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 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 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?
Become a Mind Body Eating Coach
Summer 2023 enrollment begins soon.
Make real, lasting change - in your life and the lives of others using eating psychology coaching tools.
Subscribe to The Psychology of Eating Podcast
Get notified when new episodes go live.