Food for Thought, Thought for Food

Reality and PerceptionRecently researcher Alia Crum gave a group of subjects a drink called Sensishake, the label let them know that it was low-calorie with zero percent fat, zero added sugar, and 140 calories.

Another group of subjects were given a drink called Indulgence, the label let them know that it had high sugar, high fat, and 620 calories.

After they drank the shakes, the subject’s levels of ghrelin were measured.  Ghrelin, often called the hunger hormone, works in the human gut.  As levels of the hormone go up so do levels of hunger (to let us know that we need to find some food), meanwhile metabolism slows down (in case we’re in a situation where food is not available.)

The belief has been that ghrelin is secreted based on the nutrition one ingests.  The subjects in this study fit that pattern, the ghrelin levels of the subjects who drank Indulgence dropped about three times more than the ghrelin levels of those who drank Sensishake.

Just one thing:  Both groups actually drank the same thing  – a regular old milkshake with 380 calories.  The only difference between the groups of subjects was what they thought they were drinking.

Crum is clear that more studies need to be done before we fully understand the effects our beliefs have on our reactions to food, and of course she is right.  There are people who eat tons of food and have small bodies, there are people who eat a small amount of food and have large bodies.  We don’t know exactly how or why the way we feel about food can change the way we process it. We don’t know what effect a culture that is obsessed with talking about food and weight has on our bodies.  There is a lot about the human body that we don’t understand.  What we know for sure is that we don’t learn anything when people are sticking their fingers in their ears and yelling “IT’S THERMODYNAMICS FATTY!!!!”, and that we can’t say with any certainty that the size of our very complicated bodies can be manipulated using very simple math. It’s time to start asking questions and stop repeating tired tropes.

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28 thoughts on “Food for Thought, Thought for Food

  1. Interesting to note how perception affects ghrelin levels in the body. As a physics student, I’m inclined to agree with you: while thermodynamics underpins basically everything, you can’t shriek “THERMODYNAMICS!” and consider that an argument. The body is a hugely complex and chaotic system.

    1. I think they’ve already demonstrated that eating sugar substitutes often results in higher overall caloric intake…

    2. This has been known for some time. Remember those cookies that promised to be “just like” fudge cookies and so on except “good?” The ones in the green box? Snackums or Snackwells or something like that. There is so little fat in those cookies–so little anything–that to feel as though they’ve eaten a satisfying amount, people tend to eat an entire box. And that’s the same amount of calories as two regular cookies made with “bad” butter and whole eggs!

      And what was that thing a year or two ago, about a researcher announcing that he’d identified a biofeedback mechanism that causes “some people” to crave fat, and therefore he must find a way to short-circuit it? Gosh, maybe ingesting a certain amount of fat is important in some way.

      Fat is concentrated energy; therefore it is logical that people instinctively want it and feel satisfied when they have eaten it. Add in this new information about ghrelin production and “diet” foods start to look even less worth the money than they did before.

      1. All people crave fat. It’s vital to the body.

        Fat makes you feel full and satisfied. Without it, no matter how much you eat, you’ll still feel hungry. That’s why filling up on plain salad doesn’t work. You can eat three pounds of vegetables, but without some fat and/or protein, you’ll just feel empty. Bloated, maybe, but not full.

        When I was learning how to manage my diabetes (Yeah, we fatties actually take classes in how to eat!), I learned about this sort of thing. My body needs X amount of carbs, preferably in this form, or that form, but for a quick boost, juice or sugar-water can literally save your life. But ALWAYS follow such a quick-boosting sugar rush with fat and/or protein, because they serve the purpose of stabilizing the blood sugar, so you don’t crash again.

        “Some” people crave fat? Please.

        And you’re so right about those Snackwells. Plus, they load them with so many sweeteners that they always make me feel sick. A normal cookie beats them, every time.

        The diet industry is not only making people gain weight, but it is making people with health issues get even worse, while thinking they are doing things right.

        Natural foods are the best.

        1. I think “natural foods” is a nearly unusably broad category, but I agree that the fewer large-scale alterative processes to which food has been exposed (barring those needed to keep your food from rotting of course), the less likely it is that your food will make you sick. But. I used to get briefly violently ill on a regular basis. I couldn’t figure out what was happening. I was resigned to it, because fat=broken and being sick while fat=punishment for being fat in the first place, right?

          And then somebody I knew told me that she had had the same symptoms for years, until she stopped eating one particular super-nutritious, ultra-healthy, natural, and cheap food. Oranges.

          1. To be clear, what I meant was simply non-fake.

            Real sugar, instead of sugar substitute.

            Real fat, instead of fat substitute.

            Moderation in the real stuff, by all means, but avoid the food substitutes, whenever possible.

            Those things literally make me sick to my stomach, and bowels, and … UGH.

          2. Also, for a while, when I was a kid, my Dad was unemployed, and we were living on the oranges from our yard, and the food my Grandma would bring us. She bought Twinkies in bulk and brought them over by the TRUNK LOAD.

            At firsts, it was cool. We liked Twinkies. But after a while, we were so sick of them. All the kids in the neighborhood were sick of them. Parents would threaten their children with “You’d better behave, or we’ll send you the Youngs’ house, and they’ll make you eat TWINKIES!” “AAAAH!, No, Ma! Anything but that!”
            Dad, meanwhile, was eating the more nutritious oranges, instead. Once we got away from that situation, he could not eat oranges without getting sick for ten years.

            Overdo anything, and it’s bad for you. And some people just have some odd allergies.

  2. The power of the mind over body has been known for a long time. Those who practice mediatation and even cognitive behavior therapy understand this. Placebo effect also has been well known and employed over the years by many a wiley momma or grandma (not to mention health professionals/researchers).

    There is so much to know and learn about our body and how it responses to our thoughts and beliefs. I think science has only scratched the surface of the potential for individuals to self-heal and enhance healing with belief/thought.

    Interesting post! For me, it is just confirmation of things I know… its good to have some reinforcement when so many others like to argue.

  3. That totally reinforces my contention that when I am “on a diet” all I think about is food. I am hungry all of the time. But when I don’t try to diet, my body settles into a stable weight, just maybe mot the “ideal weight” on the doctor’s charts.

    1. Since I stopped dieting, I have not only stopped gaining weight (!!!!), but also have been much more satisfied with my life, in general.

      Telling people to diet is a means of keeping them down, psychologically, because while they are fighting their own bodies, they can’t fight their actual oppressors.

      Fight the Kyriarchy! Eschew diets!

  4. “We don’t know what effect a culture that is obsessed with talking about food and weight has on our bodies. There is a lot about the human body that we don’t understand. What we know for sure is that we don’t learn anything when people are sticking their fingers in their ears and yelling ‘IT’S THERMODYNAMICS FATTY!!!!’, and that we can’t say with any certainty that the size of our very complicated bodies can be manipulated using very simple math. It’s time to start asking questions and stop repeating tired tropes.”

    This dovetails with another recent NYT opinion piece about food and OMG TEH DEATHFATZ. The commenters, with their medical degrees from the University of POOMA, immediate went to town expounding on the subject. Almost every one of them were convinced they knew The Answer. Atkins! Gary Taubes! Stop”pandering” to fat people! Calories In/Calories Out! Paleo! Veganism! Sugar is the Devil! Wheat Belly! Get your big butt off the couch! Dr. Ornish! Get some character and discipline!

    And, in the end, no one knows anything, it’s just another circle-jerk of self-righteousness and fat-bashing.

    1. “Get some character and discipline!”

      It is my experience that people already have a certain amount of character and discipline. They can spend that character and discipline on important things, such as being kind and polite to other people, or spend it on controlling the uncontrollable. If they choose to control the uncontrollable, odds are, they will have little character and discipline left over for other things.

      This is my theory on why people who are so set on “I can be thin, and so can YOU, you big fat, FATTY!” are so darned rude. They have spent all of their “discipline points” for the day on fighting their bodies, and don’t have any left to fight their own internalized aggressions.

      “Happy fatties,” on the other hand, have decided it’s more important to spend their discipline points on things that really matter, such as real behavior, good manners, education, and the like.

      I know I’m much kinder now than I used to be, when I was fighting the battle of the bulge.

  5. That is amazing. It reminds me of a study I heard about on NPR where hotel cleaning people experienced a boost in health after learning that their physical activity on the job counts as exercise. I’ll have to look it up this weekend and post it…unless someone wants to beat me to it! 🙂

    1. It counts? Officially? You mean, they can log it, somewhere, and get “good fatty” points? (Not snarking at you, A. Elizabeth, but at the thought that something has to “count”)

      The fact that exercise has to “count” to be considered good enough really bugs me. You know, some employers penalize their workers for not exercising, and give added benefits to those who work out? I mean, actual LOGGED, and you get “points” to spend on things work outs. But the ones who are on their feet all day, working the machines in the plants, and running around, carrying heavy loads and the like, they don’t get the work-out points.


      Official exercise. Bleh.

      Still, psychologically, I can understand why their health would improve, when told that their hard work all day long did, in fact, “count.” It’s because they are no longer stressed out about being obliged to do more than they already are. Stress is a leading health-sink. Lower stress = better health.

  6. That has always been something which really aggravates me, that a lot of people, including a lot of so-called ‘experts’, cannot believe & accept that movement is movement, all exercise counts, & that if we are working & using our bodies, it is exercise. A lot of people are brainwashed to believe this as gospel, including my daughter-in-law, who is a manager at McDonald’s & works 45-55 hours per week on her feet, sitting down very little during the day & doing a lot of running around. She remarked to me the other day that, even though she gets sick very easily (she is a 6-time cancer survivor so far & has an underactive thyroid), doesn’t sleep enough, & is exhausted virtually all the time, she really NEEDS to do Zumba to get some exercise. Even I have internalized the cultural messages enough to be somewhat worried that, because I have some kind of virus today & don’t feel very well, I may miss my usual walk. Strangely enough, this kind of thing never bothered my mother or grandmother, who both lived to ripe old ages, & it also doesn’t seem to bother my 92-year-old mother-in-law very much either.

  7. Sigh. We need more of these studies, and more reporting on them. And can we PLEASE have the reporters give their report without finishing off with, “But we all know that it’s important to diet and lose weight,” or “But we could all stand to lose a few pounds” (because of course no one can be TOO thin, except models), or “But of course, diet and exercise…” (fill in the body-shaming blank).

    It’s very rare that these studies are actually broadcast for the world to see, without being invalidated by the “everyone knows” judgement.

    1. Yeah, I read something the other day about how dieting causes weight gain and yo-yo-ing is unhealthy, and they quoted all these studies saying so…

      … and the reporter still ended with something along the lines of “but we all know that being fat is unhealthy so I guess we have no choice but to keep dieting”.

      1. That is a totally lame-ass excuse. It’s like the ultimate “DUH”. It’s enforcing fat people being unhealthy with these behaviours, and then blaming us. I hate it!

        1. Hi Mich,

          I totally agree that this is crap! I also wanted to let you know that I used to use the words lame and duh a lot and had some people with disabilities reach out and let me know that it’s hurtful. I figure that a good use of my screwing up is to let others learn from my mistakes so I wanted to pass it along.


          1. Ok, thanks for the tip. I wasn’t using these words to refer to the disabled though. I was saying that the journalists/reporters are taking the lazy way out, and not examining the logical disconnect.

            Maybe journalists suffer from lame-brain? Since lame means we can’t function properly (eg. broken leg), and their brains are not working properly.

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