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Satiety, Potatoes, and Chicken Breeds

the food reward hypothesis is bogus

Satiety, Potatoes, and Chicken Breeds

In his article discussed in the previous post, Dr Christianson recommends plain, boiled, cooled potatoes as the most effective "hunger blocker." It's important to recognize that this article can't be taken in isolation and must be seen in the functional medicine/paleo discourse in which it was written, no matter how mainstream an audience he's reaching for.

To which point, as I already hinted, you can't mention plain, boiled, cooled potatoes without bringing up the food reward hypothesis and the concept of resistant starch (separate but related).

(my previous post) (Dr Christianson's article)

The "resistant starch" hypothesis, as I said already, suggests that this particular kind of fiber is fermented by gut bacteria into short-chain fatty acids, highly satiating. But this begs the question whether a given person harbors the appropriate bacteria. Some would say that eating resistant starch will attract colonies of these bacteria, but in the meantime, depending on your bugs, you could get horribly bloated and gain weight. Even if you think you'd like some of those bacteria, this isn't good short-term weight-loss strategy.

Food reward. Basically, the food reward hypothesis claims that the better food tastes, the more of it you'll eat--and, the implication goes, the more you eat the more likely you are to be in positive energy balance and gain weight (false: you could very possibly be more active after eating more calories, for example, or blow through a bunch of energy doing some hardcore math or writing, not to mention that happy chemicals burn calories).

There are so many things wrong with this hypothesis/claim:

  1. First off, it implies that those people who do  get fat (since, obviously, not everyone does) are gluttonous and deficient in willpower, thus perpetuating a reprehensible cultural meme.
  2. It takes for granted the simplistic notion that whoever eats the most gets fattest. So, the gluttons who have no self control are the ones who everyone else gets to despise. Again, this is completely false. A simplistic counterexample to this simplistic notion: Lou is 21 and a college soccer player; Ashley is 67, type-2 diabetic, and sedentary. Never mind confounding details like their genders; you can be sure that Lou is leaner than Ashley, and I'd be willing to bet that Lou eats a lot more than Ashley too. In my observation, activity level correlates to caloric intake far better than fatness. In other words, people who are very physically active tend to eat a lot. People with high bmis? Some eat a lot, some don't. Sort of like people with average bmis.
  3. It's not controversial that "mono diets," where a person only eats one food for a period of time, lead to spontaneous reduction in amount consumed. This single item can be potatoes, or it can be twinkies. This phenomenon of "getting bored" with the food and so eating less isn't necessarily a behavioral issue, though. All foods contain toxins, and the body's systems are going to shut down desire for any given food after a certain point.
  4. The better a food tastes, the sooner a person is satisfied by it. Bitter herbs have been used for millennia, in many different herbal systems, to enhance sensitivity to the taste of a food and thus regulate and reduce appetite. Conversely, people with conditions that dull their taste buds tend to eat more.
  5. On the other hand, the Pringles "once you pop you can't stop" scenario is real. Foods designed to be "craveable" (yes, they had to come up with a word for it)--foods designed to make you less rather than more satiated, so you'll eat more (how illogical is that?) are being designed by scientists in labs. These foods are optimized for sugar/fat/salt (carb+fat together=more fattening; too much salt can conversely desensitize taste buds), laced with chemicals, and designed to be maximally beguiling through textural and visual cues too, let alone canny marketing. They then get called "maximally rewarding." Guys, this isn't reward. This is excitotoxicity. When a food tastes really good, you don't need to keep eating more and more of it. The food reward hypothesis confuses reward with excitotoxicity.

So, where's the reward in "food reward"? Let me tell you a story about the chickens who freely roamed one of the farms I lived on in Hawaii. A small cohort of these chickens showed up at my cabin early every morning to see what might be good. They were Rhode Island Reds and White Leghorns.

It was fascinating to me how the different breeds differed in what they were willing to eat.  It's true, the Rhodies, who ate a greater variety--they were helpful in eating up the endless earwigs, for example--were bigger than the pickier Leghorns. Someone said the Rhodies ate more because more things tasted good to them, implying gluttony again. (Food reward for chickens? Another nutrition just-so story. I don't think birds atually have taste buds.)

But here's the other truth: the thin Leghorns across the board were stupid, and the Rhodies were noticeably smarter. Despite their pickiness, it was a Leghorn that got hold of and swallowed a worm-shaped rubber fishing lure and could not be dissuaded or tempted (with some real food) to drop it. Stupid, and stubborn.

My point? (And bear in mind this is coming from someone with celiac disease who's also restricted her diet in one way or another (from fruitarian to ketogenic) her whole life.) My point is twofold:

  • Applying the concept of food reward to fatness is totally bogus.
  • If there is any "reward' to eating a wide variety and quantity of foods, that reward is smartness, as well as greater potential to be active--energy use vs energy conservation.

About the Author

Ela Harrison

Ela is a wordsmith and herb lover who has lived in many places and currently resides in Tucson, AZ.

Comments (2)

  • Elizabeth


    03 July 2015 at 07:27 | #

    Interesting thoughts on food reward. I guess there are multiple factors leading to "satiety," boredom being only one. Since most people don't have a cognitive frame that would include toxicity signalling, I guess they'd just identify that message from the body "no more potatoes, please!" as a kind of satiety. Like, after eating nothing but potatoes for a while, you can't bear the thought of another bite. For my part, I like it best when "satiety" precedes "fullness" by a comfortable measure. I don't enjoy being hungry, but I don't particularly enjoy being "full" either. So I have a certain wariness around foods where the satiety never kicks in or where it kicks in only at/beyond point of fullness. I think it can be very subtle, hence the need (at least for me) to eat slowly/mindfully. You are right that first bite is best, but there's not a really significant drop off after that, so you do have to be paying attention. When is the cherry I'm eating not as good as the last? Kind of like those eye exams where they're flipping the lenses back and forth and they ask you "better or worse" and then you get to where you just can't tell a difference. Or I guess the opposite of that. You know what I mean. With some foods, it's like there's no difference until you've eaten a bit. But the trick is to notice the drop off in satiety before you are full, disgusted, bored, etc., with whatever the food is. So there's just that pleasant feeling that comes from having eaten something deliciousness, or nourishing, etc., that allows you to get on with your day and not think about eating until "hunger" (the real thing) arises again some hours later.

    I am so. not. there. I always seem to overeat cherries, for example, but I have the principle down. Yesterday I was craving baklava. Strangest of cravings, though I've been following events in Greece very closely, so maybe it was wanting to eat something Greek? Anyway, there's an amazing Greek bakery, and I biked over there. And I was like, how many pieces to buy? I knew one or two would not be enough, so it was a question of whether to buy three or four. I went for the even number. I figured I'd eat whatever I bought and I was ok with eating four pieces. Anyway, it turns out to have been perfect decision. Two was definitely not enough. The bites of the third piece every bit as delish as bites of piece one and two. There's no way I wasn't eating the fourth piece, however. Maybe there was just the slightest drop off. It was pretty imperceptible. Piece four was also pretty delicious. But also satiating. Could have been more psychological than physical - I'm not sure my mind would have allowed my body to eat a fifth piece. Now here's the interesting thing. Two pieces was not enough. If I'd bought only two, I'd have eaten them and I'd hardly have been satisfied. I don't know if it would have been "craving" that I'd have experienced, but it would have been a certain unsatisfaction (a lack of satiety?). I might have gotten on my bike and gone back to the bakery for more. Three on other hand would have been fine and I could have stopped at three had I not had another piece in house. Four was just right. I am still (the next day) in that "perfectly satisfied" state. So I guess there's a margin of error with these things and not to hard, when you know yourself, to stay in the margins. The tough thing is when your body changes, when you're dealing with illness, etc., and you have to recalculate everything because you're intuition's off.

    I think there was a potato study, I remember it vaguely, where the results were the opposite of the Super Size Me study (you know, where the guy ate nothing but McDonalds for 30 days, gained weight, and got very unhealthy). The guy in the potato study LOST weight and apparently all his biomarkers improved too (I guess it wasn't what anyone was expecting ...).


    • Ela


      06 July 2015 at 14:04 | #

      Elizabeth, it is always so good to hear from you and to get the benefit of your insights and reflections.
      Yes, the potato study is referenced in my post! Where I mention potato diets and twinkie diets, it's linked out.
      I love your baklava story, even down to the detail that the hankering itself may have arisen as a result of having your mind on things Greek. And your reportage of the process of figuring out how many to have, and then the careful monitoring of consumption, was a fascinating case study.
      Some of where I'm going with this whole satiety conversation, and the fact that context is everything, is that the current public health discourse is not empowering people, because it's not placing enough/much/any emphasis on the concept that we have some choice/some ability to be conscious, some ability to reflect.
      The concept of "hacking" has more to do with being resigned to being stuck with unconscious programming and trying to pull levers to change it. But being conscious about choices being made in the moment might be the ultimate lever! Which of course allows for excursions and overeating of cherries on occasion too ;) That said, I'm with you on wariness around foods that never trip the "off" switch. Why eat something that makes you hungrier? That's how I finally saw the light after reverting to fruitarianism one last time--I realized that very often I was hungrier than when I started after eating a bunch of fruit. Chocolate, it pains me to say, is in this category too--for me. Something excitatory. I know that for many it has the opposite effect.
      Thanks again for your thoughts!


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