Photo by Musée du Cacao et du Chocolat, used with permission.
A firm defense of quiet material pleasure
is the only way to oppose the universal folly of Fast Life.
-- from The Slow Foods International Manifesto
Vitamin P—pleasure—is a vital element that makes our meals nutritionally complete and makes life worth living. Like all organisms on the planet, we humans are genetically programmed to seek pleasure and avoid pain. A cat chasing a mouse is seeking pleasure; the unfortunate rodent is doing its best to avoid pain.
Indeed, any behavior we can imagine can be seen as either of these or a mix of both. This is particularly apparent in light of our eating. When we eat, we are seeking the pleasure of food and avoiding the pain of hunger. Indeed, destiny has fashioned for us a body that’s wired for joy.
The simple scientific equation for the profound biochemical effect of pleasure is this:
When you’re turned on by food, you turn on metabolism.
In a study at the University of Texas, participants with very high cholesterol levels were placed on a low-fat diet; however, they were allowed to splurge every other day on a milkshake and a ham and cheese sandwich. According to conventional wisdom they should have experienced a significant rise in blood cholesterol, but there was none. The only elevation they showed was that of enjoyment. Despite the high-fat content of the splurge foods, their cholesterol-raising effect was somehow mitigated by the chemistry of pleasure.
It isn’t hard to imagine that the splurges were the only relaxed and celebrated moments in an otherwise bland and stressful diet. And that decrease in fight-or-flight chemistry could have been, by itself, enough to lower cholesterol.
Enjoy Your Food, Don't Just Eat It
In another unusual study, researchers from Sweden and Thailand joined forces to determine how cultural preferences for food affects the absorption of iron from a meal. A group of women from each country was fed a typical Thai meal—rice, veggies, coconut, fish sauce, and hot chili paste. As fate would have it, Thai women enjoy Thai food but Swedish women don’t. This proved to be a crucial metabolic fact, because even though all the meals contained the exact same amount of iron, the Swedish women absorbed only half as much of the iron as the Thai women.
To complete this phase of the study, both groups received a typical Swedish meal—hamburger, mashed potatoes, and string beans with the exact same iron content. Not surprisingly, the Thai women absorbed significantly less iron from the Swedish meal.
Next, the Thai women were separated into two groups. One group received the aforementioned Thai meal and the other was given the exact same meal as well—but that meal was first placed in a blender and turned to mush. Just imagine your favorite evening meal all whipped together into baby food. Even though the nutrient content of each meal was precisely equal, the women who ate the blender meal absorbed 70 percent less iron. Once again, the same results were seen for their Swedish counterparts who had their Swedish meal turned to a frappé.
The inescapable conclusion is that the nutritional value of a food is not merely given in the nutrients it contains but is dependent upon the synergistic factors that help us absorb those nutrients. Remove vitamin P, pleasure, and the nutritional value of our food plummets.
Healthy Food May Be "Good For You", But You Must Enjoy It Too!
Add vitamin P and your meal is metabolically optimized. So if you’re the kind of person who eats foods that are “good for you” even though you don’t like them, or if you think you can have a lousy diet and make up for it by eating a strange-tasting vitamin-fortified protein bar, or if you’ve simply banished pleasure because you don’t have enough time to cook or find a sumptuous meal—then you aren’t doing yourself any nutritional favors. You’re slamming shut the door on a key metabolic pathway.
In a fascinating animal study, scientists surgically destroyed the nerve centers of rats’ brains that enable the rats to taste.3 One group of rats was thus left with no ability to taste their food; a second group of normal, healthy, and luckier creatures who could still enjoy their meals was used as a control. Both groups were fed the exact same food, ate the same amounts, and were treated by researchers with the same manner of rat respect. In due time, every rat that couldn’t taste died. The surprised scientists needed to find a cause of death so they autopsied the animals. They found that even though these rats ate the same healthy amount of food, they nevertheless died of clinical rat malnutrition. Their organs had wasted as if they’d been starved.
The moral of the story is that taste and pleasure are essential to life, more so perhaps than we could have ever imagined.
The Body Will Not Be Denied Pleasure
One of the chemicals that increases our appetite is neuropeptide Y. It tells us to search for food. It is naturally elevated in the morning, which makes sense because that’s when the body is readying itself for action. Neuropeptide Y is also elevated whenever we are deprived of food. Its presence is particularly enhanced after dieting. Whenever we sink into a low blood sugar state— which usually means we are also in a low mood—neuropeptide Y is increased and stimulates us to consume carbohydrates.
So if you deny yourself the pleasure of food through low-calorie eating or if you restrict yourself to a fun-free diet, the body responds by chemically demanding pleasure and satisfaction. The lesson that neuropeptide Y teaches us is that we cannot escape the biological imperative to party and enjoy. No matter how stingy we are with eating, the body will not be denied.
The class of chemicals most people associate with pleasure are the endorphins. These substances are naturally produced throughout the body—most notably in the brain and the digestive system—and they exist, in part, to make us happy. The simple act of eating raises our levels of endorphins. This tells us that eating is an inherently pleasurable experience because biochemistry makes it so. What’s most unusual about the endorphins is that not only are they molecules of pleasure, but they also stimulate fat mobilization. In other words, the same chemical that makes you feel good burns body fat. Furthermore, the greater the endorphin release in your digestive tract, the more blood and oxygen will be delivered there. This means increased digestion, assimilation, and ultimately greater efficiency in calorie burning.
Of course, I’m not telling you that you can eat a ton of dessert or junk food and that you’ll burn it all as long as you feel pleasured. The point is that the chemistry of pleasure is intrinsically designed to fuel metabolism. When we make intelligent use of this biologic fact, our health can prosper. But if we don’t receive the pleasure that body and soul call for each day and at every meal, we suffer. In the ancient and epic poem from India, the Mahabharata, we are told “Better to alight in flames, if only for a moment, than to smolder forever in unfulfilled desires.”
Is Eating Fast A Pleasure?
Many of us claim to love food but when it’s eaten too fast or without awareness or with a helping of guilt the central nervous system and the enteric nervous system both register only a minimum of pleasurable sensations. The result is that we are physiologically driven to eat more. We’re compelled to hunt down the pleasure we never fully receive, even though it’s continually within our grasp.
So if you’re the kind of person who believes you can control your appetite and therefore lose weight by denying yourself pleasure, I suggest you reevaluate immediately. I have yet to meet one person who has successfully lost weight and kept it off by overcoming her or his natural, inborn drive to enjoy and celebrate food. Losing weight by limiting pleasure is like trying to stop smoking by not breathing. We can never increase the body’s metabolic capacity by limiting what is essential to life.
Pleasure Catalyzes the Relaxation Response
The key to pleasure’s powerful effect in balancing your appetite is that it promotes a physiologic relaxation response. The times we overeat most are when we’re anxious, stressed, or unaware. A relaxed, pleasured eater has natural control. A stressed eater produces more circulating cortisol—the stress hormone. What’s amazing is that cortisol desensitizes us to pleasure. This is another of the brilliant functions of this chemical. When you’re in a fight-or-flight response and trying to escape a hungry wolf, you don’t want your brain to be in “feel good” mode and get sidetracked looking for chocolate. All of you needs to focus on survival.
So when cortisol desensitizes us to pleasure in our day-to-day stresses, we need to eat more food to feel the same amount of pleasure as when we’re relaxed. This means that if you’re afraid of pleasure or anxious about gaining weight or frightened to eat a dessert, you’ll generate more cortisol. This chemical will swim through your bloodstream, numb you to pleasure, and ironically create the very self-fulfilling prophecy you feared from the beginning—“If I eat something fun, I won’t be able to stop.”
Can you see how our nutritional fears help create our metabolic reality?
Pleasure loves slow. It thrives in a warm, intimate, cozy space. It reveals its deepest secrets when we drop all pretensions of speed and allow timelessness and sensuality to breathe us back into each moment. The promise of speed—fast food, fast cars, fast service, fast results—has left us with a distinct blur of nothing. We then compensate with “hard”—we work hard, we play hard, we die hard—which altogether leaves us feeling exhausted and stiff. We might develop hardening of the arteries, a hardened heart, tight joints, or bones that crush under the weight of a high-impact life.
Pleasure is the essential antidote.
Putting Pleasure in Perspective
Epicurus is acknowledged as the ancient authority on the pleasures of the palate. We honor this Greek patriarch whenever we describe a dish as an “Epicurean delight.” Few realize, though, that Epicurus was not some gluttonous pleasure junkie; he was actually a simple and austere man who chose his pleasures with great care, chose them wisely, and enjoyed them deeply. Perhaps his entire philosophy on pleasure is best summed up in his own words: “It is impossible to live pleasurably without living wisely, well, and, justly, and it is impossible to live wisely, well, and justly without living pleasurably.”
I find that many people either fear the pleasure of food and do battle with it or constantly succumb to their food desires with little restraint.
Both do damage to body and psyche. Epicurus hints at a middle way. Using pleasure wisely means welcoming it with delight. It means including “healthy' pleasures and being moderate with the “unhealthy' ones so they do minimal damage at the least and leave us metabolically enhanced at the most. Unfortunately, many people get stuck in the notion that because many feel-good foods are “bad for you,' eating them under any circumstances is detrimental. Such a view of nutrition is outdated.
Yes, certain foods, such as fruits, are intrinsically healthy and can also provide us with pleasure. Yet many foods that would be considered “unhealthy' pleasures can be neutral to the body, and they can even be a metabolic “plus' when we consume them in a moderate dose and in a state of delight.
©2005, 2015 by Marc David.
Reprinted with permission of the publisher,
Healing Arts Press. www.InnerTraditions.com
About the Author
Marc David, a nutritionist with a master's degree in the psychology of eating, consults with corporations and nonprofit organizations in nutrition, food, and holistic health. He has been a leading nutrition expert at Canyon Ranch for more than 10 years, a workshop leader at Kripalu Center for Yoga and Health, and is the author of Nourishing Wisdom and The Slow Down Diet.