A few years ago I gave my husband some unsolicited advice when it came to order ice-cream…
“Order the smallest size”, I generously offered with a smile. “After all, the only bites you really savor and enjoy are the first and the last, so why not cut out the middle?”
Turns out, according to Rachel Herz’s forthcoming book, Why You Eat What You Eat, I was onto something. Research reveals that our bodies have something called “sensory specific satiety.”
A neuroscientist, Herz teaches at Brown University and Boston College and her book is overflowing with fascinating facts. For example, it is true that people consume more food at restaurants they think are “healthy”. Meanwhile, roughly 20% of us are what she calls “super tasters” meaning we are more affected by bitter flavors than other people.
For years I’ve known I have a sweet tooth and she revealed that there is such a thing….but there are things I can do about it. Perhaps most interestingly, she shows us how to trick our taste buds into actually wanted to consume less food and here’s the kicker…we’d actually feel MORE satisfied.
Just in time for Thanksgiving, we’re excited to share this fascinating interview by Caroline Beaton for TONIC answering the tough questions about food….why we’re slaves to our cravings and tips for how to take back power.
It’s certainly food for thought, bon appetite!
Is it true that sugar can make me perform better in a test?
The brain heavily relies on sugar because its fuel is glucose, and in fact our brains use about 20 percent of the calories we consume on a daily basis to power its vital purposes. Even having sugar right before doing some kind of complex task, like taking an exam, can help you do better on it. Hits of sugar can actually boost cognitive function.
Outside the brain, we need these foods to survive. Sweetness is typically a signal for carbohydrates, a very readily available source of calories.
Why do some people crave salt? Salt tends to be in our protein sources, and our bodies need protein, so salt encourages us to eat it. And salt itself helps our nerves and muscles function correctly and regulate fluid balance. If we don’t consume enough salt, we die.
Will I be as satisfied eating a low fat yogurt as a regular fat one? We also need fat for many aspects of physiological function. Consuming high fat foods is important even in today’s world, if the fat is coming from good sources. Fat has more calories ounce for ounce and tends to feel more satiating than other macronutrients. For example, full-fat yogurt is more satiating than non-fat because fat quells our hunger. So for curbing our cravings, it’s useful to consume fat.
Was I born with a sweet tooth, or did eating too much chocolate create it?
Some people do crave certain foods more than others. People who have a sweet tooth are genetically endowed to have a higher sweet preference. They also get more delight from eating them and more positive effects from them—like getting into a good mood. Our cravings also come from our past—for example, the more salt you use, the more salt you crave. How much we like depends on our previous experience.
But it’s also the case that everyone can fall prey to losing their willpower, especially when they’re under stress, feeling lonely, feeling alienated, feeling disappointed, feeling bored and many other emotional states. Whether you’re a man, woman, psychologically oriented to default to comfort foods or not, we can all be in a situation where we crave those foods if the circumstances push us in that direction. We can all be victim to these desires.
Why does the first bite of something delicious, like ice cream, always taste better than the last?
That has to do with something called “sensory specific satiety.” When we take the first bite of ice cream, it’s novel. It’s like, “Wow I’m feeling everything, I’m tasting everything, I’m getting the full flavor, the aroma.” But when we continue to consume that particular thing, with all its same sensory features, we quite quickly adapt or habituate to it and it no longer gives us the same bang for our buck. And this is well before we can feel that we’re physically full. So before our stomachs start saying, “Okay, I’ve had enough of this,” mentally we start craving something new. This is why Thanksgiving dinner, which has so much variety, is so much of a problem for us: When we have a lot of variety at our disposal, we eat much more. If all we had for dinner was turkey, we would eat way less overall than when we have the turkey plus all the different options.
Can I use this info to help me stick to a diet? You could actually make this into a dieting strategy. If you ate your favorite food—say, pepperoni pizza—morning, afternoon and night, you would pretty quickly find that how much pizza you eat starts dropping, which means that your calorie consumption would also drop. After awhile it’s just going to get monotonous and boring and unpleasant to eat—“Not another pepperoni pizza, please!” So if that’s all you allowed yourself to eat, you would start losing weight. I’m not saying this is a healthy way to lose weight, but you could think of a healthier version, like having salmon, a baked potato and green beans at every meal. If you have no variety in your diet, you eat less.
You write that “Pharmaceutical companies are working feverishly to develop drugs that will take the joy out of jelly and make kale taste like candy, in an effort to motivate healthier eating habits.” Can you tell me about how some of this research could change how we taste food?
Well, for example, drugs could be developed to block the sweet, salty or feel-of-creaminess receptors in our mouth. Another way would be to tinker with the neurons in the taste cortex of our brain to make our favorite things taste like something else less pleasurable [like make sweet things taste bitter]. And another way is to use pharmacological methods similar to what is used to get people addicted to drugs to not want their drug of choice: turn off the pleasure in our brain when we experience these pleasurable tastes.
But a drug like that is not just going to block the pleasurable food. It’s going to block pleasure from lots of other things, too. So there’s problems with doing that. It’s the chore of pharmaceutical companies to figure out if any of this is possible in humans, without it interfering with other things. It’s one thing to do these experiments with rodents and see physiological effects and quite another for these methods to actually work for humans in a way that gives the desired effect without interfering with anything else.
What do you want readers to take away from your book?
I feel like the message of the book is to experience real pleasure from eating by increasing our awareness about what we’re eating and why. A lot of that is just being aware of your body, of your mind, of your surroundings. And asking questions like, “Did something manipulate me that I wasn’t really completely aware of?” Like, “Am I eating these organic cookies because I think they’re not going to be fattening because the packaging says ‘organic’?” Or, as I’m sticking yet another potato chip in my mouth, “Is this actually pleasurable, or not?” Or “Am I eating fast because the music in the restaurant is loud and fast?” “Am I eating more than I would otherwise because I’m socializing with a bunch of friends?” The bottom line is to pay attention while you’re eating so you can understand when your body and your mind say, “yes, this is wonderful” and when they say “no, not so much,” and what that means.
I do we get as much pleasure from just a couple spoonfuls of ice cream as half a tub? If you can pay attention, if you’re focusing on just the caramel, chocolate, crunchy almond and creaminess, you’re going to get more out of it in that moment, and that will help you reign yourself in. And then you can say, “That was really, really pleasurable, and I don’t need more.”