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Psycasm is the exploration of the world psychological. Every day phenomenon explained and manipulated to one's own advantage. Written by a slightly overambitious undergrad, Psycasm aims at exploring a whole range of social and cognitive processes in order to best understand how our minds, and those mechanisms that drive them, work.

My posts are presented as opinion and commentary and do not represent the views of LabSpaces Productions, LLC, my employer, or my educational institution.

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Friday, July 29, 2011

My girlfriend’s is a foody. She loves to cook, to talk, to read, and to critique food. I, on the other hand, am not.

I don’t particularly enjoy food and view its consumption as a ‘filling up the tank’ kind of exercise. It’s not that I don’t have a sense for food, or that I’m ignorant of what food is or what it should be. It’s just that eating seems to me a necessary provision for staying alive.

I’ve come to view this as an advantage over the years. Generally speaking I eat whatever I want, and don’t pay too much attention to my intake.  I’m active and fit so I can work off the ‘bad stuff’ pretty easily, but I do go to fat rather quickly if I slack off for more than a week.

Why do I think of this as an advantage? Well, I eat what I want ‘cause I’m assuming that what I want to eat is guided by what my body is telling me I need to eat. This is, however, only a layman’s hypothesis. Until recently I’ve never looked into the topic because I’ve never felt the need (that is, I’ve never suspected my diet as the cause of any ailments).

Recently, however, the motivation has arisen. My girlfriend has been charging me to do a podcast on the topic for a few months now and I recently had a discussion with a lecturer about the cognitive aspects of taste. This piqued my interest – particularly when I was told that there’s not a whole lot of research on taste out there. Great, I thought, a topic I can really get my teeth into...

It seems that there is a reasonable amount of research out there, but not so much that tackling the topic seemed unpalatable*.

…First, however, a quick aside. The professor I’m currently working under made a passing comment some time ago; something I think is relevant to the following discussion and an excellent way of framing a huge amount of research. Most, if not all of Cognitive psychology is Evo Psychology. Cognitions, particularly the way they’re quantified and examined, are the very explicit outcomes of Evolution. The way we focus our attention, the way we process information, and the way our sensory inputs are transduced and communicated to our nervous systems and sensory organs is pure evolution. There is often little room for explanations involving learning (a process which, ipso facto, is guided by natural selection), and next to no room for social explanations…

And so why do I think not being into food is a good thing? Well, I’m not a hedonic eater – I don’t eat for the sake of enjoyment; I’m not a big snacker, I’ve never really been into dessert, and I have only a moderate sweet tooth. I assume then that what remains is what I need to live by. I’m a philistine when it comes to food**.

A paper published very recently in Physiology and Behaviour (2011) lends a bit of support for my gut feelings***. The feeling I articulated earlier - assuming that what I want to eat is guided by what my body is telling me I need to eat – is described as ‘Body Wisdom’. The author, Tom Scott, argues that taste is governed by an ‘overarching mission’:

“…to guard the chemical welfare of the body through the acquisition of nutrients and avoidance of toxins”

My first impression was that the body tells itself what it  needs, but here Scott is arguing that taste informs the body if a given foodstuff is valuable, and only flirts with the idea of desire and cravings. It’s a subtle distinction which I will return to.  First let me point out, however, that there is nothing in a sugar molecule which says that it ought to be sweet. There’s nothing in the structure of caffeine that says it ought to be bitter, and nothing in Vinegar (Acetic acid) which would predict the reliable activation of my gag-reflex. Those are simply responses my body has which inform and guide my consumption of various foodstuffs.

Where's the flavour?

Here’s a neat graph which outlines this beautifully:

Right click and 'view image' for higher res.

It’s a graph from the Scott (2011) paper which demonstrates the mean number of licks (in a 15-sec  period), in rats, for various substances. The rats love Glucose (16) and Sucrose (30) (sugars) licking it upwards of 70 times in a 15 seconds period; but clearly avoid Strychnine (29) and Cadmium Chloride (9) – a poison and a (salt of a) metallic element respectively.

“Rats—and humans—inherit a taste system that performs accurate judgments about toxicity across a broad range of chemicals of diverse physical features. While strychnine and cadmium possess entirely different molecular structures, and poison the consumer by quite distinct means, the taste system, as chemical guardian of the body, has created receptors vigilant to both”

That’s not to say, however, that things in isolation that are not particularly desirable (say, vinegar) are not desirable in other contexts. We still need salts and metals in in our diets, we just don’t need much. Fortunately our sense of taste is beautifully tuned into these requirements. As a consequence this system needs to be dynamic. What once was desirable will need to become undesirable in the event that further consumption would not be beneficial (or even dangerous). No doubt we’ve all started a meal and not completed it because it was too fatty, or too salty, or even too sweet. That’s your sensory organs telling you enough.

Scott (2011) reports on neural responses in rats that show that when a rat is sated (by any chemical), as measured by blood glucose levels, it exhibits a decreased sensitivity for glucose. It seems that once sated glucose is not a salient feature for the rats, presumably moderating the rat’s desire for glucose containing foods. Perhaps it’s an artefact of not being able to ask the right question of a non-literate rodent, but in humans a different phenomenon emerges. Humans, after satiation, do not report a decrease in sensitivity to sugar, but they do report a ‘lowered hedonic appeal’ for sugary goods. I’m not sure if this is a learned thing, a social / cultural factor (rats, after all, do not share meals in the way humans do), or a rationalization thing (or a combination thereof); yet a similar finding was made in Macaques through some clever neurological inferences – suggesting it’s a little more hardwired than I might otherwise have guessed.

But that’s taste, right? By the time you taste something you’ve made a decision to seek it out, to prepare or purchase it, and to consume it. Taste is a moderating factor; but when I have a craving for something I don’t taste it, I just desire it – it’s a far less visceral experience for me (though I suspect not for everybody). Scott (2011) only flirts with this idea, which is no-doubt related to taste, but I suspect quite distinct from.

So what about my lay-theory? That my body guides my desires, prior to exposure of the substance itself?

I found a paper that was kind of close. Horio and Kawamura (1998) subjected a number of university students to bouts of intense exercise (on a cycling machine) and measured a number of physiological factors (e.g. Blood Pressure, Skin Temp, VO2 max). They then asked subjects to rate (on a scale of 1 – 7) how much the liked various solutions at various concentrations. The solutions they were given included Sucrose (sweet), Sodium Chloride (salt), Citric Acid (sour) and MSG (Monosodium Glutamate) (Umami). They found that after exercise people preferred Sucrose and Citric Acid in Preference / ‘hedonic tone’; and preferred Sucrose in greater concentrations. Control subjects who sat and twiddled their thumbs showed no differences for anything.

As far as taste and desire go, Horio and Kawamura (1998) say:

These changes may be caused by physiological changes in the body…. A feedback mechanism to the taste system may stimulate preference and consumption.”

They also juxtapose some dietary preferences reported by active athletes (runners and swimmers) to inactive individuals, and suggest … that beverages and food preferences just after acute exercise might differ from those after training for several weeks. Which I interpret as meaning that long-term physical activity may moderate desire for certain kinds of foodstuffs; though this statement is unsupported by what I have written thus far.

But it kind of makes sense, right? The body is capable of communicating preference for a given taste in light of very recent history (e.g. exercise), and may well be capable of moderating these taste preferences within individuals over time… it’s not a big leap to suggest that the body may learn/interpret that it is becoming increasingly active (or inactive) and moderate desires and cravings accordingly. There must surely be precedent for it, too. Prior to hibernation many animals will eat themselves stupid in order to survive a long, cold sleep. I suppose we don’t know if bears like salmon more during the pre-sleep period, or if they desire it more; only that salmon is abundantly available, convenient and great for putting on fat.

Theoretically it’s a simple experiment: Take an animal and offer it certain kinds of foods that contain various elements of nutrition, both before and after (counter-balanced) a hibernating period. It might be that bears love Salmon at any time and will eat themselves fat whenever possible; they might desire them at any time, but consume smaller quantities at times other than pre-hibernation (assuming being fat is not such a great thing); or it might be that Salmon are just per-winter food, and that’s that (though I suspect this one is unlikely).

My point is that the middle possibility (desire high; consumption low) would support my argument that the body informs desires about what is good to eat, and when.

In the meantime, however, I don’t feel too ashamed to say I occasionally eat a Quarter Pounder Meal after a big workout, or that a post-training beer isn’t exclusively for its intoxicating effects. However this research has done nothing to lead me to appreciate food more for what it is… but I certainly appreciate more my sense of taste as a governing factor in how I should eat. More power to the gustatory philistines!



*Nope, not apologizing for either of those.

** Incidentally, check out this blog – it’s freaken’ hilarious, and all about food and culture.

***Not apologizing for that, either.

--- Scott, T. (2011). Taste as a basis for body wisdom Physiology & Behavior, 104 (1), 57-63 DOI: 10.1016/j.physbeh.2011.04.016

Horio T, & Kawamura Y (1998). Influence of physical exercise on human preferences for various taste solutions. Chemical senses, 23 (4), 417-21 PMID: 9759528

Source for Sugar Structure:

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Blog Comments

Brian Krueger, PhD
Columbia University Medical Center
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I like how you threw in a million food puns.  I remember we had a similar food discussion in my evolution class in undergrad.  Taste is really our body telling us what is good to eat and what isn't, however, I think the problem with your chosen dietary path is that the things our body thinks are good to eat, sugars and fat, were in short supply for the majority of our life history and we had to work really hard to get them.  Now, everything you eat is loaded with this stuff so if you do fall off of the exercise wagon you're going to pay the price with an overloaded belly.  You should leave the nutrition decisions to your foody girlfriend.  You'll probably be better off ;)

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One symptom of anemia is craving very sweet things... I think there is validity to craving things the body needs. nice article!

Dub C Med School
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Ah, so you're like one of my roommates. He doesn't reallly care about what he eats either. That has, however, lead to some hilarious attempts at cooking for his girlfriend involving anchovies, heavy cream, shrimp stock and rice for...seafood risotto/rice pudding. I have weaned him off his thing for well done steaks, though. Mostly because I do most of the cooking in the apartment (the roommates clean in exchange) and refuse to cook anything well done.

Your hypothesis is pretty much in line with mainstream gustatory senses thinking. Paul Breslin's lab at Monell is doing a work on taste, cravings and diet. Interesting stuff they've got going on over there. I kind of want to grill them all on what they've found for my own hobby.

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Mmmm.... well-done steak... To be fair, I've succumb to peer pressure and asked for my steak as the chef would have it when I order out.

And Brian, you're probably right. I should stick with what my girlfriend does... however she does have a liking for desserts and bad-things. I've also heard a little bit about the abundance of fat and sugar contributing to the obesity 'epidemic'. It's a really provacative thought... and I think a fair argument.


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