The Metabolic Power of Pleasure
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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, while 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 swirl of both. This is particularly apparent in light of our eating. When we eat, we’re 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 effects 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…

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 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 their Swedish meal.

Next, the Thai women were separated into two groups. One group received the aforementioned Thai meal and the other was given the same exact 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. Once again, the same results were seen for their Swedish counterparts who had their Swedish meal turned into 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 helps us absorb those nutrients. Remove Vitamin P: Pleasure, and the nutritional value of our food plummets.

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 likely 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. One group of rats was thus left with no ability to taste their food; a second group of normal, healthier, and luckier creatures that 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 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.

Chemical Clues to Pleasure

Consider the chemical cholecystokinin, CCK. This substance is produced by the body in response to protein or fat in a meal and performs a number of versatile functions. First, it directly aids digestion by stimulating the small intestines, pancreas, gallbladder, and stomach. Second, when it’s released in the hypothalamus, part of the limbic area of the brain, it shuts down appetite. And last, CCK stimulates the sensation of pleasure in the cerebral cortex, the highest portion of the brain.

So, in putting all this together, we find that the same chemical that functions to metabolize our meal also tells us when it’s time to finish that meal, and makes us feel good about the entire experience. It shows us how pleasure, metabolism, and a naturally controlled appetite are interwoven to the core. Most people think that pleasure is completely separate from the nutritional process and serves no metabolic function. We often believe that if a food makes us feel good, the body is automatically stimulated to eat more and might never want to stop. The actions produced by CCK in the brain tell us a whole new story.

In the absence of pleasurable satiation, 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 signals 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 desire.”

Many of us claim to love food, but when we eat 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 pleasure we never fully receive, even though it’s continually in our grasp.

So if you’re the kind of person who believes you can control your appetite and therefor 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 their 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.

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 – our main stress hormone. What’s amazing is that cortisol desensitizes us to pleasure. When you’re in fight or flight response and trying to escape the hungry wolf, you don’t want your brain to be in a “feel good” mode and get sidetracked looking for chocolate. All of you needs to be focused 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. It’s time to welcome a healthy sense of pleasure back to the table.

What’s been your experience with Vitamin P?

Warm regards,
Marc David
Institute for the Psychology of Eating
© Institute For The Psychology of Eating, All Rights Reserved, 2014

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  • Marianne Sciberras

    Hi! The first study you mention about cholesterol. I’m guessing that the reason they had high cholesterol in the first place was because they were eating a high fat diet 3 x a day vs just the splurges in the study…Also I’m guessing that stress played a factor in their having high cholesterol in the first place as well. And the fact that they ate low fat most of the time in the study is enough reason why their cholesterol went down, so it may not have just been because of the lowering of the fight or flight syndrome. Yes? I do, just the same, believe relaxing and being happy while eating is the best way to eat, and that it helps prevent dis-ease.

    • Hi Marianne —
      Thanks for weighing in here.
      The reason for the original high cholesterol count could be any number of things, including the one’s you’ve mentioned. That said, there have been all kinds of research done that high-fat diets may not be the reason for high cholesterol.

      I think you’ve hit on it towards the end there though: no matter how we we choose to nourish ourselves, a happy and relaxed state is key.

      Thanks,
      Marc David

      • marianne Sciberras

        Yes, I do think the high fat diet causing high cholesterol has been totally out of proportion. Thanks for your much valued feedback and all your articles. : ))

        • Hi Marianne,
          And thank you for joining in our conversation here!

          Marc David

  • Holly Ivey

    So much of this information is sensible, especially since the traditional paradigm of trend dieting is marked by a philosophy of deprivation which is a guarantees overindulgence in the long run. The most successful eating plans allow for culinary pleasure while endorsing moderation and the benefits of balanced nutrition. Some of the above research seems spotty in concluding your important point. Does the comparison of two cultures (Thai and Swedish) take into consideration the genetic and social environments, (not to mention outliers to the study who might enjoy entirely different cuisine than their native born culture), as as factors of eating prefences or the P factor? It’s hard for me to believe pleasurable eating is bound by certain food groups inherent to the culture. The prototypical American diet may be the emblematic hot-dog, hamburger and apple pie tradition, but speaking as an American I would find much more pleasure in dishes influenced by multicultural spices and ingredients . I agree with the premise of this theory, but would like more details regarding all the factors of the noted studies.

    • Hi Holly,

      Thanks for your thoughtful and insightful comments. As to your questions about diving into the details of the studies, I agree it would be an interesting undertaking to flesh these things out, if it were even possible. I think we are dealing with the kind of studies and design and topic of inquiry that inherently does not lend itself to the pure ironclad science I believe you are wanting. My efforts here are to elucidate a topic that I strongly believe needs some consideration, and ultimately, I think “the proof is in the pudding” so to speak, and our bodily experience may just be what counts most when it comes to the nuances of food, pleasure and metabolism.

      Best,
      Marc David

  • This is a very good article, except the cholesterol study was flawed. The human body was made to handle animal fats. That is the purpose of good cholesterol (HDL). It’s the man-made fats, i.e. hydrogenated oils, that cause high cholesterol. So for a true study, instead of eating dairy and meat, they would have eaten McDonald’s french fries, something with Crisco or Margarine, or for smaller amounts, almost any frozen dinner at your average grocery store.

    • Hey Vicki
      Good point – I’d be very interested to see such a study!

      Best,
      Marc David

  • This is so great, and perfect timing for me as a reminder. I recently realized that I do not currently find pleasure in food. I was eating excessive amounts of chocolate, and was suddenly struck by the fact that I don’t actually like it. then the question was, why was I eating it?
    I brought it up at a BodyTalk session, and the underlying issue was shame – right in the 3rd chakra area. it helped explain why I don’t feel hunger much, or fullness, or pleasure. so interesting the many facets of our experience.

    • Hi Erica,
      I’m so glad this came at a fortunate time for you.
      What a brilliant little epiphany you describe with the chocolate!
      Thank you for sharing.

      Warmly,
      Marc David

  • Marc,

    Awesome article. Interestingly enough I was reading about the way our body reacts to “certain foods” specially when we are low on food, energy and lack exercise of any kind.

    Great observation about endorphins and the role cortisol plays in weight loss and pretty much everything else. Quite interesting!

    I just wanted to say that I am so happy that I found your site. I truly enjoy your articles, and appreciate new refreshing information. I have and will continue to share them.

    • Hi Astrid,
      We’re happy to have you here with us!
      Thanks for spreading around the good word with your friends and family.

      Best,
      Marc

  • Hi Marc,
    First, I wanted to say thank you for all your amazing insights and the work you do. Reading your posts continually reinforces all the work I do with eating disordered clients in my center.
    My clients continually refuse to allow themselves the pleasure factor in food. They restrict themselves by using rigid “black and white” food rules. Inevitably, they end up rebound bingeing, night eating, and/or compensating for lack of pleasure by eating large volumes of low-calorie foods. Often, when they finally allow themselves to eat a pleasurable food, they inevitably “overconsume” it, feel out of control , swear to themselves that they are weak (which reinforces an already present lack of self-esteem), and will then dig their heels in by setting up even more rigid rules against the “pleasurable foods”. Or, for some clients, they will only “binge” on pleasurable foods, but they will never truly “eat” them. I have spent countless sessions trying to explain to my clients that bingeing on food is not the same as eating it. Bingeing doesn’t create the kind of pleasure that eating does. Bingeing is a disconnected “behavior”, where eating offers true connectedness. Discussing “Vitamin P” with my clients will hopefully be another tool to help this very vulnerable population. Thanks again for your work! Donna G

    • Hi Donna,
      This is such a common thing. I see it all the time. We’ve somehow been brainwashed to believe that if we let ourselves enjoy anything, let alone something as important as eating, we’re headed for disaster – we simply cannot be trusted with ourselves.
      I’m so glad you are doing such great work in the world and serving a population that truly needs good information and support.

      My warmest wishes to you,
      Marc

  • Mia

    Super article, I’ve always believed enjoying and pleasure to be a very good & necessary part of living.
    Thanks!

    • Mia,
      Thanks so much for taking the time to connect!
      Best,
      Marc

  • Linda

    I find your work fascinating. I am wondering though, as an all or nothing personality, how to get to this blissful place that I will eat what I want, it will be the right food and will not gain weight. I am always either being super strict or on a foodfest and am literally ALWAYS gaining or loosing at breakneck speed. I dont think I feel guilty when I am overeating, but maybe I am. I would sure love to take one of your courses one day, but until then do you have any suggestions? I dont know what my block is.

    • Hello Linda,

      I know the back and forth can feel frustrating.
      There are so many different possibilities for approaching this subject – time of day you’re eating, the kinds of foods you enjoy, how fast you eat, etc. It’s pretty hard to answer specific personal questions without knowing a ton more information. So, here are some thoughts to help you get unstuck:

      If you haven’t explored them already, you might really enjoy my two books:

      1. Nourishing Wisdom
      2. The Slow Down Diet

      You can find them both: here
      I also wanted to know if you’d heard about our New Virtual Retreat we’re offering this fall: Transform Your Relationship with Food. It’s 8-weeks (from 10/22 -12/17) long and it may be just what you’re looking for to help you dig a little deeper.

      To learn more – click here
      Hope this gives you a few options.

      Warmly,
      Marc

  • Linda

    Hi Marc, thank you so much for your reply.

    I am reading Nourishing Wisdom right now and it is speaking deeply to my soul, more than anything has in years thank you so much. I realize how damaging to my body and soul my past efforts have been. I have literally been gaining and losing the same 50 pounds TWICE A YEAR for a few years now and just did not know how to break this cycle. All or nothing with diet and exercise.

    It started with a physique transformation contest that seemed like such a positive endeavour. Unfortunately I was a really good student of that process, but was totally lost after. The day it was over I could not face the foods I had had no trouble eating the day before and up the scale went, fat clothes out of storage again….until I was so disgusted that I did it again… and again. I was so strict and focused that now I associate health and losing weight with zero pleasure no matter . If I allow myself a little pleasure I lose control and binge. Now I seem to be stuck in that in between place where I cannot face starting again, but eating like it is my last decent meal before the losing cycle begins again, yet it doesn’t. My health is suffering and still cannot seem to fix this.

    The wisdom and compassion in your book bring me so much hope and I pray to be able to incorporate your principles into my life. Its funny because I skimmed both of your books prior to this, but must not have been ready (or desperate enough with my situation) to really hear your message.

    I had just intended to log in to say thank you. I am not able to take either of your programs a now due to financial restraints but if I figure all of this out I will be there one day!

    Linda

    • Linda,
      So happy to hear that you’re enjoying the book! It’s amazing how what works for the body in one moment will not in the next. It’s so important to be present with the experience and listen to the wisdom our body is trying to share with us.Working with an Eating Psychology coach never hurts either.
      If we can be of more help – please don’t hesitate reaching out to us at info@psychologyofeating.com

      Warmly,
      Marc

  • Claire

    Hi, your articles and website have intrigued me for some time, to the point that I am considering signing up for your course.

    I have for so many years tried to enjoy food the way you describe but that beautiful, peaceful point where I can enjoy foods and my weight (for any length of time) has eluded me.

    I have recently become aware of food addictions and abstinence and have been doing some research around that. Although it goes against everything I understood about nutrition, I can’t argue with the results I am having personally.

    I would really love to hear your thoughts on this.

    Regards

    • Hi Claire,
      We’d love to respond but are not quite sure what you are asking – so can you be very specific about what your question is?

      Thanks!
      IPE Staff

  • Great article- can you provide references to the studies?

    • Lindsay Young

      Hi Tabitha

      Lindsay here at The Institute for the Psychology of Eating.
      Thank you for reaching out about some of the studies mentioned in Marc’s articles on the blog.

      This study you are mentioning is an excerpt from Marc David’s book, The Slow Down Diet (2005 ed.), which has specific references for each chapter in the back of the book.

      You can find the book here: http://psychologyofeating.com/shop/products/

      This way, you will have access to the original research and get those questions answered for yourself. There are several studies mentioned throughout the work.

      If you have any questions along the way – please don’t hesitate to reach out to me.
      I’m always happy to help.

      Have a happy New Year’s!

      Warm Regards,
      IPE STAFF

  • Nika Lynn

    In 10 years as a weight loss consultant, I have seen that those who are the strictest and deny themselves the most are the ones who gain their weight back the quickest. Its as if they spontaneously combust! The longer we deny the pleasure factor, the more it back fires. Let’s put an end to the spartan “eat to live, not live to eat”mantra and help others to live in the beautiful place between the two.
    Love you Marc David and IPE for the life changing work you are doing.
    Shanti

    • Hi Nika,

      Well put! The “beautiful place between the two” should definitely be the goal.
      Thank you very much for your input and feedback.

      Best,
      Marc

  • Hi Marc, i’m interested to read more about the research you mention about the Thai and Swedish women. Can you provide a source? Thank you!

  • Hi Lynae, Thanks so much for your comment! You can find references for these and other studies in Marc David’s book, The Slow Down Diet. Check it out here: http://psychologyofeating.com/slow-down-diet-book/ Warmly, IPE Staff

About The Author
Marc David
Founder

Marc David is the Founder of the Institute for the Psychology of Eating, a leading visionary, teacher and consultant in Nutritional Psychology, and the author of the classic and best-selling works Nourishing Wisdom and The Slow Down Diet. His work has been featured on CNN, NBC and numerous media outlets. His books have been translated into over 10 languages, and his approach appeals to a wide audience of eaters who are looking for fresh, inspiring and innovative messages about food, body and soul. He lectures internationally, and has held senior consulting positions at Canyon Ranch Resorts, the Kripalu Center for Yoga and Health, the Johnson & Johnson Corporation, and the Disney Company. Marc is also the co-founder of the Institute for Conscious Sexuality and Relationship.