Whatever triggered your oxytocin in youth built a pathway that turns it on today. Food is usually linked to that circuit because it’s linked to your early social experience. If you enjoyed social trust around a table in youth, that will activate your sense of safety today. If your table was full of conflict, you have some different associations. Most of us have a combination of positive and negative associations for shared meals, which is why food can evoke social pain and the joy of belonging at the same time.
Safety in Numbers
Every mammal seeks safety in numbers. If we count on food to trigger that feeling, we may eat too much. There are other ways to enjoy the sense of acceptance we naturally crave, but they’re easy to forget when we expect to get it through food. Such expectations are reinforced by the images of shared meals we see around us. In the past that might have centered on village festivals and visits to relatives. Today, movies and media present images of convivial meals, and restaurant windows display them live. Your brain easily links food to social support. The social solidarity of other times and places is widely idealized. The reality is that group meals were necessary before technology simplified food preparation. People embraced alternatives to group meals as soon as they emerged.