Saturday, July 2, 2011

Hyperpalatability and the paradox of simple food

What I'm writing about today probably makes sense to you if you're following a low carb, grain free lifestyle.  If you aren't, you might think I don't know very much about the pleasures of good food. 

I'm not only a decent cook, but I've also eaten at enough fine restaurants in several different countries to know a thing or two about gastronomy.  So please bear with me.

Hyperpalatability is currently a bit of a hot topic in several blogs I'm following.  The idea is that many foods are engineered to bring you back for more, over and over again, and that this is a major underlying cause of obesity.  David Kessler wrote an excellent book on the topic several years ago.  It's titled The End of Overeating:Taking Control of the Insatiable American Appetite, and it's definitely worth reading.  His theory is that sugar, salt and fat in combination are behind the obesity crisis.

Watch this video to get an idea of what he's getting at:

Contrast this to a diet largely devoid of sugars.  When you stop adding refined sugar, wheat, potatoes, pasta, rice, etc to your plate, it almost certainly means less variety. 

To the uninitiated, this appears boring, unappetizing, and even bland.   I can see why so many people are completely turned off when they first learn about this way of losing weight.

The diet industry usually goes to great lengths to assure you that the particular diet or supplement they are selling still allows you plenty of variety.  I even notice myself doing this in some of the posts I have written.  Of course I can't speak for the diet industry, because they need to keep selling their products, and telling you that you'll lose weight by sacrificing palatability is probably not a great business model.  But I have nothing to sell, and so I can afford to be honest.

And that's where the paradox comes in.  You see, a little while after going low carb, you start realizing there is considerably more gustatory pleasure to be derived from good foods that are prepared more simply.  After you stop physically craving sugars, you realize, if anything, that the carbs are a distraction, a cheap filler.  

What is left is so enjoyable that you no longer feel the need to dress it up like you used to.  For example, in our house, we enjoy our hamburgers so much that we eat them several times a week.  Yet we make them with nothing more than a hand-formed patty of ground beef.  The pastured eggs we eat so many of are also prepared really simply.  Sometimes boiled, but more often cooked up in a quick omelette or a custard.  There's little that beats the fine texture and flavour of a piece of well-poached salmon.  We derive great pleasure from our vegetable garden.  Although it isn't huge, it provides us with plenty of fresh seasonal produce to forage.  This means we eat fewer cooked vegetables, but I often "catch" the kids with a handful of freshly picked pea pods, or a mouthful of parsley or arugula.  It's not that we never add flavourings or dressings to our food, but when we do, they too are made with fewer ingredients.

We've noticed our grocery cupboard is emptier than it used to be, but we don't feel we're lacking.  I remember frequently feeling frustrated and bored on weekday evenings, facing a full grocery cupboard and being totally uninspired about what to cook for dinner.  Why don't we feel that way any more?

This is what I think is going on:  Carb-rich foods on their own are pretty bland.  Would you be interested in eating oatmeal porridge for breakfast every morning, if you couldn't add anything to it?  What about a bowl of rice for lunch every day or a plate of potatoes for dinner?  A baked potato tastes so much better with a chunk of butter or a dollop of sour cream.  And even so, most people wouldn't want baked potatoes every day.  It seems to me that carb-rich foods are pretty boring on the whole, though dressed with proteins and fats, they quickly become hyperpalatable.  You find yourself craving more every few hours, and most of us find it hard to stop even though we know we've had enough.  People who eat a lot of fast food often experience this effect more strongly, but it also happens in households that never eat fast food.  I definitely recognize a palatability pattern in the way we used to eat.

Cut out the sugars, and your system ratchets itself down to a different gear.  Having something different or elaborate for dinner each evening no longer feels very important.  You find yourself looking forward to a dish that previously may have seemed boring or bland, and it's easier to stick to reasonable portion sizes.  It becomes much easier to say, in all sincerity, "Thank you, that was delicious.  But now I'm full."

That's why I think this is a paradox.

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