Some people have reacted negatively to the idea of a reduced-reward diet because it strikes them as difficult or unsustainable. In this post, I'll discuss my thoughts on the practicality and sustainability of this way of eating. I've also thrown in a few philosophical points about reward and the modern world.
The idea that excessive food reward/palatability contributes to fat gain, besides being well supported by scientific evidence, is also very intuitive. It's not the kind of idea that will draw strange looks from the person sitting next to you on the bus. If you take a careful look at the diets of healthy non-industrial cultures, even if some contain highly flavored items, they are almost invariably centered around one or a few simple staple foods such as taro, sweet potatoes, hand-pounded rice, milk, meat or nuts. These typically make up the majority of the meal, are usually eaten plain, and are sometimes accompanied by smaller amounts of other more exciting foods. Wealthy individuals throughout history that had access to expertly prepared rewarding/palatable food were much more likely to be obese. No one, until recently, had access to commercially processed foods that were professionally designed and industrially created to maximize flavor consistency and reward value.
We live in a society where most of the food is at a level of reward/palatability that our species has never encountered before. We're surrounded by it, and everywhere we turn, someone is jockeying for our attention, trying to get us to purchase their food. We're used to it-- and for the most part, we like it. This professionally engineered food drives our behavior in a way that is only loosely under our conscious control, with a small percentage of the population succumbing to frank addiction. So I can understand why some people are resistant to change.
However, losing fat and getting healthy will require some effort. What I've offered is a plan that puts the effort in food selection, rather than fighting the urge to eat more calories, which is typically a losing battle anyway. It also does not restrict micronutrients, macronutrients or any other health-giving element of the diet. If you think you will be able to find a way to lose fat and remain in long-term health while eating mostly commercially processed food (including restaurant food), you are fooling yourself. Processed food is the main problem, and if there is a solution, it is to avoid it. If you aren't willing or able to eat mostly home cooked food made from basic ingredients, as every healthy culture does, you will have to accept a higher likelihood of fat gain and disease. That is the cold, hard truth.
Cultures around the world have thrived, and continue to thrive, on very plain food. Our grandparents ate simpler food than us when they were our age, and the food that their grandparents ate was even simpler. There is nothing physically or psychologically necessary about the type of food that most people in affluent nations eat today. Level 1 of my plan should not be difficult, and if it is, it should serve as evidence of an unhealthy relationship with food. Levels 2 and 3 are at least as easy as most diet plans out there. And they are much easier and less restrictive than a number of popular diets (e.g., Ornish). The higher levels (4-5) require more effort and are for people who don't respond adequately to the lower levels. Each person is different and can pick the level that is appropriate for his/her own body, lifestyle and preferred weight.
The Basic Nature of the Problem
I believe that we live in a culture of overstimulation. The nature of commercial competition means that only the most stimulating products survive. These far exceed what many of us are equipped to handle constructively. Video games are a good example. Many people, particularly boys and young men, have a destructive relationship with video games. Have you seen the news report about the Korean man who died after playing video games for 50 hours straight in an internet cafe (1)? Television is another example. The average American watches roughly four hours of television a day. I'm sorry, but that is just sick. Although I recognize that it has some positive aspects, TV has replaced a lot of constructive activities in our lives because it is rewarding enough to compel us to stay glued to it. I stopped watching TV nine years ago, and I can't express how liberated I feel. I never liked watching TV very much, yet I had trouble tearing myself away. When someone asks me how I have the time to do a postdoc and write this blog, I say "I don't watch TV".
Food works the same way. We are overstimulated by commercial food, and it drives us to obesity and ill health. There are certainly other factors involved, but that is a central one, and it has the broadest explanatory power of any diet-obesity hypothesis I've encountered.
The most effective way to prevent yourself from succumbing to high-reward stimuli is to avoid them. Cues such as smells, sights and even sounds that are associated with certain foods can trigger a level of desire that exceeds willpower. That's why restaurants pipe smells onto the sidewalk, it's why food manufacturers have ads, and it's why they design packaging very deliberately. These cues slowly, slowly lose their power over time if you avoid the foods that are associated with them.
The best way to avoid succumbing to junk food is to steer clear of it. Don't keep it in your house if you can avoid it. Only keep foods in your house that you are comfortable eating. Another tool is to make rules for yourself. If you say "I'm not going to eat any food at the party tonight", you don't have to wrestle with yourself once you get there, weighing the pros and cons of having "just one" chocolate chip cookie. You have a rule and you just stick to it. Simple yet effective. I first encountered that idea in Dr. David Kessler's book "The End of Overeating"-- it comes straight from the drug cessation playbook.
Resetting Reward Sensitivity
I believe that highly stimulating food is desensitizing, just as drugs of abuse are desensitizing. People who eat sweet food regularly find it less sweet than people who rarely eat sweet food. Ask just about any immigrant to the US what they think about how American food is sweetened. A similar process occurs with salt, and probably many other flavors.
I believe that we can reset our reward sensitivity to some extent simply by avoiding excessively rewarding food, and become satisfied by simple food again. Simple food becomes more satisfying over time. I've found that to be true, but it seems to require several weeks.
Some people are highly susceptible to rewarding things, and rely heavily on excessively rewarding food to feel good. These people often have an "addictive personality", which is very common and nothing to be ashamed of. However, it does make life more difficult in the modern environment. These are the people who tend to pick up a new addiction every time they get rid of one-- trading an addiction to cigarettes for food, gambling for alcohol, etc. For these people, it may help to deliberately introduce a constructive rewarding activity such as exercise at the same time as the diet change.
I think meditation is potentially a powerful tool for resetting reward sensitivity. Mindfulness meditation is the ultimate low-reward activity, as you are basically staring at a wall for a while and seeing what happens. It re-trains your mind to notice and be more satisfied by ordinary stimuli. Perhaps you'll notice yourself breathing, or notice a dog barking outside, whereas before, those stimuli were not sufficiently salient to capture your attention. After multi-day meditation retreats, I'm always amazed at how intense it feels to eat food. Even simple food is a sensory explosion and extremely satisfying.
That is also a key difference between meditation and psychedelic drugs. Psychedelic drug intoxication is a high-reward state, whereas meditation is generally a low-reward state. Drugs can cause a feeling of oneness that is similar to what a person can experience while meditating, but they lack the ability to increase reward sensitivity and restore a constructive relationship with everyday life. Zen Buddhism emphasizes coming to terms with the ordinary nature of life with phrases such as "just this", "ordinary mind" and "everyday mind". Seeking enlightenment or any new fancy relationship with the world is seen as delusion, which admittedly is a bit paradoxical. But it becomes less paradoxical with practice.
I see meditation as a powerful antidote to the challenging psychological environment in which most of us live. I think that relates at least in part to its ability to increase reward sensitivity, increase perceptiveness, and decrease stress. If a person is concerned that they will not be able to feel satisfied without modern high-reward foods, I suggest meditation as an adjunct practice to eating simple food. It should become easier over time as your tastes adjust. I posted a meditation primer here.