As we advance the science of eating, there’s one particular nutritional concept that seems to get us into the most trouble. It’s an outdated way of approaching food that wreaks great havoc upon the psyches of eaters, and influences the community of experts like a strange brew. This unwanted way of thinking sounds essentially like this: Some foods are good, some foods are bad. Strangely enough, the notion of good foods and bad ones is largely unscientific. As we’ve discussed, the metabolic value of any foodstuff is profoundly influenced by factors that aren’t inherent in the food, but issue forth from the eater—parasympathetic activity being the most notable. And in truth, there’s no such thing as a good or bad food. Allow me to explain.
Yes, it’s clear that certain foods will enhance health while others will detract from it. However, no food is morally good or bad. In other words, no one can say they’ve uncovered an evil conspiracy between bacon and eggs to raise our cholesterol. Nor has anyone come forward claiming to have seen heavenly angels flying about their salad. Food is morally neutral. So is every other object in the universe. Is a baseball bat good or bad? Depends how you use it. You can hit a home run and make thousands of fans deliriously happy, or you can smash someone’s car window and ruin their day. Is a food good or bad? It depends how you use it.
I believe this distinction is of the utmost importance if we wish to have even the chance of a happy relationship with food, and a well nourished body. So much of the confusion that pollutes our emotional atmosphere around eating comes from the consequences of moralizing about food. That’s because if you choose to label a food “bad,” what does that imply about you if you eat it? Well, it implies you’re a bad person. And as everyone knows, bad people need to be punished, and severely so if you don’t want them to do bad things ever again. So, we put our- selves in the unusual position of being both the guilty party and the judge. We might sentence ourselves to a miserable low calorie diet, to extra helpings of punishing exercise, or maybe just some good old-fashioned guilt, shame and self-abuse. All this of course, creates a physiologic stress state, and we know what that means for metabolism. So the various remedies we concoct for our crimes actually create a far worse result than the crime itself.
Politicians and lawmakers please take note.
Something else happens when we label a food good or bad. We stop the process of questioning and discovery. It’s the same phenomenon as if you were told by a friend that the new guy in your office is unlikable, so don’t talk to him. You’d have him labeled, would never get to know him, and might lose out on a potential best friend. The same with food. If we labeled sugar as bad, we wouldn’t stop to ask detailed questions to learn about its nuances and complexities. Is it all kinds of sugar that are undesirable? Which kinds are best? Can eating sugar with other foods mitigate any of its negative effects? Does it react differently in children than in adults? Likewise, our scientists, when seeing foods as either good or bad, will design experiments and present us with a worldview of nutritional metabolism that leaves little room for the nuances of nourishment biology.
Is alcohol good or bad? Is meat good or bad? The real answer is yes. It depends on who’s eating it, how much, how frequently, and the quality of the foodstuff. Rather than flattening out the variables to create a theoretically homogenous population to prove the worthiness of a food or drug, perhaps we’d do better to elevate the variables, value them, and listen to their messages of our biochemical uniqueness, and quirkiness.
TOXICOLOGY TO THE RESCUE
It’s reasonable to wonder then, if there’s no such thing as a good or bad food, yet certain foods are clearly better or worse for our health, how do we figure out what to do. The simple answer can be found in the complex field of toxicology. It would take us least five years to earn a PhD in this fascinating discipline, but for our purposes here we can sum up the crucial nugget of wisdom in this field in about five words: The dose makes the poison. It’s all about amount. Mercury, for example, is a highly toxic sub- stance, yet we no doubt have this mineral stored somewhere in the body, such as in bones, teeth, heart, or brain. The only reason we’re still alive is because there’s not enough of it to kill us. Every substance has a lethal dose, whether it’s sleeping pills, drain cleaner, cappuccino, or carrots. Do you remember what the lethal dose of water is called? Drowning. Yes, water is good for you, but only in the right amount.
Is salt good or bad? Well, it depends on how much. Of course, it may be wise to go moderate with its use if your cardio- vascular system dictates as much. Yet the truth is, salt is a sub- stance we require, and so much so that the architecture of the body has us wired to desire it on the palate. Surely, the good Creator didn’t provide us with salt seeking taste buds for the purposes of tormenting us and raising our blood pressure. So the question of how much salt is enough, or how much alcohol is enough, or how much birthday cake is enough becomes our guiding dietary light, a nuanced approach to the body that leaves behind the black and white world of good foods and bad foods, and puts us in a universe of biochemical individuality, of person- al responsibility, and of a nutritional journey that’s ever-changing and exciting in its’ uncertainty.
THE NUTRITIVE POWER OF AWARENESS
Just as any good biologist knows that nutrition begins in the soil, so too does any good gastrointestinal physiologist know that digestion begins in the mind. This is best exemplified in the Cephalic Phase Digestive Response. Cephalic, of course, means “of the head.” Cephalic Phase Digestive Response is simply a fancy term for taste, pleasure, aroma, satisfaction, and the visual stimulation of a meal. In other words, it’s the “head phase” of digestion. What’s fascinating is that our digestive experts have estimated that as much as 30% to 40% of the total digestive response to any meal is due to the cephalic phase digestive response—our full awareness of what we’re eating.
Can you recall a time when you saw your favorite food and your mouth started watering or stomach began churning? That’s the Cephalic Phase Digestive Response. Digestion quite literally begins in the head as chemical and mechanical receptors on the tongue and in the oral and nasal cavities are stimulated by smelling food, tasting it, chewing it, and noticing it. A hearty awareness of our meal initiates the secretion of saliva, gastric acid and enzymes, gut-associated neuropeptides, and production of the full range of pancreatic enzymes including trypsin, chymotrypsin, pancreatic amylase, and lipase. In addition, it causes blood to rush to the digestive organs, the stomach to rhythmically contract, and electrolyte concentrations throughout the digestive tract to shift in preparation for incoming food. Awareness is metabolism.
So let’s do the math. If 30% to 40% of our total digestive response to any meal is due to Cephalic Phase Digestive Response, and if we choose not to be aware of our meal—that is, if we fall asleep at the plate and fail to register any sense of taste, smell, satisfaction, or visual interest, then we are metabolizing our meal at only 60% to 70% efficiency. In a study involving “dichotomous listening,” test subjects were asked to concentrate as two people talked simultaneously—one person speaks into the left ear about intergalactic space travel while the other chats in the right ear about the joys of financial planning. If you’ve had the experience of listening on the telephone while someone near- by in the kitchen starts yakking as if you had the super-human ability to be in two conversations at once, then you know what this feels like.
During a relaxed state, test subjects consumed a mineral drink and absorption was measured in the small intestines via intestinal perfusion apparatus for two minerals—sodium and chloride. They assimilated at 100%. When the same individuals were exposed to dichotomous listening and then given their nutrient drink, they showed a complete shutdown in sodium and chloride assimilation that lasted for up to one hour afterwards. The simple act of attending to two stimuli at once dramatically altered their metabolism. This raises some interesting questions, such as what happens when we eat and watch TV, or eat while driving, or eat while working at the desk? Metabolizing a meal is like absorbing a conversation. If we were talking with a friend who wasn’t really paying attention, we’d walk away feeling incomplete and wishing for more.
The essence of the exchange would have been minimally assimilated at best. The same with food.
The Cephalic Phase Digestive Response is not only a response, it’s a full-blown nutritional requirement. The brain must experience taste, pleasure, aroma, and satisfaction so it can accurately assess a meal and catalyze our most efficient digestive force. When we eat too fast or fail to notice our food, the brain seems to interpret this missed experience as hunger. It’s not clever enough to say to us “Hey, you inhaled your breakfast, ate like a maniac during lunch, and snacked like a hungry beast.” The brain simply says “I don’t remember eating anything. I didn’t get any satisfaction. Nothing happened. Hungry.” And so we reach for more food.
That’s why in my unofficial estimation, about nine out of ten people I speak to who say they have an overeating problem, don’t. Their problem is that they fail to eat when they eat. It’s a clinical deficiency in Vitamin A—awareness. They aren’t present with their meals and fail to satisfy their Cephalic Phase Digestive Response requirement, which results in a continued longing for food. What’s ironic is that those who fall into this category think they have a willpower problem, but they don’t. In fact, lack of willpower is just a minor player in their overeating. Drug companies spend millions to research and develop new appetite sup- pressing compounds while unsuspecting eaters exert great effort to control their desire for food, and it’s all an epic misuse of energy. Yes, we have a problem with what we eat, but perhaps our bigger concern should be how we live.
Excerpted from a guest editorial I wrote for the unique and prestigious research journal – Alternative Therapies in Health and Medicine.
Founder of the Institute for the Psychology of Eating
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