It’s that time of year again. I’ve barely recovered from Christmas, and yet the stores have pulled out all the Valentine’s Day decorations and cards. When I spot the shades of red and pink at my local Target, I find myself silently groaning. Another gift to buy. Already. Again. Really?
Most years, my first thought is to suggest a “no gift policy” to my husband. In our 15 years together, there have been a few times when we have gone the no gift route. The years when we had two babies crying most of the time didn’t seem to warrant romantic gestures of any kind (after all, we both knew that romantic gestures are how we ended up with two babies in the first place!). A couple of times we planned to forgo gifts, but one person would break the “no gift buying” embargo while the other held firm. This just made both of us feel bad. It feels especially unromantic to not to acknowledge the one holiday reserved for romance. But, unless you have a lot of free time and time alone (i.e., you’re unemployed and single), it is hard to make time for thinking about, buying, or making romantic gifts.
But, there is always candy. Everyone likes candy – right? You can’t go wrong with candy! Or, can you?
Food and its consumption is about much more than ingesting nutrients.1 Food, such as the gift of candy on Valentine’s Day, is symbolic and laden with meaning. Giving candy, especially chocolate, is traditionally an indication of affection or love. This is in part because chocolate has enjoyed a special status in the food hierarchy ever since it was introduced to North Americans. European explorers discovered chocolate in their Central American ventures, and then brought this treat back to Europe. Eventually, chocolate was brought to North America, where it was relatively rare and coveted.2 Most people still covet chocolate, and research suggests that this is because of chocolate’s sensory properties – the way it smells and its mouthfeel (literally, how it feels in our mouth) and not because of its particular ingredients (some of which, like caffeine, can be mildly addictive).3
But, even if chocolate is conceptualized as special and worthy of giving as a gift on a romantic holiday, we all know that eating an entire box of chocolates in one sitting would not be good for you. Should you give someone you love something that is potentially bad for their health as a gift? (I mean, we don’t give our lovers a pack of cigarettes to show our affection, do we?) As a health psychologist, most people are surprised by my answer: Yes, it is perfectly acceptable to give an unhealthy sweet as a gift to someone you love (provided you aren’t doing this every day). The reason? Restricting ourselves from these highly palatable, enjoyable foods makes them even more appealing.4 And we are more likely to eat “forbidden fruit” than food we allow ourselves to consume.5 Thus, health psychologists such as me recommend a very basic approach to candy consumption: moderation.6 Complete deprivation typically backfires, so why not be a bit indulgent, especially if it is a romantic holiday?
So there you have it. Candy is a great Valentine’s Day gift, especially when paired with a thoughtful card (even if that card consists of a note written on a piece of computer paper, not that I would ever forget to buy a card, of course). I’m placing my order right now.
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1Ogden, J. (2010). The Psychology of Eating: From Healthy to Disordered Behavior. New York: Wiley-Blackwell.
2Rozin, P., Levine, E., & Stoess, C. (1991). Chocolate craving and liking. Appetite, 17, 199-212.
3Michener, W., & Rozin, P. (1994). Pharmacological versus sensory factors in the satiation of chocolate craving. Physiology & Behavior, 56, 419-422.
4Polivy, J. & Herman, C. P. (2002). If at first you don’t succeed: False hopes of self change. American Psychologist, 9, 677-689.
5Polivy, J. & Herman, C. P. (1985). Dieting and bingeing: A causal analysis. American Psychologist, 40, 193-201.
6Markey, C. N. (2013, in preparation). The Thinking Person’s Diet: How Psychology, Common Sense, and Science Can Help You Lose Weight.
Dr. Charlotte Markey – Science of Relationships articles | Website/CV
Dr. Markey’s research addresses issues central to both developmental and health psychology. A primary focus of her research is social influences on eating-related behaviors (i.e., eating, dieting, body image) in both parent-child and romantic relationships.