Thoughts on Food Reward

The latest post in Stephan Guyunet’s ongoing series about food reward and how it affects obesity (or body-fat set point) is out, and it comes with recommendations for how to lower body-fat.  I’ve been waiting for this post for a while.  I’ve really enjoyed reading about food reward theory, but was unclear about how to put it into practice.  I was more than a little worried that I would have to be even more strict about my food choices.  Luckily, that isn’t the case.  But before we get to my thoughts on that, let’s do a quick overview of food reward theory for those of you new to the concept.

What the heck is food reward anyway?

“Food reward is the process by which eating specific foods reinforces behaviors that favor the acquisition and consumption of the food in question.”(1) Our brain rewards us for good behavior – behavior that it perceives as positive for our survival – and discourages behavior that it perceives as threatening.  As you can imagine, this was quite useful for the survival of our species.  Fire causes pain, so don’t touch fire, etc.  This same system of reward also extends to food.  There are several qualities in food that we are programmed to seek out, such as: fat, starch, sugar, salt, meatiness, absence of bitterness (though we can learn to like this in the right context [i.e. beer]), certain food textures, certain aromas, and caloric-dense foods.(2) In the natural environment, foods that contained a high amount of sugar/salt/etc. would have been very limited in quantity, and prized whenever found.  As these food qualities were important to our survival, it is completely natural to crave them.

The problem began with the modern age and the advent of food manufacturing (and to some extent, the advent of agriculture.)  In a capitalist economy, companies that produce foods that we crave (will come back to again and again) are capitalizing on our continued business.  In this way, one can imagine that only the most rewarding foods (i.e. those chalk-full of fat/sugar/salt/etc.) would “survive”.  So what?  We’re getting the nutrients our bodies crave for survival, so it all has to be a good thing.  Right?

Well, here’s the catch – our brains were built to deal with a healthy range of rewarding experiences.  As is often the case with our bodies and our health, balance is the key factor here (i.e. not too much or too little).  Industrially processed foods have been manufactured to plug in to our food reward centers – creating superstimuli that short-circuit how our food-reward system was meant to function (much the same way as drugs do, albeit to a lesser extent.)

The theory posits that overly rewarding foods trigger a negative feedback loop at the hypothalamus where body fat is controlled, driving up the “body-fat set point” – or the level of body fat that our bodies want to maintain. This theory takes care of several inconsistencies in nutritional research to date, including the fact that BOTH  low-fat & low-carb diets can spur weight loss, because both result in a reduction of overall food reward.

Theory to Practice

If you’re like me, your knee-jerk reaction may be to ask:  How does this affect me?  Do I really have to stop seasoning my paleo chili?  Should I never indulge in a “paleo-friendly” treat again?  How mad am I going to drive my friends/family/significant other trying to stick to this?

Have no fear. You don’t have to do anything (more) crazy than you’re already doing.  In large part, Stephan’s recommendations are what I’d consider a Paleo template(3): eliminate processed foods and potential food toxins, eat nutrient dense foods, eat to satiety, and don’t worry about overall macro-nutrient ratio (i.e. % of carbs, protein, fat) that much.  Combined with smart exercise, sleep, and stress management, this will be enough to turn the ship around for most people.  However, where it really gets interesting is for those folks that healthy eating and living are NOT enough to affect the desired change: namely, eliminating seasoning, keeping foods separate (no more easy stir-fry’s), and restricting variety in the diet.

When I was first learning to cook on my own, I didn’t know anything about seasonings and so rarely used them. Meals would often consist of a chicken breast, broccoli, a piece of fruit, and maybe a handful of nuts.  I made practically the same meal for breakfast everyday (and still do).  Variety was rare and I stuck to what I knew best.  Most people who saw my food wondered how the heck I could eat it when everything was so “bland”, and at the beginning I’ll admit it wasn’t that much fun.  But eventually, I came to enjoy the subtle flavors of my food, and didn’t feel like I was missing out at all.  This was when I first went on Paleo over a year ago, during which I lost several % points of body fat.

Luckily, I wasn’t forever doomed to a life without flavor.  Eventually, I learned to cook, and my food began to taste better.  (This is one of the true joys of eating REAL foods and cooking yourself – if nothing else you’ll figure a few things out through trial and error!)  Now I can cook a Paleo meal for friends and family with confidence that they’ll enjoy it as much as I do.

In retrospect, I wonder if it was the lack of variety/flavor that helped me lose the weight, and that now I’m keeping it off because I’m not indulging in overly rewarding foods that short-circuit the system (just some good spices and the occasional ‘paleo-friendly’ treat.)  Granted, it’s nothing more than a post hoc n=1 ‘experiment’.  As I mentioned before, for MOST PEOPLE simply eating REAL, healthy foods is enough to turn the ship around.  Still, it’s interesting to consider and worth trying if you’re one of those people that can’t seem to get over the hump.

How and whether you implement the changes that Stephen recommends is totally up to you, but I think we can safely argue that eating real foods as much as possible, cooking for ourselves, and avoiding  will industrially processed foods and ingredients will improve our health.


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