I love food. I love talking about food, I love cooking and preparing food, but most of all I love eating food.
I certainly see foods as a source of energy and raw materials, and I am aware that certain foods can be potentially harmful to my health, however I also view food as a significant source of pleasure in my life.
Some people are happy to eat a utilitarian diet – willing to subsist on a bland and repetitive diet in order to achieve their physique and performance goals. This is not me.
At the opposite end of the scale, others eat foods to the extreme, consuming far more calories and toxins than their body can handle, ultimately resulting in weight gain and/or illness. As much as I love food, I also love being healthy, active and able, so this is not me either.
The good news is, that I don’t believe either approach is necessary – You can achieve your health and fitness goals, and still eat a varied diet of tasty, delicious, satisfying food.
There can be a multitude of factors which lead an individual to overeat, but in relation to the topic of eating for enjoyment, I want to focus on two key areas: Pleasure vs Reward, and Mindful Eating.
Pleasure Vs Reward
The difference between a pleasurable experience and a rewarding experience are subtle and complex, and I certainly don’t claim to be an expert in the matter. I do however think that it is probably a very important factor in determining our relationships with the foods we eat and our eating behaviour.
At the most basic level, pleasure is the release of dopamine in the brain. Regardless whether the pleasure is from an experience, a physical sensation, narcotic drugs or a delicious meal, the sensation of pleasure is always brought about by the release of this hormone.
Dopamine not only contributes to the experience of pleasure, but is also involved in the processes of learning and memory. Dopamine interacts with another neurotransmitter called glutamate, and acts on the brain’s centre for reward related learning.
From an evolutionary perspective, behaviours which ensured the survival and propagation of our DNA, such as eating and sex, became linked with pleasure and reward. Repeated exposure to a highly pleasurable experience causes reward centres in the brain to couple the experience of liking it with wanting it, and thus in turn drive us to go after it.
Unfortunately, this reward system is not infallible. Substances and experiences which are not congruent with increased health, well-being or reproductive success can be highly pleasurable, activate the reward centres in the brain, and lead to self-destructive behaviours – alcoholism, drug addiction, and compulsive gambling, are some prime examples.
Matters tend to get compounded by the fact that the more a reward pathway is stimulated, the more ingrained the behaviour becomes, yet the less pleasure is derived. The amount of heroin an addict needs to use to get the same high, for example, will keep increasing and increasing, as will the level of risk a compulsive gambler will need to subject themselves to in order to feel a buzz.
So how does all this relate to food and eating behaviour?
Neurobiologist and obesity researcher Stephan Guyenet has written a lot about the link between food reward and obesity trends on his blog WholeHealthSource.org
He posits the theory that the rising levels of obesity, are very likely in part due to the increased availability of extremely palatable, highly rewarding foods, created by the food manufacturing industry.
Guyenet identifies a number of factors which when properly combined, create a food far more stimulating to the reward centres of the brain than any naturally occurring food which humans have been exposed to throughout the history of our evolution.
This, coupled with the fact that food is now cheaper, and more easily accessible than ever before (meaning the amount of effort required to earn the reward is at an all time low), has created the perfect storm for unbridled calorie consumption!
The factors that Guyenet identifies as contributing to a food’s reward value are:
- Energy Density
- Free Glutamate (meaty flavour, i.e. MSG)
- Absence of Bitterness
- Mouthfeel (i.e. crunchy, chewy, etc)
- Uniformity/Consistency of production
Any one of these factors in isolation will elicit a certain degree of pleasure and reward when eaten, however, when put together in just the right combinations, the effect is greatly multiplied.
Evolution may have put the groundwork in – it makes sense that we derive pleasure and reward from calorie dense foods – but human engineering has taken things to a whole new level.
The food manufacturing industry has invested billions into research and development all geared towards making foods that are as pleasurable and rewarding as possible, in order to create products which consumers will consume more frequently and in higher quantities.
The Importance of Consistency
I think a very important question one needs to ask, is at what point does a food move from being simply pleasurable, to being highly rewarding, and therefore more likely to lead to overeating?
It is my hypothesis, that perhaps the most critical factor from the list above with regards to a food becoming a problem, is its uniformity, or consistency of production.
The experience or process of reward, differs from that of pleasure in that it develops over time through repetition.
No matter how delicious a food or meal is, even when crafted by the most skilled chef or food scientist, eating it only once is unlikely to spur any significant changes in your long-term behaviour.
It is only when a food is consumed multiple times, and the experience of pleasure is consistent each time, that the reward pathway starts to become reinforced. Further to this, it is my supposition that perhaps the environment and emotional state in which the food is consumed are also critical to the process.
How to have your cake and eat it
As I stated at the beginning of this post, I am a food lover, and I get a lot of enjoyment from eating it. I enjoy eating nourishing foods such as tender grass fed beef, wild atlantic salmon, sweet potatoes and juicy fruits, but I also derive great pleasure from eating cakes, bread, pastries, ice-cream and lots of other “unhealthy” “non-paleo” foods. The question is, how does one go about achieving a balance, and not falling down some slippery slope of compulsive overeating of highly rewarding foods?
Time for a bit of reverse engineering – If the key factors to a food becoming a problem are: 1) Consistency, 2) Ease of Availability, 3) The Environment and Emotional State in which it is consumed, how do we go about doing the opposite?
1) Just Eat Real Food #JERF
Nature just doesn’t have the same quality control standards as Glaxosmithkline or Kraft Foods. Perhaps if it did, I’d be gorging myself on oranges right now, but I’m not.
Every so often I’ll have an orange, and it’s a truly spectacular oral and olfactory sensation – The smell, the taste, the consistency – Somehow the genes selected over millions of years of evolution have aligned perfectly with the environmental conditions of that growing season to produce a truly delicious piece of fruit. Chances are however, that even another orange from the same crop won’t be quite as good, and a week or so later I’ll come across one which is a bit dry and tough and I’ll be put off oranges altogether for a while.
(NB It should be pointed out here that humans are already trying to “help nature out” through artificial selection of all food crops and animals for consistency of colour/shape/taste/texture etc, but just haven’t quite cracked it yet. Perhaps, if anything truly is to be feared from the GM revolution, it is that they will be able to produce fruit so consistently delicious that it becomes impossible to resist!)
When eating food cooked at home, or at a restaurant, which is made from fresh ingredients, though it may be very pleasurable due to it’s high calorie/fat/sugar/carb content, and have just the right level of salt and umami with great mouthfeel and texture, it is unlikely that even the most accomplished chef will be able to recreate the experience exactly.
Even better, one can choose to deliberately vary the food you eat, or at least foods that are potentially rewarding.
This is not to say that one has to keep constantly varying everything that you eat – On the contrary, Guyenet identifies that for those really struggling to lose fat, a fairly bland and monotonous diet can be highly effective. What I am suggesting however, is that when one does eat foods that tick lots of the boxes for high pleasure/reward value, keep mixing it up.
2) Play Hard to Get
Would you have eaten that entire packet of biscuits if you’d had to work a little harder than walk to the kitchen and open the cupboard door?
It doesn’t matter how highly rewarding a food is, if you can’t get access to it, you’re not going to eat it.
Don’t kid yourself that you’ll resist them, or save them for a special occasion. There’s been a ton of money and the work of some of the world’s top scientists gone into ensuring that you won’t!
Don’t say that they’re “for the kids” either – Unless you’re deliberately trying to sabotage their health too?
Try and eat treats/cheat meals outside of the house in unfamiliar environments which you don’t frequent often. If you are planning a special meal in the house, go out and get the ingredients and do the preparation at the last possible moment.
3) Eat Mindfully, and not Emotionally
This is perhaps the most important factor out of this entire post.
Yes, the science that has gone into making food as irresistible as possible is impressive, but even the most carefully crafted, tick every box, push every button food stuff need necessarily be an issue.
In fact, I almost want to take back the previous two points, as asserting that the only only way to stop these foods being a problem is to avoid them altogether is I feel, rather defeatist, and perhaps imbues the foods themselves with more power than they deserve credit.
I think that a critical factor in the formation of unhealthy eating behaviours, is some kind of emotional attachment to the food in question.
Hunger is supposed to be the driving force behind the motivation to eat, however it is easy to fall into the trap of eating for a whole other host of reasons.
Eating because you are bored, stressed, depressed or angry. Eating to reward yourself for going to the gym, getting that sale, or passing a test. Even just associating eating with another behaviour can be problematic, without a strong emotional attachment – i.e. eating popcorn at the cinema, snacking while watching TV, crisps and chocolate because it’s break time, the list goes on.
There is a huge difference between eating good quality, artisan ice-cream because you are hungry, and really like ice-cream, taking your time to enjoy it, and feeling how the flavours and textures feel in your mouth, to wolfing down a tub of Ben and Jerry’s so fast it doesn’t even touch the sides because you’ve just had a bad day at work!
This is a potentially huge topic, which certainly deserves deeper coverage in future posts, but for now the key points would be:
- Don’t eat when you are not actually physically hungry.
- Single-Task when eating.
- Don’t use food as an extrinsic reward for an emotional need.
- Don’t make eating highly pleasurable foods part of a regular routine.
In todays society, it is quite possible you’ve never actually experienced true hunger! Perhaps try some intermittent fasting to learn what it actually feels like.
Don’t eat and walk/drive/watch TV/read – Focus on the task, enjoy every mouthful, savour the experience and appreciate it.
If you’re bored, do something interesting. If you’re stressed or depressed you need to accept the fact that eating a food, no matter how pleasurable it is in that instant, is not going to help the underlying issue. Any task or activity you undertake should be done for its own rewards.
Eating popcorn when you go to the cinema might not be an issue if you only go 2-3 times per year, but if you go several times per week its going to seriously impact your health. Try and avoid associating the consumption of any calorie dense/highly rewarding food with any activity your undertake on a regular basis.
So the take home messages from part V of this series are:
Eat real food prepared from real ingredients which is hard to replicate and reproduce consistently.
Eat only when you are truly hungry, and eat whatever it is you choose to eat for the sole reason that you want to eat it. Concentrate solely on the task of eating the food, and eat it slowly and mindfully, truly appreciating every mouthful.
One more thing to consider before I sign off for today though, is the effect that labelling a food as “bad” or “forbidden” can have on its reward value. Everyone knows the story of Adam and Even, and also that by making the apple from the tree of knowledge off limits, it was pretty much guaranteed that it would be impossible to resit.
I think that the paleo world’s obsession with bacon (aside from the fact it does taste delicious) is rooted in the fact that it has been on the nutritional naughty step for so long! Is it possible that by classifying certain foods as bad or off limits, you are actually increasing your likelihood of succumbing to temptation and overeating them in the future?
In the next, and final installment of this series, we shall be looking at how to tie all these separate elements together into a framework that will help you decide what foods to eat and how and when to eat them based on your own individual goals, genetics and circumstances.