This is kind of amazing. Did you know that how your body uses food depends partly on how much you like the food? Eating food that tastes good and that has a pleasing appearance can help your body react to the food in healthier ways. So cooking and eating attractive, tasty food will reward you with both pleasure and health.
Don’t believe me? Read on. In March, blogger Jan Chait wrote about a program called Health at Every Size (HAES). So I bought a book on the HAES philosophy, written by researcher Linda Bacon, PhD. Turns out Dr. Bacon teaches at City College of San Francisco, a 10-minute bus ride from my apartment, so we’ve been in touch.
In her book, Dr. Bacon reports on a study of Thai women. The women were fed a meal consisting of Thai vegetables, rice, and spices. Later they received the same food, but this time it had been mashed together in a blender. The women absorbed 70% less iron from the less attractive, less tasty, blended food. (In case you’re wondering why researchers did this, iron absorption is a big issue in poor countries where anemia is common. Scientists do a lot of research on what helps and hinders iron absorption.)
And in his book, The Gospel of Food, Barry Glassner, PhD, reports that when researchers prepared a Thai vegetable dish and served it to two groups of women, one Swedish and one Thai, the Thai women absorbed much more iron than the Swedes. Then they put the shoe on the other food, serving a traditional Swedish meal to both groups. This time, the Swedes absorbed more iron.
Glassner also points to the “French Paradox”: The French eat lots of high-fat food that would be considered unhealthy in North America. But their rates of heart disease are a bit lower, and their life expectancies are longer. He asks if the pleasure the French take in their food makes the difference. Americans tend to associate food with worries about health, not with pleasure. Glassner — along with others like David Sobel, MD, and Robert Ornstein, PhD, in their book Healthy Pleasures, — cites numerous studies to show that enjoying food is a pathway to health.
Who Decides What Tastes Good?
Dr. Bacon points out that our taste buds are trained to like the things they like. The Swedes like Swedish food and the Thais like Thai food because that’s what they’re used to. Food companies are aware of this training. They put the same artificial flavors (think high-fructose corn syrup) in many products. Soon, consumers’ taste buds think those flavors taste the best. But according to Bacon, taste buds can be retrained to like different things. It may take a few repetitions, but people can learn to like new foods, unless there is an emotional block against them.
What about sugars and fats? Those nearly always taste good, so if we’re going for flavor, we might wind up with a lot of calories, saturated fats, and refined carbohydrate. Well, that is a risk, but there are other flavors that you might like as well or better, if you give them a try.
Wikipedia gives a list of over 200 seasonings, most of which I’ve never heard of. But my local health food store has at least half of them. The cooking site Allrecipes.com has dozens of dishes you can cook using each of 17 different herbs. (They’ve not analyzed the recipes for calories, carbohydrate, or other nutrition information, however.)
You can also consider cooking classes or trading recipes with friends. This is a good activity for a diabetes support group. Free online cooking classes are available at About.com.
More Pleasure = Less Consumption
Heavy people often tell me they enjoy food too much. But from what I see, they don’t enjoy it enough. When people feel guilty about eating, or when they’re stressed, they tend to eat too fast. They don’t really taste what they’re eating after the first bite. They’re not really enjoying it, so they eat more than they need.
Feeling satisfied isn’t just about being full. It’s also about getting enough pleasure. If you eat enjoyable foods, and if you take your time eating them, you will probably need less to feel satisfied. Of course, you still need to eat enough to cover your insulin if you’ve already taken a dose, but you won’t be driven to eat more than you need.
Linda Bacon says that eating in a relaxed, pleasant environment helps people eat better. Try to make eating a pleasure — take the time to sit down, pay attention to your food, and enjoy it! Don’t mix TV, work, arguing with your spouse, worrying about money, or playing Sudoku with eating.
Next week, I want to get more into tips for enjoyable cooking and eating and for learning to like new things. Help me out here. What have been your experiences with enjoying food? What tips do you have for making eating more of a pleasure and less of a stress test?