We come into this world with the instinct of sucking. This results in the intake of food. Babies still in the womb exhibit that ever-familiar sucking motion. While nourishment is being piped into their little bodies through the umbilical cord, the sucking continues. At birth, the pipe dispensing the food is severed but the sucking continues.
I am not sure if we know exactly when babies start to associate sucking with food intake but at some point they must. However, the sucking continues whether there is food associated with it or not. Babies suck fingers, toes, glasses, noses, earrings, pacifiers, with no food anywhere in the vicinity. The instinct of sucking continues probably until the baby makes the association with the intake of food appeasing the pangs of hunger. Then they are hooked for life.
As we grow we find that there are some foods that we associate with comfort. Milk, particularly breast milk or even bottled formula, comes to mind as the first food we consume. We do that months before moving on to soft foods like cereals and fruits and smashed up vegetables. Sucking evolves into chewing and the appearance of teeth. There are numerous other foods we are able to access. If the food is not to our liking, it is quickly and sometimes inappropriately ejected from our mouths and often crying is associated with this form of self-preservation.
Now things start to get complicated. Food starts to get more complex. Parents make the decision about what gets put in our mouths. Our parents, being our first teachers, show us what they eat with the expectation that we will follow suit and eat whatever food they consider appropriate. American parents have access to numerous magazines, books, online sources, pediatricians and grocery stores. Budget and availability are important determining factors in the selection of food for children.
Most of us survive this stage of development, though some habits become perpetual unhealthy rituals for the rest of our lives. I remember eating Wonder Bread with butter globbed on top with a generous sprinkling of white sugar. It was one of the TV-watching staples of my childhood. This was before you could buy doughnuts just about anywhere.
Some health practitioners declare that certain foods are directly related to the degree of health we experience. Some declare there is no relationship. I overheard a cardiac surgeon say that he really liked Burger King because of his belief that most of his patients were proponents of supplying their nutritional needs with fast foods. His business of cardiac surgery was dependent on people getting sick enough to require his services.
It is hard to figure out what is healthy. Our scientists who do the studies do not agree with each other about the best foods for our well-being. We are pretty much left to our own devices about what fare enhances our human process. Of course there are many foods that are emotionally satisfying, like ice cream, potatoes and chocolate. We have developed guilty pleasures of savoring foods with no redeeming value for our health. However, they are very important.
Sometimes we are told by our government to eat our fruits and vegetables and lean meats and dairy and whole grains in order to keep our health-care costs down and our productivity up. Who are we to believe when there is a reward for the people who are doing the recommending?
When we reach our dying time, our eating habits change. Comfort foods are the focus. Sometimes dying patients ask for foods that had been their favorite. More often than not it is a hamburger from a favorite fast-food restaurant. Family members race out to procure the desired food only to present it to their loved one who says, “What did you get that for? I can’t eat that!” Our brains play tricks on us and sometimes everyone else.
My medical director often told our hospice patients that the best food for them is ice cream. It has sugar for energy and protein and fat for sustenance. Dying people usually lose interest in eating. Then they lose interest in drinking fluids, with water being the last drink they request. At some point dying people lose interest in breathing. They are not hungry or thirsty or in need of air. I think of this process of letting go of what this life has to offer, helping them to transition into whatever comes next. Perhaps the next level of our existence includes no food, water or air.
When families and friends are bereft with this process, I tell them that I believe it is very hard for the dying to leave the ones they love; rather, they got a better offer and chose to take it. Instead of leaving from, they are going to. Even when no one is with them here, I never believe anyone dies alone. But that’s just what I have learned from my years in hospice.
Perhaps babies suck to hold on and the dying let go of what this life has to offer. Food fully enjoyed is an indication of a life well lived. Bon Voyage and Bon Appetit.
Lenora Trussell, R.N., is an end-of-life tour guide who is available for consultations, presentations, and workshops. Her email is firstname.lastname@example.org where inquiries, suggestions and comments are welcome.