The biological imperative of privileging pleasure...

For some of you it's been a while as I've been busy getting to grips with the joys of juggling motherhood and client work, so I've had very little time to write anything at all (other than the finishing touches to my new book which comes out in October!). So mea culpa for my absence. 

On to todays topic. Pleasure....
 
We recently spent a glorious couple of days at Mimi Thorisson’s Manger workshop in Bordeaux. As a devoted Francophile I stumbled across Mimi’s blog while no doubt googling something to do with France and food. I was immediately drawn to her message which seemed to me to be: jouir! This resonated as it's a sentiment which I advocate in all things; life, food, friends, work…


The workshop runs out of Mimi’s home in the heart of the vineyards in the Medoc region of France. It is a celebration of good food, wine and company. Here I learned so much more than how to keep a soufflé from collapsing... what I came away with is a sense of the importance of pleasure around food. Sourcing it (from people who put love into their produce which translates in taste), cooking it ( with love, patience and with others), eating it ( with a glass of something that will compliment the meal), in a beautiful setting (effortlessly achieved with some flowers and candles- regretfully we can't all move to the south of France!), and being present in the moment.
 
Mimi told me about a study from the 1970s which I immediately looked up and want to share with you, because it is absolutely fascinating. I hope it will give you pause, as it clearly supports my food and weight loss philosophy. In fact, this study led me to some more interesting research which has helped me to understand the magic of our innate biological imperative to enjoy our food, something I have long advocated for from a psychological perspective, but I now understand the physiological necessity too.
 
Permit me, if you will, to get a bit science-y here and please read to the end. I guarantee you’ll be glad if you do as I think it will change how you approach food forever…
 
(A bold claim I know).

Five biochemical reasons why enjoying your food is essential…

1.  The importance of eating food you actually like.

This is the study which Mimi told me about that initially sparked my interest. Researchers fed two groups of women, one Swedish and one Thai, a spicy Thai meal. The Thai women, who presumably liked the meal more than the Swedish women did, absorbed almost 50 percent more iron from it than their Swedish counterparts. A second condition followed: the meal was again served, but this time it was blended together into an almost unrecognisable mush. Interestingly, when the meal was served as a mushy paste, the Thai women absorbed 70 percent less iron than they had before, from the exact same meal!
 
The researchers concluded that food which is unfamiliar, (Thai food to Swedish women), or unappetising, (mush rather than solid food), is less nutritious than food that looks, smells and tastes good to you.
 
The explanation can be found in the digestive process itself, in the relationship between our gut and our brain.
 
Imagine sitting in your favourite restaurant before a delicious plate of your favourite fare. The sights and smells evoke pleasure and tell your brain that the meal will be enjoyable. The brain responds by pushing your salivary glands into high gear and ordering your stomach to secrete more gastric juices, resulting in your body absorbing more nutrients as your mind and body have prepared themselves for the food you’re about to eat.
 
This is in stark contrast to a pre-prepared diet dinner. This sight will result in your brain sending a less enthusiastic message to your mouth and stomach, causing the food to be less thoroughly digested and metabolised.
 
So the nutritional value of food is a synergistic combination of the nutrients in the food and our reception of that food. If we remove enjoyment from the equation, the nutritional value of the food diminishes.
 
Isn’t this fascinating? I think so. But it’s what I always suspected.
 
2. The life sustaining function of taste

Another study, which it upsets me to share as I hate animal testing, further supports this idea.
 
Scientists destroyed the nerve centres of a group of rats so that they couldn’t taste anything. The control group of rats, who luckily maintained their nerve centres and the rats without the ability to taste, were fed the exact same food. Alarmingly over a short period of time, the rats who had lost their ability to taste died, while their flavour-filled counterparts were thriving.

On autopsy, the researchers found that even though the rats had eaten the same healthy amount of food as the control group, they had died of malnutrition. Their organs had wasted away as if they had been starved, indicating that because they could not taste the food, they could not absorb the nutrients they needed to sustain themselves.
 
3.  Our bodies natural and indeed magical system

Add to this the fact that when you eat fat or protein your body produces the chemical cholecystokinin. CKK aids digestion by stimulating the small intestines, pancreas, gallbladder, and stomach. Once CKK is released it then shuts down appetite by sending a message to the hypothalamus to say you’ve had enough. Finally, it stimulates the sensation of pleasure in the cerebral cortex to tell you to enjoy. All this is triggered as soon as we eat fat or protein.
 
This magical little chemical functions to metabolise our meal, tell us when to finish our meal and tells us to enjoy it while we eat it-isn’t the body truly marvellous?!
 
So to feel satiated we must recognise that pleasure, metabolism and appetite all function in a synergistic way if we allow them to. Unfortunately, we are so used to thinking of pleasure as completely separate to the nutritional process. Worse still, we are now conditioned to think that if we’re enjoying our food it's probably not good for us as we worry that we won’t be able to stop eating it. My clients often tell me that they will actually avoid the food they enjoy all together for fear of binging. Yet the effects of CKK indicate the exact opposite is true.
 
4. We cannot escape the biological imperative to enjoy our food!
 
Interestingly, one of the chemicals which increases our appetite is neuropeptide Y, which tells us to search for food. This chemical is naturally elevated in the morning as we are in need of fuel for the day. Its also raised when we are deprived of food, especially when we are dieting, by sending the message to encourage us to eat carbohydrates. If you eat mainly low calorie food or if you restrict yourself to a bland diet, your body will respond by chemically demanding pleasurable foods to feel satiated. So we really need to recognise that neuropeptide Y indicates that we cannot escape the biological imperative to experience pleasure and enjoy our food!
 
5. Endorphins also burn fat...

Further compelling evidence that we must enjoy comes from how endorphins function. Endorphins, typically associated with pleasure, are reproduced naturally throughout the body, most notably in the brain and the digestive system. One of their most significant functions is to make us feel happy.
 
Just by eating our endorphins are elevated, which supports the idea that eating is an inherently pleasurable experience. Another function of endorphins is that they stimulate fat mobilisation, so the same chemical that makes you happy also makes you burn fat! Add to this the fact that the greater the endorphins release in your digestive tract, the more blood and oxygen will be delivered there. This translates into increased digestion, assimilation and essentially greater efficiency in burning calories.
 
So that’s the science-y bit, but what does it mean?

While I was at Mimi’s magical cookery workshop we ate delicious fresh food with lots of butter, cream, sugar, fat and flavour accompanied by a vast array of fabulous wines. Mimi is the picture of health and we discussed her attitude to wellbeing. She, like me, believes in eating the best quality food available and enjoying it. This makes perfect sense as our body is hardwired to find pleasure in eating good food and this in turn fuels our metabolism- it really is a beautiful system, which we should appreciate and respect. 
 
So many people claim to be food lovers, yet they feel guilty when they eat ‘bad’ foods, or they eat too fast to savour the taste. In this case the central nervous system and the enteric nervous system can only register a minimum amount of pleasure and so we are physiologically driven to eat more, because we are chemically compelled to seek out pleasure and expect it in our food. If we’re eating ‘diet food’ we will maintain a hunger that we cannot fully satiate.
 
So I encourage you to shift your thinking. Stop trying to override your body’s natural urges to enjoy. Listen to your body, eat foods you enjoy and feel the pleasurable feelings, trusting that these are triggering your metabolism and also triggering feelings of fullness. We all have a beautifully balanced system within us, its time to allow it to thrive!

Karina Melvin BSc. Psych., MSc. Clinical Psych.
Registered Practitioner APPI
Psychologist & Psychoanalytic Psychotherapist
sandymountpsychotherapy.com artful-eating.com