Why You Eat What You Eat

 Because it's covered in sprinkles

Because it's covered in sprinkles

When British mountaineer George Mallory was asked by a journalist, "Why did you want to climb Mt. Everest?" Mallory famously replied, "Because it's there." I feel like, for many of us, Why We Eat What We Eat might be summed up just as succinctly. Why did I finish everything on my plate, even though I wasn't hungry anymore? Because it was there. Why did I have a second cookie? Ditto. That handful of peanuts? Ditto ditto.

Rachel Herz gets more scientific in her book, and much of it you've probably heard before:

  • we've evolved to prefer sweet and fatty because those give the biggest caloric bang for the buck;
  • sugar, chocolate and spicy foods have mood-boosting, painkilling benefits;
  • flavors experienced in utero and early on with happy associations become preferred;
  • mindful eating can help us consume less and increase satisfaction;
  • using smaller plates makes the servings look more abundant; and
  • our sense of smell declines as we age, which is why, if you have the misfortune to eat at an old folks' home, the food often seems "too salty."

But there was plenty that was less familiar and quite interesting, like studies showing that we can fool our palates with aromas. Waft vanilla aroma over us, and whatever we're consuming is perceived as sweeter and creamier! Similarly, bathe us in a bacon scent, and the food will be perceived as up to 40% saltier. How has no one come up with the Aromatherapy Diet yet, if you've been told to cut back on sugar, salt, or fat?

Or how about putting the marijuana munchies to good use? Herz notes a study of severe anorexics that found the "cannabis compound dronabinol, which is also used to help patients with HIV and cancer combat appetite and weight loss, led to modest weight gain in as little as a week, and consistently increased appetite and weight gain for the four weeks that the study lasted" (loc 1146).

For the greater percentage of us, however, attempting to gain weight is not the problem, but rather the opposite. There's hope here, too. Who knew that, among rats at least, "merely sniffing grapefruit aroma can suppress weight gain"? Eating the fruit works too, a half at every meal, but they aren't the most portable of fruits, so the aroma possibility tantalizes. Same goes for the scent of olive oil. Adding olive oil aroma extract to plain lowfat yogurt was found to be "remarkably appetite-curbing"--maybe because that sounds so unappetizing that you're put off your food for a few hours... But it does seem to fool your brain into thinking you've had a fattier food, leading to increased feelings of fullness.

But say you find yourself at your desk at 3 pm, dreaming of the donuts on the conference room table. Apparently, taking a big whiff of something totally unrelated to food can bump your brain out of that track and help you resist a craving. At last--something to do with that Yankee Candle your mother-in-law gave you (unless she gave you a sweet, food flavor)!

Herz also discusses how things like sound and color, temperature and texture affect our perceptions of taste. Basically, we have very fool-able brains and should take full advantage, for our dietary benefit. Never mind labeling foods "lowfat" or "healthy" or even "organic"--that makes us more likely to overeat or to cheat elsewhere. But if we're told something is indulgent or extra-rich, our body speeds up our metabolism, whether the item really was as advertised or not.

It's a lot of info, but it would be fun to experiment with friends and family members, and Herz does offer helpful tips for various conditions like picky eaters, the eating disordered, and the smell-impaired. I would have loved some "For this outcome, try this!" charts, but that's just a quibble. If you like reading about food and our perceptions, I recommend this book!

And don't forget the End of Season Celebration at the 520 Bar and Grill. I'm happy to report that, "when food is in bite-sized bits we eat less than when the same food is served in larger pieces," so enjoy those hors d'ouevres guilt-free! On the other hand, we do tend to drink more when served beverages in glasses with fluted sides, so don't say you haven't been warned...