Garth Sundem’s Three Scientific Suggestions for Healthy Food Choices

For my book, Brain Trust, I interviewed Columbia Business School social psychologist, Sheena Iyengar, who told me this story about choice:

In Japan, Iyengar ordered green tea with sugar. No, the waiter informed her, one does not take sugar with green tea. Iyengar persisted in her desire for sweetened tea and eventually pushed her request up the food chain (as it were) to the restaurant’s manager, who informed her that, unfortunately, the kitchen was out of sugar. In that case, Iyengar asked for a cup of coffee instead. The coffee arrived on a saucer with a small pitcher of cream . . . and two packets of sugar.

“At the most basic level, we’re born with the desire for choice,” says Iyengar. “But we’re not born knowing how to make a choice.” Instead, culture teaches us how to choose. In her case and in Japanese culture, the decision to embarrass herself with the improper addition of sugar to tea was not Iyengar’s alone – it was the group’s responsibility to ensure she made what was so certainly (unbeknownst to Iyengar) the best choice.

The question is this: without culture telling you what to do, how can make the right choices about food? “One way is to make your own rules—look at Confucius,” says Iyengar. In order to make healthy food choices, here are three rules you might consider:

Eat for Eight Hours

“If you overlay the CDC diabetes map with the NASA nighttime satellite map, there’s an almost perfect match,” says Satchin Panda, regulatory biology specialist at the Salk Institute. The more light in a region, the more people awake, and the more people awake at night, the higher the incidence of diabetes.

It’s not due simply to awake people eating more. According to Panda, the higher diabetes rate in night owls is because your liver needs sleep.

Among your liver’s many functions is storing excess calories as glycogen and then, when you’re starving, converting this glycogen into usable glucose. Actually, it’s the liver’s little autonomous mitochondria that do this. And, generally, it’s at night, when their food processing duties are (or should be) decreased, that these mitochondria reproduce themselves.

“Our circadian clock separates functions throughout the day so that our organs stay healthy,” says Panda. Mitochondria don’t multitask well – if they work when they’re dividing, they’re much more prone to making faulty copies of their DNA. Over time, mutations creep in, and down that path lies metabolic disease.

For this reason, mice allowed to eat a day’s worth of calories in only eight hours live longer than mice that eat the same number of calories in sixteen hours. And mice given a high-fat diet are more likely to keep weight off if they eat this high fat diet in an eight-hour window.

“Look at one-hundred-year-olds around the world, across all different diets, and across all different professions, and you find one common denominator,” says Panda. “They always stick to a scheduled feeding pattern, and they always have an early dinner followed by a defined fasting time.”

So if you want to live long, don’t eat at night. If you want to lose weight on your current high-fat diet, eat your calories in an eight-hour window.

Decouple Comfort and Food

“It’s like you need x amount of good feeling in the course of existence and you can get it in different ways,” says Mark Wilson, psychobiologist at Emory University and Yerkes National Primate Research Center. One way monkeys in his lab get this good feeling is through dominance in the social hierarchy. It feels good to be top rhesus.

But there’s another way.

Wilson gave his monkeys banana-flavored pellets, much richer in sugars than their normal diet. As you’d expect, all monkeys liked the banana pellets – I mean, who wouldn’t? But check this out: Monkeys at the top of the social hierarchy regulated banana pellets to keep their caloric intake roughly similar to that of their standard diet.

Subordinate monkeys didn’t. They binged. Specifically, while the dominant monkeys might snack on pellets during the day, subordinate monkeys stayed up late into the night, stuffing their faces with sugary goodness. (Midnight ice cream, anyone?)

The explanation Wilson favors is that a sugary diet excites dopamine pathways in the brain. Dominant monkeys already get their dopamine fix from social interactions, while subordinate monkeys get none. So we’re back to “X amount of a good feeling”—subordinate monkeys eat their way to the dopamine release that dominant monkeys get naturally.

Going human, Wilson posits that, “If you’re much less than X, you’re much more prone to addictions of all sorts – food, exercise, shopping, gambling, psychostimulants.”

It’s easy to see how this applies to something like diet. “It’s the notion my grandmother talked to me about,” says Wilson, “comfort food.” The trick in losing weight is to find comfort another way – without the food. Simply, if you make your life happier, you’ll be less driven to overeat.

More Pleasure From Less Food

The trick with moderation is doing it in a way that doesn’t hurt your enjoyment. Again, think about ice cream: you’d rather have a big bowl and so when you’re served a small bowl, you get less pleasure from it. That’s no good.

Luckily Yale psychologist Paul Bloom knows how you can get the same pleasure from less. He’s looked at the pleasure and price of art and wine and believes the pleasure we take from something is due not only to the brick-and-mortar thing itself but also to “an object’s history – who created it, who’s been in touch with it, our knowledge about the object.” He calls this the item’s essence or the ineffable qualities a thing carries with it, and is the root of sentimental value or irrational attachment. It’s why artwork that sells for millions of dollars can lose almost all its value if it’s proved to be a forgery. Yes, the object remains the same, but its essence changes.

But what creates the very subjective pleasure we get from, say, a rich dessert, and how can you get more of it? According to Bloom, “The more you work to get something, the more you’ll enjoy it. Music is going to sound different if you know about it. Sexual arousal depends on who you think you’re looking at. And the taste of food depends critically on what you think you’re eating.”

Not only is knowledge power, but it’s pleasure, too.

So if you want more pleasure from something, increase your knowledge about it. It’s not just “chocolate” ice cream, it’s “72-percent cacao chocolate with Vermont cream”. The more you know about your food, the less you’ll have to eat in order to reach that food pleasure threshold. If you have information, you don’t need volume.


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