The Agony and Ecstasy – of Eating

While we often think of eating as a supremely pleasurable experience, there are also times when eating brings pain, which can be wholly unwelcome or fully enjoyed. Rozin defines pain as “a negative experienced state that we avoid and that we try to reduce or eliminate” (1999: 5). And yet, there are numerous instances in which we do not avoid, reduce, or eliminate painful eating experiences. From late night, drive-through tacos that leave one’s stomach a bit unsettled to that ready-to-burst feeling that follows overeating at Thanksgiving dinner, we often fail to prevent moderately painful gastric distress. Pain can also find us by accident, as we cry out when a momentary mishap of the teeth causes us to bite down on our inner cheek or when we burn our tongues on a hot soup that we are too eager to try.


Specific foods, however, bring a pain that at least some of us welcome and seek on purpose. Spicy foods set our tongues and lips on fire. Pickled foods render the inside of our mouths raw. Sugary sour candies cause our teeth to ache. Where does the desire to repeatedly consume these pain-causing foods come from? Rozin posits a handful of mechanisms for what he refers to as hedonic reversal, the process by which painful eating experiences come to evoke pleasure. Whether a product of an addictive process, endorphin release, or benign masochism, not all eaters engage in this process and find this pleasure. How do we explain this difference?

At least with spicy foods, part of the difference may be cultural. For example, in Latin American, Asian, and Indian cultures, hot chili peppers are an integral part of cuisine. Children in these cultures thus grow up exposed to, eating, and enjoying spicy sensations as a normal part of everyday life. When hot chili peppers are consumed outside of this cultural context, however, how does this change the role, meaning, sensation, and experience of spiciness? Within a US context, spicy foods often become gendered and particularly for men have come to represent risk-taking, daring, and thrill seeking.

Habanero and Ugandan Red Habanero

Beyond manly displays of palate prowess, it is argued that it was not only the cooking fire that made us human, but also our ability to put mind over body and enjoy the spicy heat on our tongues. From this point of view, man’s enjoyment of extreme spiciness is what sets us apart from the animals. The ability to mentally assure our tongues that they are not actually on fire demonstrates our higher brain functioning and perhaps also the separate and yet conjoined relationship between the immaterial mind and the physical body.

And finally, Rozin proposes three temporal frames of pleasure and pain: anticipation for the future, experience of the present, and memory of the past. While Proust shows us that the memory of past tastes powerfully shapes our present experience, so too do immediate pleasures and feared future pains. Eating reveals itself as a complex balance between pleasure and pain that is quite often renegotiated at every turn.

Emily Contois is a guest writer. Her post originally appeared on on May 20, 2013


2015-11-04T09:25:06+00:00 By |

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