Dish­ing the data: New food find­ings to help you make smart choices

Knowl­edge is power, es­pe­cially when it comes to food choices. We share new find­ings and bust some myths so that you can get smart about what goes on your plate

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WWe make an as­ton­ish­ing num­ber of food de­ci­sions ev­ery day – more than 200, in fact. Of course, we’re not aware of all these de­ci­sions, as on many oc­ca­sions it’s our sub­con­scious com­ing into play. On the one hand, this al­lows us to fo­cus more on other things, but on the other hand, it can lead to not-so-healthy de­ci­sions, es­pe­cially when it comes to some­thing as emo­tion­ally charged as eat­ing. But how can we nav­i­gate this maze, be­come smarter eaters and re­ally en­joy food if we don’t even know the role our mind and brain play in our daily food choices? Thank­fully, re­search in this area has made great progress in re­cent years – a stroke of luck not just for our health, but also for our en­joy­ment of the food on our plates.


We’ve barely got up and we’re al­ready think­ing about food. Where should we get cof­fee, and what will we have with it? Where’s a nice place to have lunch, and with whom? Sushi or pizza af­ter work? And what do I need to top up in the fridge? We make 80% of all food de­ci­sions at home or in the nearby area. Our di­rect home en­vi­ron­ment, and a small ra­dius of less than 10km around it, de­ter­mines how and where we sat­isfy our hunger and culi­nary crav­ings ev­ery day. Psy­chol­o­gist Brian Wansink calls it the food ra­dius.

We no­tice the de­gree to which this be­comes a habit as soon as our food ra­dius changes, like when we go on hol­i­day. No mat­ter where we are, we im­me­di­ately test the new ter­ri­tory’s culi­nary suit­abil­ity and es­tab­lish rit­u­als be­cause most of us are ex­tremely rit­u­alised – or sim­ply in our com­fort zone – when it comes to shop­ping and eat­ing. This sense of com­fort is based on an eco­log­i­cal prin­ci­ple known as op­ti­mal for­ag­ing. Ac­cord­ing to this prin­ci­ple, we pre­fer to seek food sources that guar­an­tee max­i­mum net en­ergy in­take for the low­est amount of en­ergy ex­pended. So if we want to un­der­stand why we eat a par­tic­u­lar way, we need to crit­i­cally ex­am­ine our food ra­dius.

How do we do this? Look at which shops nearby re­in­force healthy habits, and which re­in­force un­healthy ones. Where do we go, and why? Do we go for frozen veg­eta­bles at the su­per­mar­ket be­cause that’s more prac­ti­cal than mak­ing a de­tour to the farm­ers’ mar­ket? Dis­cov­er­ing our ra­dius can high­light the health­ier op­tions that are avail­able to us.


An ex­ten­sive study by sci­en­tists at the Weiz­mann In­sti­tute of Sci­ence in the Is­raeli town of Re­hvoot caused a stir in di­etary re­search. In it, the blood sugar lev­els of the 800 par­tic­i­pants were read ev­ery five min­utes for a week. These lev­els

pro­vided de­tailed in­for­ma­tion on sleep­ing and eat­ing habits, stress lev­els in cer­tain sit­u­a­tions, and sports and other ac­tiv­i­ties. The study found giv­ing broad di­etary ad­vice and rec­om­men­da­tions to the gen­eral pop­u­la­tion has lim­ited ef­fec­tive­ness. What may be healthy for one per­son may be far from healthy for an­other. “In some cases, the par­tic­i­pants had com­pletely op­po­site re­ac­tions to a meal,” says bi­ol­o­gist Eran Se­gal. For ex­am­ple, one par­tic­i­pant’s blood sugar lev­els shot up dra­mat­i­cally af­ter eat­ing toma­toes, while for oth­ers, eat­ing sushi caused a sharper rise in blood sugar than ice cream did.

Sci­en­tists be­lieve that, in ad­di­tion to age and ex­er­cise habits, bac­te­rial flora in the gut are also a key fac­tor in los­ing weight. Our gut is where a num­ber of hor­mones are formed, in­clud­ing those de­ter­min­ing whether we’re hun­gry or full. When cer­tain bac­te­rial strains dom­i­nate, fewer ap­petite-sup­press­ing hor­mones are re­leased. This means it’s of­ten cus­tomised di­etary ad­vice, not gen­eral di­etary rec­om­men­da­tions, that will help to con­trol in­creased blood sugar.

For you that may mean com­pre­hen­sive, per­son­alised di­etary changes – which in­clude pro­bi­otic foods for healthy gut flora – could be more likely to yield re­sults than a gen­er­alised diet. Al­ter­na­tively, we can fol­low the Ja­panese phi­los­o­phy of ‘hara hachi bu’ mean­ing ‘only eat un­til you are 80% full’.


Any­one who in­stinc­tively reaches for a choco­late bar when feel­ing down may be sur­prised by the re­sults of the fol­low­ing ex­per­i­ment. Par­tic­i­pants who watched a dis­turb­ing film were then given ei­ther their favourite com­fort food, a snack they liked, a muesli bar or noth­ing. In all cases, their mood im­proved with or with­out the com­fort food. Yet 81% of par­tic­i­pants had pre­vi­ously said they were con­vinced their com­fort foods helped boost their mood. What is in­dis­putable, how­ever, is the fact that feel­ings af­fect our judge­ment.

When ag­i­tated, we find it more dif­fi­cult to cor­rectly assess the kilo­joule value and fat con­tent of food. An­other ex­per­i­ment saw par­tic­i­pants watch happy, sad or bor­ing videos. They were then asked to es­ti­mate the fat con­tent of a mix­ture of milk and cream. Those who had watched emo­tion­ally dis­turb­ing films sig­nif­i­cantly un­der­es­ti­mated the fat con­tent, whereas those who had watched bor­ing films did not. Our work­ing mem­ory sim­ply has lim­ited ca­pac­i­ties. It’s not pos­si­ble for us to ex­pe­ri­ence an emo­tional sit­u­a­tion and still cor­rectly assess the fat con­tent of French fries.

The find­ing that our moods still brighten with­out fatty com­fort foods can help us be more thought­ful about giv­ing in to emo­tional eat­ing.



How do we tell that we’ve eaten enough? Is it the mo­ment we start feel­ing un­com­fort­ably full? Or when we’ve fin­ished ev­ery­thing on our plate? For most peo­ple, the feel­ing of a full stom­ach is the surest sign. The stom­ach is, in fact, a hol­low or­gan, and can be trained sim­i­larly to a mus­cle, which is why its in­take ca­pac­ity can the­o­ret­i­cally be dou­bled within a short space of time. In one study, Allan Geliebter from Co­lum­bia Univer­sity in New York in­serted bal­loons into the stom­achs of his par­tic­i­pants, and filled these bal­loons with wa­ter in 100ml in­cre­ments. Each time more wa­ter was added, the par­tic­i­pants would be asked how full they felt. The slim peo­ple’s in­take ca­pac­ity stopped at a stom­ach vol­ume of around 1100ml, while that of the heav­ier par­tic­i­pants only ended at 2200ml, and some­times even higher. Those who rely solely on the sen­sa­tion of their stom­ach be­ing stretched are likely to be eat­ing a lot more than they need.

When it comes to feel­ing full, hor­mones also play a part. When the hor­mone ghre­lin is re­leased into the stom­ach lin­ing, it sends sig­nals to the brain, where it in­flu­ences com­plex pro­cesses such as hunger, sleep, ad­dic­tion and sa­ti­a­tion. Eat­ing good fats is im­por­tant as they not only cause ghre­lin lev­els to slowly sink, but keeps them low for an ex­tended pe­riod, which is why a hand­ful of nuts will keep us feel­ing full.

We need to think about both what we eat and also how we eat. Di­etary ex­perts be­lieve it’s im­pos­si­ble to have a healthy re­la­tion­ship with food when the body’s own sig­nals are be­ing ig­nored, and ex­ter­nal cues like hav­ing an empty plate are in­stead used as in­di­ca­tions of sat­is­fac­tion.


We know what we eat af­fects our sleep qual­ity; but did you know that how we sleep also af­fects what we eat? These are the find­ings of stud­ies con­ducted by the New York Obe­sity Nu­tri­tion Re­search Cen­ter. Too lit­tle sleep makes us hun­gry and weak­ens our self-con­trol, as the hor­mone lep­tin is re­leased dur­ing sleep, and tells the body it is full. That’s why we man­age to go 10 hours with­out food. If we don’t sleep at all, don’t sleep long enough, or don’t sleep well, ghre­lin – also known as the hunger hor­mone – comes into play.

A Univer­sity of Penn­syl­va­nia study con­firmed the cor­re­la­tion be­tween hunger and hours of sleep. They stud­ied the eat­ing habits of peo­ple who had a nor­mal amount of rest, peo­ple who slept long hours, and peo­ple who didn’t get much sleep, and found those who were sleep de­prived had the high­est calo­rie in­take and low­est vi­ta­min C lev­els.

So don’t feel bad about set­ting your alarm to go off half an hour later – be­ing well rested al­lows us to make smarter eat­ing de­ci­sions.


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