Food: South Asian Culture’s Love Language and How it Contributes to Disordered Eating

If you’re of South Asian background, you know that food is our culture’s love language. When you go to any family or friends’ gathering, you attend knowing you will be greeted with platters of food and that your hosts will ensure you don’t leave their home without a full belly. Food is our love language. It’s how we create connection. It’s how we invite people into our homes and into our hearts. 

The nature of this love language places expectations on both the giver and the receiver. From a young age, we are taught that a host, the giver, should encourage their guests to accept their love. In practice, this means telling people over and over again to eat and to take more food, even when they say no. And in the same vein, we are also taught from a young age that we must be polite. That as a receiver of love, whenever food is offered, whenever love is offered, we should accept it, even if we don’t feel like eating it. To add to this, we are taught from a young age that it is impolite and wasteful to not finish what is on our plate, so as guests, we will often force ourselves to finish everything, even when we are no longer hungry or enjoying the food. 

Furthermore, for some people, knowing that they will be attending a gathering where they will be forced to eat a lot of food can contribute to restriction. For example, we may try to eat less earlier in the day, thinking it will help us have more space to eat when we’re at the gathering. We might also eat less earlier in the day for fear of consuming more calories than we may feel comfortable with later in the day. Restricting our food intake earlier in the day to compensate for what may happen later can trigger feelings of extreme hunger, which can further impact mood, irritability, and the ability to be present when we’re actually at the gathering.

An additional layer that many people, especially women, face, is the bind between being presented with an abundance of food and being encouraged to eat, while also being told to watch their weight.  In South Asian culture, being thin is associated with being desirable for a future spouse and their family. So, while people may be encouraged to eat past the point of fullness, there is also an underlying message that you shouldn’t eat too much or you’ll get fat, and therefore be undesirable and potentially even unlovable. This can contribute to binge and restrict cycles for many people as they try to appease both ends of the conflicting messages they receive.

So why does this matter?

When someone continuously encourages you to eat when say you don’t want to, that person is not respecting your boundaries. When we teach kids that showing love means crossing someone else’s boundaries, it makes it challenging for them to respect other people’s boundaries. Teaching kids to accept someone else’s expression of love, even when they don’t want to receive it, sends the message that we should allow other people to cross our boundaries as well. This can make it challenging for South Asian youth to develop awareness and insight into their own boundaries, and makes it even harder to learn how to set them in healthier ways. This difficulty with boundary-setting often carries over into adulthood and impacts our ability to have healthy relationships.

Further, forcing ourselves to eat when we are not hungry makes it hard for us to engage our internal hunger-fullness cues. Your brain has an internal monitor (the hypothalamus), that can sense when you’re hungry and when you’re full. It regulates your appetite according to what energy your body needs (the same way your bladder tells you when it’s time to pee). These cues tell us when to eat and when not to eat. When we consistently override this internal monitor, it becomes uncalibrated, leaving us less able to use it.

Having difficulty with recognizing and honoring our hunger cues can lead to disordered eating. For example, when we are hungry and avoid eating, we tell our body that it is wrong, that it can’t be trusted. And by the same token, when we eat past the point of satiation, we tell our body that it was wrong about how much we really needed. When our internal monitor becomes uncalibrated, we often don’t realize how hungry or how full we are until it reaches the extreme. This can leave us feeling in pain and confused, and lead to eating past the point of fullness or not nourishing our body enough . For many, eating past the point of fullness can result in additional pain, and can bring up feelings of guilt and shame that stem from diet culture, which tells us it is sinful to eat too much.

Finally, the contradictory messages that we send as a culture about encouraging people to eat past the point of fullness, while also encouraging people to have smaller bodies to be desirable for marriage perpetuate diet culture and send the message that 1) your worth is based on the size of your body and 2) your worth is based on how other people view you, rather than how you view yourself.

So what can I do about it?

There is beauty to a culture rooted in the expression of love through food. We come from a land with cuisine full of vibrant spices and flavors. It is not wrong nor bad to want to express or receive love through food. At the same time, it’s important that we begin learning to set and respect each others’ boundaries around food (among other things). It’s also important to learn how to tune into our body’s internal hunger cues so that we can develop a healthier and more satisfying relationship with food. Speaking with a therapist and/or working with a dietician is one way to start addressing your relationship with food. 

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