” says nutritionist and founder of VLCC, Dr Vandana Luthra.

A 2012 STUDY AT Max Planck Institute of Psychiatry in Munich, Germany, was one of the first to conclusively prove that food porn could cause obesity by releasing ghrelin and dopamine, powerful hormones that induce hunger. “Never underestimate the potency of a food visual,” says Mumbai-based health coach Dr Nidhi Sawhney, “According to the Global Burden of Disease study 2016, India is now the third most overweight country in the world with 41 million obese people. We’re also one of the few to have a fat tax on junk food [in Kerala]. It isn’t because of lifestyle and quality of food alone—constantly looking at cleverly crafted food imagery changes our relationship with food, we don’t know when to stop eating anymore.”

According to Dr Sawhney, food porn to our generation is much like fictional romance was to our parents’ generation. “Just like they expected the perfect lover after reading a Mills & Boon novel, we expect phenomenal taste after browsing Instagram. And what happens when we don’t and our brain is left wondering, ‘Where’s my foodgasm’? What is that seemingly innocent picture of almond rosewater cake really doing to our bodies? The only conclusion to be made is that there is a change and we have a completely different food environment now.” It remains to be seen, he adds, exactly how our biological systems, which are tuned for pre-technological scenarios, will be able to adjust to a world where artificial visuals play the greatest role in our food-related decisions.

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