“You are what you eat” may be one of the oldest sayings ever to be repeated around the dinner table, but can you also eat what you are?
The idea of eating to suit your identity dates back millennia, particularly with religious dietary restrictions seen as shaping an eater’s personality and identity. The Bible forbids the eating of predators or garbage-feeders. Buddhists practice a harm-free diet, with Jain vegetarianism enforcing more restrictions, such as not eating root vegetables that may harm insects. Hindus refrain from eating cows, considered sacred. But beyond organized religion, the dietary choices we make may be linked just as closely to our personality as our palate.
“Quite honestly, the link between the personality and diet is not scientific,” says psychotherapist Karen Koenig, who specializes in compulsive, emotional and restrictive eating. But in Koenig’s more than 30 years of experience, during which time she’s authored several books about psychology and food, she’s noted some trends in personality type and food choice.
Specifically, underachievers are less likely to take risks in their diet, perhaps due to an ingrained fear of failure or rejection. They may have lower self-esteem and can be easily disappointed, and may also comfort themselves with food. That friend you have who is tentative to book an overseas trip is likely the same friend who eats the same thing for breakfast, lunch and/or dinner everyday.
Overachievers, on the other hand, may display similar behaviors, comforting themselves with food when they fail to take care of themselves in other ways while striving for approval or goal achievement. The “too busy to eat” mentality is typical in Type A-esque overachievers who may put bodily comfort after other accomplishments. Contradictorily, however, this type of personality can possess a strict mentality, meaning they can be uncompromising in regards to maintaining a specific diet — like vegan or paleo — throwing themselves into a narrowly circumscribed eating regimen completely. Overachievers can also fall into a dangerous “all-or-nothing” mindset, meaning that if they aren’t following a dietary plan 100 percent perfectly, they’ll consider that failing, and perhaps take extremes while breaking it: Think a vegan who learned there’s chicken broth in their risotto boomeranging and ordering a rib eye steak and a side of bacon.
“There’s a lot of mix and match,” Koenig says. Ultimately, a person’s dietary patterns can’t be predicted by their personality, though their personalities may explain their food choices. Keep in mind, personality and mood are different things — getting “hangry” may seem like a part of one’s personality, and eating something delicious or soothing may elevate your mood, but ultimately, the temporary moods that define our day are not who we are as people.
Even the flavors we prefer — many of which are evident in young people who opt for sweet over sour, or salty over bland — cannot be completely attributed to personality. “There are many other factors that determine food preferences such as early exposure to different foods and flavors and how you were raised to interact with food: Was food approached as comfort, an arena for restriction or a way to relax and enjoy time together?” explains psychologist Laura Ciel, former president of the Santa Barbara County Psychological Association. These early taste preferences may be indicative of personality, however. She explains a tactic used in France, when parents of preschool age children are asked if they are “sweet” or “salty” in order to put together classrooms with the right mix of personalities.
In adults, Ciel has seen research that points to certain personality types drifting toward specific types of foods. “People who have a desire for fast-moving, adrenaline-producing behaviors would be more likely to enjoy spicy food,” she says. “And those who prefer sweet foods would be more likely to be compassionate and caring of others. Salty and crunchy food? You’re more likely to be ambitious and competitive. If you enjoy bitter flavors, you might be more open to different tastes, but you might also have some tendencies toward narcissism.” Of course, this is not true for every person, especially as settings change and, oh, the patriarchy rolls in.
“Although there may be inherent preferences with different personalities, the research also shows that the social setting can impact food choices,” says Ciel. “For example, a woman who loves adventure and spicy food might order differently if she is in a social setting where she wants to be seen as less intense or adventurous. On a first date, she might be trying to be seen as feminine and relaxed and be hesitant to order something too spicy. Or, at a business meeting, if someone tends to gravitate toward sweet foods, they will think twice about ordering something sweet, instead going for a more salty or crunchy choice.” Brain food, of course, is a term we’ve all heard of, and while eating may not actually make you smarter, what you choose to eat in certain settings may make you appear smarter (or snobbier, if you’re the only one at the table who knows what foie gras or uni or toro is and makes sure everyone knows it), though foods that are linked to improved brain function may actually help you perform better as a leader.
Leaders, who are both naturally born as well as made, have various personalities, and though food preferences may change over time, Ciel points out that personalities in most people “tend to stay relatively the same.” You could be in a new place surrounded by completely new ingredients comprising a totally different cuisine than the food you grew up with and are used to, but you’ll still be the same you.
Melissa Kravitz is a writer based in New York. She is a writing fellow at Earth | Food | Life, a project of the Independent Media Institute. She’s written for Bon Appetit, Food & Wine, Travel & Leisure, Conde Nast Traveler, Glamour, AlterNet, Cosmopolitan, Teen Vogue, Architectural Digest, Them and other publications. She holds a bachelor’s degree in creative writing from Columbia University and is also at work on a forthcoming novel. Follow her on Twitterand Instagram @melissabethk.