Thursday, June 2, 2011

Food Reward: a Dominant Factor in Obesity, Part V

Non-industrial diets from a food reward perspective

In 21st century affluent nations, we have unprecedented control over what food crosses our lips.  We can buy nearly any fruit or vegetable in any season, and a massive processed food industry has sprung up to satisfy (or manufacture) our every craving.  Most people can afford exotic spices and herbs from around the world-- consider that only a hundred years ago, black pepper was a luxury item.  But our degree of control goes even deeper: over the last century, kitchen technology such as electric/gas stoves, refrigerators, microwaves and a variety of other now-indispensable devices have changed the way we prepare food at home (Megan J. Elias.  Food in the United States, 1890-1945). 

To help calibrate our thinking about the role of food reward (and food palatability) in human evolutionary history, I offer a few brief descriptions of contemporary hunter-gatherer and non-industrial agriculturalist diets.  What did they eat, and how did they prepare it? 

The Ache of Paraguay

The Ache are recently contacted rainforest hunter-gatherers who live a predominantly traditional lifestyle.  They are more hunter than gatherer, with the large majority of their high calorie intake coming from various game animals, generally killed using a large bow and arrow.  Although the rainforest contains many potential prey animals, they rely predominantly on only a few.  These include armadillos, paca, tapirs, monkeys, peccaries, lizards and a few other species.  Meat is cooked simply on a fire or boiled, typically with no salt or flavorings added (1, Kim Hill and A. Magdalena Hurtado. Ache Life History).  I've never eaten armadillo or tapir, but I know that wild game meat is often very tough and gamey-- with some exceptions.  Gnawing on an unseasoned armadillo leg is probably not very appetizing to the average Westerner. 

Gathered foods also play an important role in the Ache diet, with only a few foods providing most of their calories in this category.  Palm starch is extracted and simply cooked.  Honey also provides a significant proportion of calories, with fruit playing a minor role.  The Ache also eat various insect larvae, including bee larvae that they collect along with the honey.  They drink water almost exclusively, and do not have alcohol.  They are characteristically lean (Kim Hill and A. Magdalena Hurtado. Ache Life History).

Honey is probably the most rewarding/palatable food in the Ache diet, but as delicious as honey is, I suspect honey itself is only moderately rewarding if it's eaten plain.  However, sweetening other foods using honey can increase their reward value considerably. I think most people would rather eat a bowl of ice cream than eat the sugar, cream and vanilla bean separately.  I don't know how the Ache eat their honey-- if anyone knows, please leave a comment.

The !Kung San of Botswana

The !Kung diet is predominantly composed of plant foods.  Among the !Kung groups that I'm familiar with from the work of anthropologist Dr. Richard B. Lee, by far the single largest source of calories is the mongongo nut and the fruit that surrounds it.  The fruit is eaten raw or gently stewed in a metal pot (a relatively recent introduction).  The nuts are roasted, shelled and eaten plain.  During certain parts of the year, they eat almost nothing but mongongo nuts.  Various starchy tubers/corms/roots are cooked on a fire or in its ashes and eaten plain, and Western observers say they have a pleasant flavor.  Leaves are sometimes collected for "salads", although of course no salad dressing is used. They also gather and eat various insects.

Hunted foods are an important part of the !Kung diet.  Men use bows, arrows, spears, hooks and clubs to obtain a variety of large and small game.  They value the liver highly, believing it imparts strength.  Meat is typically boiled in a metal pot until it's tender, then crushed in a mortar and eaten plain.  Before metal pots, it was presumably cooked on the fire or in ashes.

The !Kung don't use salt or seasonings in their food. They mostly drink water, although they also drink the liquid pressed from certain roots.  This liquid is said to have a pleasant flavor.  They do not have alcohol.  They are generally very lean (2, Richard B. Lee. The !Kung San; Jiro Tanaka. The San: Hunter-Gatherers of the Kalahari).

Polynesian islanders (and the Melanesian island of Kitava)

The food habits of most traditional Polynesian and certain Melanesian islands centered around starchy staple foods including taro, breadfruit, yams and sweet potatoes (today, additional starchy foods have been introduced, including cassava).  Other important foods included coconut, fish and shellfish, taro leaves and a few fruits (today, they have many more fruits that were introduced).  They had sugar cane, but it was chewed plain as a snack, in moderate quantity.  Pork was a rare treat for most people.  Food was simply cooked in an earth oven, which is between steaming and baking, and typically served plain.  Most islands had virtually no herbs or spices.  One exception is turmeric, although it was mostly used as a dye and not commonly eaten.  They sometimes used seawater to salt their food, either during cooking or as a condiment.

On Kitava, they use chili pepper and ginger as flavorings, which they have had for a few hundred years.  Just recently, they've begun using citrus fruits such as lemons to flavor seafood.  They also frequently use seawater to salt their cooking, particularly when cooking in pots, which may be a relatively recent introduction.  This information comes from Job Daniel, a Kitavan living in Papua New Guinea who has been kind enough to answer my questions.

The food on most islands would have been fairly repetitive and moderately low in fat, with the majority of calories coming from a single starchy food source in most seasons.  Although most islands relied on several starchy staples, they were generally seasonal, so a group might find itself eating mostly Colocasia taro for three months, mostly breadfruit for three months, etc.  A few islands, such as Tokelau, relied on coconut for the majority of calories throughout the year.

On most islands, water was the primary beverage, although they all drank coconut water at times.  On a few islands, coconut water was the primary beverage because there was little or no fresh water.  Coconut water is delicious, and judging by my own reaction to it, highly rewarding (the first thing I thought after I drank some was "where can I get more of this stuff??").  They did not have alcohol.

Feast days included more complex dishes, such as "puddings", which are mixtures of coconut cream and grated or pounded starches.  These are probably quite delicious and rewarding, but not available to the average person on a daily basis. 

High-ranking individuals ate this kind of food more frequently, and in addition were often deliberately overfed to represent the prosperity of the community.  These people were usually overweight and sometimes obese, while the average person was generally lean.  Although frank obesity was uncommon, what we would call overweight was not necessarily rare on some islands.  On Kitava, there is no overweight or obesity whatsoever (Nancy J. Pollock. These Roots Remain; Douglas Oliver. Polynesia in Early Historic Times).

New Guinea highlanders

In the New Guinea highland village of Tukisenta in the 1980s, people ate virtually nothing but sweet potatoes (90+ percent of calories), with small contributions from vegetables, pork and insects.  They drank water and they did not have alcohol.  They were characteristically lean, with female fat mass peaking during reproductive years and declining thereafter.  Male fat mass remained low and constant throughout life.  They were physically fit, showed no sign of malnutrition and had an extraordinarily good glucose tolerance.

They cooked their food in earth ovens, and used no flavorings or salt.  Their diet was extraordinarily bland and repetitive (Hugh Trowell and Dennis Burkitt. Western Diseases). 

The Maasai of Kenya and Tanzania

The traditional Maasai were pastoralists obtaining much all their calories from the milk, meat and blood of the cows they raised.  They also ate starchy foods such as grains and legumes that were primarily obtained by trade.  Much of their calories came from very fatty milk, which was eaten fermented, fresh or cooked with bitter herbs.  Blood was eaten raw or cooked, sometimes with milk.  Meat was cooked on a fire or stewed, sometimes with bitter herbs.  They did not use salt or sweet foods.  They did not have alcohol.

The traditional Maasai were very lean, had low blood cholesterol, low blood pressure and an undetectable incidence of heart attacks (3, 4, 5).  Their diet was relatively bland and extremely repetitive.


Overall, historical hunter-gatherers and non-industrial agriculturalists/horticulturalists/pastoralists ate a diet that most modern people would find bland, and in some cases even unpalatable.  Compared to the modern diet, it would sometimes have been tough, often repetitive, and typically lacking in salt, added sweeteners and other flavorings.  Food items were generally prepared simply by cooking, and eaten plain, mostly without mixing with other foods or adding flavors.  Their diet would have been quite low in rewarding qualities compared to what most people eat today.  They didn't have the technology, the ingredients or the knowledge to make haute cuisine, much less highly engineered foods such as Doritos and Pepsi.  Even simple things we take for granted today, like a crusty loaf of bread or sauteed onions, would have been impossible for them. 

Many cultures have thrived on simple food throughout human history, including our own ancestors until quite recently.  I believe that not only the foods we eat, but how we eat them, determines weight and health outcomes.  I don't think we're adapted to a world full of high-reward and highly palatable food, because we didn't live in that world until recently. If we want to learn from the diets of our ancestors, we should not just use the ingredients they used, we should also prepare food simply in our own kitchens. In the next post, I'll discuss how excessive food reward can hijack the brain and drive certain people into addiction-like behavior patterns.


Todd Hargrove said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Todd Hargrove said...

After reading this you can really get the gut feeling that it would very hard to overeat on these types of bland diets. How can you get fat eating the same tasteless starch everyday? Or meats without spice and fats without starch?

richard said...

health is a great weapon

Anonymous said...

Lets not forget that traditional non-food addictions and the resulting behavioral changes can influence food addiction as well. These behaviors don't have to start and end with food reward. I would imagine "cleptos", drinkers, smokers, etc etc are more susceptible.

Richard said...

I have been following this reasonably closely, and I wonder if part of this is related to a lack of feeling satisfied. Thus a meal of fatty pork ends fairly quickly, while a plate (or bowl) of pasta requires you to eat a whole bunch to feel full, and results in an excessive consumption of calories. Yes, the pasta can be flavorful, but that misses the point of that it is low in fat, and you do not feel satisfied with the same amount of calories as the pork.

I agree that food reward may be a factor, but from my experience, eating "rich" foods, even with a lot of flavor, there is a distinct limit of how much you want to eat. I think that is relatively well supported by the research as well.

And what we have going on in the US and elsewhere is an uncontrolled experiment in low fat eating, with a side order of vegetable oil.

And although I do not have a typical "traditional" diet to use as an example, how about the Thai diet, which relies on coconut oil and lots of spicy and delicious food...and seems to result in lots of slender people?

My thought is that flavor itself is not the culprit, and it might not be the fast food nature of the easily available food, but rather that you have to eat too much to feel full. In terms of not being able to stop with just one, that seems to me part of the issue here.

John said...

Hi Stephan,

I believe I've seen the Ache eat honey immediately after collecting it, but I'm not 100% sure. I also was under the impression that it wasn't too common, at least from the tone/message in the show.

Not that it's all-telling, but from what I've personally seen [in video], the Wodaabe, Maasai, and Mongolian nomads have the best teeth. All have high dairy intake (at least traditionally?), which is interesting.

Laura said...

I wonder how gut microbes factor into everything.

Andrew Wallace said...

Stephan, do you think it's possible food reward may play a role in other "diseases of civilization" (CVD, cancer, etc) or is it really only a factor in weight regulation and obesity? In other words, do those of us not facing weight problems (though maybe other ones) need to be concerned with this?

RobR said...

You might want to get into contact with Dr. Vincent Felitti at the CDC / Kaiser Permanente.

In the mid 80's they did a long term low calorie fasting study that you might want information about. 420 calories a day for what seems to be over a year for some participants.

This study was later used to go into a psychologial study of child abuse effecting the hypothalamus and leading to addictive / reward behaviors. This may be outside the subject matter of this blog, but the early 1980's diet might fit right in.

Stipetic said...

I've just finished reading "The End of Overeating," which is all about food reward. It's a very stimulating read. Basically, Kessler blames obesity on the combination of fat, sugar and salt--these are the ingredients when taken together makes foods hyperpalatable. He makes a great case for this (however, his conclusions are mostly wrong--he defers to the food pyramid as a solution, basically). He's also a lipophobe and goes through great lengths to not mention once that the "fats" he's talking about are "added fats" and mostly of vegetable origin!!! But he recommends "lean" meats, etc, you've heard the tune before.

My thoughts on food reward from reading up on it is the following. At first, I thought it was pure nonsense. The main limitation to the theory is that it can easily account for overeating, but it doesn't account for obesity. In order for the theory to hold a bigger grip on the obesity claim, people would need to ingest hyperpalatable foods at every meal or a least every day (overeating studies show we can compensate). And I don't think people do this daily (I certainly didn't when I put on the pounds). So, it doesn't explain fully the obesity pandemic. Maybe 25% of it. However, the cellular damage caused by the "added fats" and "added sugars" (vegetable oils and fructose) can. So, I like Lustig's take on it--food reward is only a small to moderate part of the answer.

What type of bland foods some HG ate, I believe, is a red herring. I could be wrong.

Medjoub said...

Stephan -

It is interesting to me that groups eating, say, honey or coconut water would've never ventured into what seems like an obvious outgrowth of heterogeneous eating -- mixing starches and sweets, or fats and sweets, etc. Personally, the combination of raw propolis, comb, and honey are delicious to me and I could eat it constantly if available. If I mix it with virtually any kind of herbal tea (let alone dairy) it is even more delicious. The question then is why there is nothing like this desire to enhance food palatability amongst the HG groups, a fact of life in the West, really, since at least the first millenium (and maybe earlier). It's common knowledge that in the late Medieval era in Europe salt was an infinitely important commodity, mostly because of its preservative properties, and was the focus of newly developed mining techniques. For thousands of years prior to mining, salt was "cultivated" on a small scale for largely the same purpose. Meat and other salt-preserved foods retain some saltiness and the taste of salt has been an important part of the European palate for thousands of years. In your opinion, what is the reason that this salty meat didn't provide a precondition for obesity or overeating? Or did it? Is it just the fact of scarcity alone that we weren't obese before industrialized ag? Another question that arises is what certain cultural stratifications mean in these terms; namely, what it means that different language/cultural groups can have utterly distinct definitions of what is palatable, why, and how this palatability is manifested in dietary practices. Could this level of determination -- of dietary choice -- be simply another fact of "civilized" life and always edging at something potentially metabolically destructive? Most anthropological work on the subject points at highly variable conceptions of what's important in diet, why, how to eat, meal times, food's role in culture, etc. These definitions can become top-down facts of collective life. This makes me wonder if "addictive behavior" can exist in conditions of scarcity, or in cultural life that doesn't provide for certain kinds of reinforcement; or if "addictive" even has the same meaning from culture to culture. This is running on, but these are my thoughts of the top of my head --

Anonymous said...

White swans and black swans.

There's a logical problem here. We are not "justified in reasoning from an instance to the truth of the corresponding law" (Sir Karl Popper).

A proposition "All swans are white" can never be proved by my citing observed instances of white swans. However, a single sighting of a black swan disproves it.

What we've got above are essentially instances of "white swans". Or at any rate they're meant to be taken to be so. They're possibly not even that. The various people cited in the instances given seem not to be eating highly seasoned food, but that doesn't necessarily mean their food is bland. I certainly don't see game-meat as being always bland, and when it begins to go off it can be quite strong-tasting—but seems, on that account, to have sometimes been preferred.

And it's not really relevant that an outsider might find their food unpalatable. Palatability is a moving target. Alexander Selkirk (the real-life Robinson Crusoe), being marooned on a desert island, at first could not bear to eat without bread and salt. On being rescued he couldn't abide the seamen's food or drink, as his rescuer Woodes Rogers relates: "We offered him a dram, but he would not touch it, having drunk nothing but water since his being there, and 'twas some time before he could relish our victuals".

But these are minor objections next to the logical one. The main problem is that even if all these people be examples of eaters of bland foods that doesn't in and of itself prove the general proposition. It can't.

But here's what looks like one quite likely "black swan". Woodland Indians in what's now the north east of the United States used to season their meat by dipping it in bear oil flavoured with maple sugar. That violates all your principles for non-rewarding foods. But Woodland Indians seem not have been overweight.

The experiments with the rats—but, as always, rats are not humans—are interesting. And the trials with the 1965 hospital nutrition machine are suggestive, too. However, even if the "food reward" effect is a genuine phenomenon, that doesn't mean that it's the *only* thing going on.

bloglog said...

I'm not a scientist, but I have experienced the lack of food reward for an extended period of time (a month do to loss of taste). As a person whose favorite reward is food, my eating habits changed drastically, and I lost 20 pounds. I'd estimate my food consumption dropped by 1/2. Since I couldn't taste anything, I went paleo (which I totally fail at the rest of the time) and I noticed how frequently I had the urge to eat when I wasn't hungry - precisely for the reward value, when I was bored, mainly.

Paleo Phil said...

SG: "I don't know how the Ache eat their honey-- if anyone knows, please leave a comment."

The world history of beekeeping and honey hunting By Eva Crane, p. 96: "Hill et al. (1984) made a quantitative study on a group of Ache hunter-gatherers in eastern Paraguay. Bees' nests in the forests provided an appreciable proportion of their food, and in the 1980s this contained much more honey from (Africanized) honey bees than from native stingless bees. The total calorie intake on different hunting trips averaged 3827 Kcal per man per day, of which 47% to 77% was provided by meat, 0.4% to 44% by honey and 6% to 45% by vegetable material and insect larvae. The calorie intake from honey bee nests (honey + larvae) was more regular and--if both sources were available--very much higher than that from nests of stingless bees.

.... Figure 12.4b shows a typical scene of instant enjoyment when such combs containing honey and/or brood were eaten warm from the nest. Gilmore (1963), writing on ethnozoology in South America, said that A. mellifera was 'feral in many places, where its nests in trees are exploited as are those of native species. Its light honey sharply contrasts with the dark 'strong' product of the stingless species.' .... Metraux (1963) reported that the Apapocuva (a Guarani people in Paraguay and southern Brazil) collected honey, and that they 'spare several combs so that the bees can return. ... They also acclimatize swarms of bees to their villages.' It seems likely that this also refers to A. mellifera [stinging bees]."

John wrote: "I believe I've seen the Ache eat honey immediately after collecting it"

I believe I've seen a video of that myself, and that matches every video I've seen of hunter gatherers and traditional peoples. They all ate the honeycomb and grubcomb with their hands and just shoved it in their mouths and chewed it and then licked their fingers. The men that gather it tend to eat some first, though not always, often gorging before bringing some to their families or tribe.

However, here's an example from the Aka people of the Congo in which the male honey hunter/gatherer sends comb down to his family first and in which everyone eats the honeycomb and grubcomb with their bare hands, if I recall correctly:
It's amazing the extraordinary lengths the Aka go to get honey, risking death, and how none of them are bothered by bees or bee stings.

Chimps also don't seem to be bothered by bee stings when gathering honey, from what I've seen, pounding the heck out of bees nests while showing no visible fear or pain:

Derek H said...

It seems as if I'm, or many of the commentors, are missing the point. Food reward is simply an explanation to why there is a "drive" to consume the types (and quantities) of foods that the average westerner consumes. This EVENTUALLY leads to an overconsumption of calories OVER TIME - with subsequent weight gain/inflammation. The inflammation then begins to interfere with certain signaling - mainly hunger/satiety, then moving on to cellular metabolism. This explains why CERTAIN obese individuals can crush a family size bag of doritos and 2 liter of Coke without feeling sick to there stomach (much like a cocaine addict needs more and more of the substance to satisfy the reward pathways).

I don't disagree that fructose/seed oils further enhance the damage, and the fact that they are the main ingredients in the most rewarding concoctions from food industry makes the problem that much worse.

I think the issue is that the paleo sphere is still operating with fat vs. carb arguments, and calories don't matter arguments which interferes with the foundation of Stephan's theory.

Am I wrong?

Scott W said...

I wonder what determines if a culture starts fermenting things to gain alcohol. I guess if you eat all the honey immediately, there is nothing left to make into mead. But with all of that starch, it seems someone would have figured it out at some point. After all, plenty of cultures did.

James Kimbell said...


Stephan isn't trying to prove the proposition in some hard logic sense - he's trying to support it. With evidence. No example is going to flip Stephan's hypothesis from false to true, but each example that fits with the hypothesis moves it slightly in that direction.

No one is saying "All swans are white." It's more like "Most swans seem to be white, and maybe that tells us something." And you know what, most swans ARE white, and that DOES tell us something (that genes for whiteness have done well in the past, whether for evading predators or attracting mates or something.)

No one is saying, "Food reward, and nothing else, determines obesity." It's more like, "Increased food reward seems to cause increased weight gain, and maybe that tells us something." And that second statement is interesting and worth exploring. It has enough evidence behind it that one counterexample shouldn't make us give up the whole idea.

K Black said...

I have seen the phenomenon with friends who are recovering addicts, the ones I'm thinking of have a very hard time saying "no" to a pile of delicious carbs. Consequently, they struggle with weight issues.

James K.:
As a non-scientist, I'm reluctant to post here. But as a philosophy prof I feel compelled to offer that I hope all scientists are using "hard logic". And while I despair that Occam's Razor is not always applied to these problems, I think all scientific propositions should be challenged if they seem to be committing a fallacy.

The post from Mike ended with exactly what you suggested, anyway.

Anonymous said...

Do not let Dr. Davis know about the honey.

And coconut water, to me, is disgusting.

I like the breakdown of paleo, agricultural, and industrial foods. I'd agree industrial is bad. But if agricultural is also food-reward, the diet of 19th century americans (coffee, pork fat, sugar and corn) would not explain the modern obesity epidemic.

Beth@WeightMaven said...

Derek, I certainly like your take! Somewhere on one of these blogs, Nigel Kinbrun said "a full cell is an insulin resistant cell."

I find it very plausible that modern foods interfere with our normal appetite leading to persistent overeating, more than can be accommodated for -- especially when the quality of the extra calories is so poor (ref Chris Masterjohn's posts on choline and the liver function for one).

Anonymous said...

I think it's important to take a step back and recognize the complexity of human biology. That food reward is the end-all, be-all of diet control is probably not the case without understanding it in the context of hormonal effects of the foods consumed (insulin being but one hormone!).

Observing my own weight loss and diet experiments, I've lost weight on IF, on low-carb, and most recently on cyclical carbs/low fat + IF (as in, I've noticed a distinct effect of consuming diet beverages on my cravings (more diet sodas seem to promote overeating) and I tend to want to de-blandify my dressing-less salads with salt and pepper (calorie-less, but flavorful).

It's all connected. Flavorful foods are sensational and if calorically dense via carbs or protein they get associated with insulin release (a great read from Todd Becker no flavor control diets ). Heck, even if they're fat-ful, they could get associated with de novo lipogenesis (right?).

Anyway, it's good to be skeptical of food reward but it's also important to realize that our brains are associative organs that can drive cravings by being programmed that way over time -- by the physiological effects of foods (as with the effect of insulin release). The "over time" part is also important -- it takes time to learn associations. Perhaps this explains why low-carb diets work the first time around but have decreased efficacy on future attempts: our brains have learned to game the rules of low-carb to maximize calories. Same likely happens on low-fat diets. In both cases, eating more bland food that is less calorically dense ... just try it and see if you breakthrough on your latest diet plateau. Seems to work for me.

Bottom line is with the human body, everything is connected!

Stephan Guyenet said...

Hi John and Phil,


Hi Mike,

What you do in science is see if observations are consistent with predictions. In biology, and particularly nutrition, they will never be 100% consistent. There are just too many factors. That being said, I didn't see any "black swans" in your comment. You did not establish that Woodland Indians in the NE had a high-reward diet. What was the rest of their diet? Was it 90% corn, with a little meat on the side? Did they dip the meat in fat and honey all year or only during one season or during feast times? Did they do that to the meat because it would otherwise have been unpalatable? Did they eat nothing but meat dipped in fat and honey day in, day out? These are questions you have to think about before assuming that a partial anecdote like that is relevant.

Also, even if they did do that regularly and it tasted good, that's still not as rewarding as junk food. Find me a population (not an individual) that eats a high proportion of junk food and is lean, and that will be a true black swan.

James Kimbell said...

K Black,

What I was trying to say is that Mike's post attacked a position that Stephan does not have, nor does anyone else. If Stephan had ever said "Food reward, and nothing else, causes obesity," then okay, it makes sense to say that white swan examples don't help. But that's not what we're talking about, and white swan examples do help, and therefore it seems strange and misleading to bring up a kind of reasoning that doesn't help us. That kind of reasoning is one where a proposition is true or false and there's no in-between, no room for experiments and evidence to make the proposition a little bit more or less likely, a little bit at a time.

I know you know this and I know Mike knows it, too, but I think Mike's post could easily have misled people. That's all. (As you pointed out, Mike ended up proposing the position Stephan actually has, which is the position I tried to explain.)

Glenn Ammons said...

Is it possible to measure how rewarding a food is? Without measurements, it's hard to test the theory.

Greg said...

wow, that youtube video of gathering honey was amazing!

Stefansson, in "The Fat of the Land" wrote that an Inuit had been saving a can of salt for a long time and was happy to meet him so that he could give it to him- the Inuit did not care to use the salt. Stefansson had dreamt of salt for months. But after using a bit of the salt, realised that he no longer cared for it either.

This suggests that food reward is something that the body/brains are normally well-adapted for. That is, reward will completely relative to the food attainable in your environment.

The assertion that gamey meat tastes bad is nothing more than a modern Western prejudice.

In previous posts, high carb or high fat content was discussed as rewarding, whereas now it is discussed as bland.

The problem with the majority of psychology theories is the flimsy evidence that is easy to twist to suit one's fancy- we should be constantly on guard of this and stick as close to hard science as possible

Derek S. said...


Keep 'em coming! You are really onto something very important here. Don't let the detractors get you down.

My own very overweight, insulin-resistant, overfed and processed-food-filled body was reduced from 250 lbs to 185 lbs using mainly the food reward principle. Simply prepared, whole foods and nothing but.

Experience trumps theory all day every day, and twice on Sundays. Resistance is futile! ;)

David Pier said...

Regarding these non-industrial diets, how much do you know about the timing and portion size of meals? I've read your blog back to the beginning, and I don't remember much, if any, discussion of these two factors.
I ask because I think that flexible meal time and meal size have been crucial to my success in maintaining a pretty good leanness (I think ideally I should weigh 5 lbs. less) despite eating almost exclusively hyperpalatable foods, albeit ones that are low in omega 6 and low in fructose. I only eat when I actually get hungry, and I try to prepare my food in stages, so I don't know how much I'll eat when I start my meal.

James Kimbell said...


I remember Job Daniel mentioning that Kitavans ate two meals and that lunch was just a snack time between those meals. That's all I think we've heard about meal frequency.

And I'm with you on the curiosity over timing and portions. If you locked me in a lab with a 24-hour buffet and no clocks, I'd probably eat in a totally different schedule than I do when I'm following the routines of work, family, and tradition. (Maybe you could learn something by studying college students and seeing how they eat.)

Mrs. Ed said...

Very interesting. I have often wondered if high sugar processed food are a "gateway drug", meaning they kick off addiction, which makes it easier to get addicted to other drugs.

Susan said...

Perhaps the obesity epidemic really took off when every gas station started selling "food". Industrial food is everywhere, and the choices seem endless. People have long conversations about the merits of this or that candy bar or this or that soda. Yikes.
I know that in my case, if there is a chocolate cake sitting on the counter next to some "cheese" flavored corn snacks, I will eat the corn snacks before the cake. And I adore cake. Either or both would eventually fill me up, but I would still be "hungry" because although my emotional side was glad of the snack, my body needs nutricious food.
Many people find that paleo works for them. I started that way and felt instantly better. But I would argue that the change was more from switching away from commercial food to home prepared food than a strict adherence to any single diet.
I agree that seed oils and processed grains and starch are bad. However I will occasionally eat white bread if I know how and by whom it was made. (Most of the bread that people eat, even the 7 - 12 grain varieties, is so laden with chemicals that it will not toast. The outside will carmelize due to the sugar content, but that's it.)
The reward factor can lead to bad choices. Bad choices often lead to obesity. Sometimes they lead to a slim person with really bad blood work. Those of us trying to loose weight will have to constantly rejig our "diet" in order to reset our bodies. These posts are a huge help in that direction.

Anonymous said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Anonymous said...

Hey ho . . . . . . .

a said...

What also strikes me is the lack of food toxins, to use Paul Jaminet's term. No vegetable oils, lowish fructose, no wheat, no processed soy. I think this also plays a huge role in obesity.

psychic24 said...

Hi Stephan,

I was just wondering why you still favor high starch diets as slightly superior to high fat diets. In all the anecdotal accounts at least, I have only occasionally heard of people doing well on such high starch diet (such as Chris Voigt, who has no special interest associations..), with a majority of people doing mediocre at best; I contrast this with all the reports of wellbeing, energy, and effortless weight loss with followers of high fat diets such as Kwasniewski's optimal plan. I understand sugar, wheat...etc might be interfering, seeing as how most people don't just stick to unadulterated starch. I'm really just trying to understand your slight favor towards a higher starch diet. Any feedback would be much appreciated. Thank you!

kulimai said...

I more or less understand "food rewarding to degree x to individual y at time t" but given the basic and robust nature of habituation processes in biology, I am at a loss as to how to interpret the phrase "palatability of food x"

Innovator said...

Hi Stephan,

I'm trying to catch up with your great five part post and the many great comments, and I apologize if I missed this: Have you or the commenters looked at "Taste-evoked drinking in the rat: The influence of maintenance diet":

Non-deprived rats consume substantial amounts of a sweet solution offered for 1 hr a day, when maintained on pelleted food. Under these conditions, amount ingested varies inversely with carbohydrate concentration offered over the hypertonic range, just as it does in deprived rats. It is shown here that such “taste-evoked drinking” is maintained when a bland liquid diet is substituted for pelleted food. But such drinking is sharply reduced when a sweet liquid diet is used as maintenance fare. In addition, the effect of concentration on volume intake changes from inverse to direct. We conclude (1) that such drinking is taste-evoked, not texture-evoked; (2) that it depends on a contrast between the solution offered during the test and the maintenance diet available at other times; and (3) the use of a palatable maintenance diet, by discouraging large intakes which bring postingestive controls into play, uncovers the positive effect of taste factors on volume intake.

Jeff said...

My Grandma has always said if it tastes good spit it out. And the more I learn about natural eating the more this slightly facetious saying rings true. I'm not surprised a portion of the community thinks the idea is blasphemous. Take candy from a baby and they will cry :P.

sandra said...

Hi Stephan,
I am wondering about this also:

"Stephan, do you think it's possible food reward may play a role in other "diseases of civilization" (CVD, cancer, etc) or is it really only a factor in weight regulation and obesity?"

Don @ Primal Wisdom has posted on a study linking sat. fat to clumping of blood cells(and so CVD)...he hinted in a comment also that he will be posting on a link between fat and cancer.

If fat added to food makes it more rewarding and fat has health implications then "high food reward" could be negative even for thin people. I know a distinction has been made between "low reward" and "bland", but the examples of tradition diets here seem to blur that line. In other words, you seem to be saying that it is not sufficient to cut out PROCESSED high reward food, but that we should keep our whole-food diet as flavorless as possible (little added salt/spices/fat, no searing the meat, etc...). Is that right?

btw, I have eaten many different diets and have been pretty weight stable (120lbs/5'7'' I am 115 on Paleo). I was only heavier when I drank a lot of beer in college and then I was about 130lb! For the most part the various diets were centered on whole foods and sugar was absent or at least reduced compared to SAD (my food was never bland though!).

I was vegan for 2 years, and even then considered my food to be very delicious (I'm a pretty good cook and could even make tofu taste ok!)... I ate a lot and was hungry a lot too, but never counted calories so perhaps I should have been eating even more. In the end I was pouring olive oil over every dish I made to try to get full...

I will not pretend that I could not have been "skinny -fat" on any of these diets and perhaps that is the connection to food reward (and DOC?)... although @ 115 lbs right now I will worry if ditching salt/spices and fat causes me to eat fewer calories!

Miki said...

I am not sure it is relevant but I have a friend who is anosmic (lacking a sense of smell)and still quite overweight.

Might-o'chondri-AL said...
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karl said...

Miki -

Quite relevant - Food reward is only one of several factors involved in maintaining weight.

But what is food reward? Eating hot spicy food has been connected to dopamine release - but some find it unpleasant. So is food reward learned behavior?

Is the rise in serotonin from eating carbohydrates a BF Skinner like learning process?

What about foods that make us feel good short-term, but make us sick long term? The short term learning normally dominates.

No one has mentioned MSG or other "wikipedia flavor enhancers"

People that use msg are more likely to be obese - but the link is not consistent. The role of palatability is probably a minor factor compared to Leptin, estrogen, insulin regulation.

Pregnant women often crave strange foods - experience appetite so strong it produces nausea - as in morning sickness. I don't think we can ignore the role of the endocrine system in appetite - and there are several things in the modern world that can effect the balance of the endocrine system.

Palatability can't explain all the cause of modern obesity - there was highly tasty food available in the 30's - 50's and the problem wasn't evident. The use of sugar to enhance the sale of foods that never before contained sugar is what I suspect - we eat about twice the amount of fructose containing sugar now - and the fructose spikes trygly - which induces leptin resistance ( and other problems).

Eating quite tasty food on a lowcarb diet, I've lost 50lbs and maintained for 2.5 years now a 16% bodyfat with out limiting calories.

ItsTheWooo said...

@ Mike - I agree with you veyr much.

When we call HG food "bland", we are being biased as 2011 westerners who are accustomed to hyperseasoned food. When you have never in your life tasted a potatochip or a cookie, odds are better than not that the food would impress upon you disgustingly sweet and mouth burning salty. I know that, because having gone without sweets for a few weeks left precisely that impression - the sweet foods I used to love now tasted disgusting because my palate sensitivity shifted downward due to a lack of sugar in the diet.

Perhaps to a westerner, HG food is "bland", but to the HG it is tasty and rewarding. His palate is oriented around such food and so he enjoys it.

This is why it is SO HARD to eat "paleo" in 2011 america. The food always seems bland and boring once your palate has been sensitized to potato chips and cookies. It doesn't mean that chips and cookies are more rewarding on an objective scale ... all it means is that if your palate has become accustomed to such intensely concentrated salt and sugar every day for your entire life, then food which is natural will taste bland IN COMPARISON. This is not the same thing as being objectively more rewarding, only relatively so, assuming this taste insensitivity has already been established.

However, first you must de-sensitize your palate with modern food. This factor is not relevant to HG people as they have not encountered it. From their perspective, their food is delicious and awesome.

ItsTheWooo said...

Regarding honey and HG people...

Odds are while eating honeycombs they are also getting a ton of fat and protein (from the bees/larva) as well as fiber (from the wax). There is no comparison between a honeycomb and the horrible crap fat people eat like slushies (water and sugar).
If you eat a honeycomb you're getting larva which is actually very nutritious.

Beth@WeightMaven said...

Karl, you write: "Palatability can't explain all the cause of modern obesity - there was highly tasty food available in the 30's - 50's and the problem wasn't evident."

The issue isn't just taste, it's reward. And if you read the intro of Weston Price's Nutrition & Physical Degeneration (written in 1939), I'd say that the problem was at least partially evident.

The fact that obesity is far more prevalent today than in the first half of the 1900s probably is entirely to do with easy availability and low cost of what are hyper-rewarding foods.

spughy said...

I wonder... do modern hunter-gatherers have any wiggle-room in the amount of calories they consume - that is, does their land base support their population easily or are they maxed out?

If the theory of food reward is correct, then an abundance of nutrients in the environment should correlate with increased flavour or variety of flavours available. It doesn't make sense for a population to maintain a consistent very lean state unless the population has lived in an area with no seasonal variation in nutrient availability for long enough to adapt OR there is a degree of conscious or culture-based adoption of a bland diet in order to reduce appetite and maintain low body-fat levels.

I have a hard time believing that NO flavour-enhancing foods are available to all these groups - I'm no expert, but I can go out into the woods here and pick or otherwise obtain things in most seasons that will make food much tastier. Tropical areas should have even MORE herbs and spices available. I know that First Nations all over North America availed themselves frequently of flavour-enhancing things like sage, fir-tips, seaweed, dried berries, etc.

I think the theory is a good one, but what is the point of a response to flavour-filled foods if they never occur in the diet? I think the evidence for the theory would be improved by documented seasonal changes in the flavour profile of traditional diets - does that evidence exist? Is it even possible, with the restricted range of modern hunter-gatherers?

SamAbroad said...

What about the Japanese and their umami rich diet? They have incredibly low rates of obesity too.

shannonstoney said...

Lately I've been eating a very monotonous diet of ground beef (cheap hamburger meat) and vegetables from the garden, plus some eggs for breakfast. That's about all. I do use some salt. Maybe I'll quit the salt. It's simple, pretty darn good, but it IS monotonous. I was wondering what other people would think if they knew that was all I eat. Weird, probably. Now I know not to worry.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the reply, Stephan.

"You did not establish that Woodland Indians in the NE had a high-reward diet."

No, I didn't, which was why I only said "might". I think it would be difficult to do so at this point.

But I wouldn't at any rate call that way of eating one's meat "bland". And it would not only be flavourful but would taste "meaty", "fatty", and "sweet". You mentioned all those factors.

I certainly think what you've written in your series is interesting but I'm sceptical about how important this effect is - and about just how bland people's diets have been in the past. I didn't mean to be critical of you, and I have enjoyed your posts. It's just that they strike me as "arguing for" the theory.

Perhaps what might be relevant with Woodland Indians would be fact that they couldn't always eat at all. That would certainly fit the calories-in/calories-out hypothesis. And might that also not be true of some others, however rewarding or not their diet was?

You also imply that the Spice Trade is something recent. In fact it goes back to antiquity, and, across the Pacific and the East into prehistory. Cassia is mentioned in Herodotus, and by the 2nd century AD in Rome black pepper was imported in such quantities as to have become a commodity. The Spice Trade was, in fact, one the impetuses behind the Age of Discovery (certainly for the Portuguese) - cutting out the middlemen by looking for a sea route. When Cabral brought back the first *sea-borne* shipload of pepper to Lisbon a national holiday was declared, which indicates the importance of the spice trade.

In an earlier post I recall your saying that market economies are characterised by competition. Sorry, but that's a superficial view - competition occurs in other sorts of economic arrangements, too. What's characteristic about market economies is that relations are contractual (even though the contract may be tacit). It's a prime example of a general move from Gemeinschaft to Gesellschaft. Prices are arrived at through mutual agreement and can move in response to supply and demand. That includes your decisions about what to buy, or not to buy, at the price offered, whenever you visit a store. The sellers purpose is not to "compete" but to turn a profit. (Indeed, he can sometimes even do that by not competing: Apple chooses not to compete with Dell in the budget computer market, although it could, because it thinks the slim profit margins not worth it.)

You turn a profit by selling people what they want. That is not just "rewarding food". There are millions of people buying skimmed milk and All-bran, which both taste horribly bland, merely because they think those products are good for them. Companies also spend vast amounts of money on advertising, which they wouldn't need to do if people could always be reliably driven by how "rewarding" the product is.

Something else sellers will do is attempt to drive their costs down. Some will absolutely debauch the quality of their products to do that - and will certainly sell products that suffer in quality and taste from cheapening. I guess many buyers are looking for lower prices and won't mind. And sellers also hope they won't notice. The progressive cheapening of products is a readily observable phenomenon. In Britain the process was pushed so far by large breweries as cause the rise of CAMRA and the "real ale" movement.

Offering highly-flavoured food is *one* thing sellers do.

Alan said...

>> dipping it in bear oil flavoured with maple sugar.

i wonder if you have any conception of how seldom a few guys with only bows&arrows, would be able to bring bear meat back to the village.

>> That violates all your principles for non-rewarding foods.

No, it shows that food-reward is a fundamental instinct.

>> But Woodland Indians seem not have been overweight.

I don't accept unsupported assertions. Anyway, were the Europeans who were living side-by-side with the AmerInds after colonialization, really much fatter?

El said...

The Europeans were generally weaker. Contemporary accounts by the colonizers/invaders consistently show that they were greatly impressed by the splendid physiques of the American Indian males. The Indians themselves found the Europeans spindly and pathetic.

As to how hard it was to bring down game with a bow and arrow, well, maybe not. American Indian hunters started learning to hunt as young boys. Their bows were more powerful than guns. They could go farther and were both more accurate and more lethal if the arrow was properly prepared. The Indians of the Americas had a vast population (that was quickly reduced by disease after the invaders passed smallpox and other epidemics to the American Indians). They were very good at hunting.

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Peter said...

It only takes a few minutes to adjust. I was in the Peace Corps in Micronesia in the 1960's and ate mainly breadfruit cooked in coconut sauce 3 meals a day for 2 years, got very skinny. My first meal out was at a buffet restaurant in Guam and a waitress asked my how many servings I had had because she was amazed.

Anonymous said...

Energy ingested certainly matters. It is a factor. We cannot completely ignore calories, but the simplistic Caloric Hypothesis as put out by the commerical diet industry is dead. The diet industry ignores all the other factors contributing to obesity which have little to do with behavior.

I believe Stephan 's problem is with the EXTRAPOLATION of a scientific law (thermodynamics- which applies to all conventional matter - not Black Holes)

Thermodynamics itself does not at all address what ( muscle, water, fat, organ mass bone mass ) is lost, nor does it explain obesity. Nor does it address calorie partitioning. All of that is biological and I believe professor Stephen Hawking would admit as much.

It's the commercial diet industry's nostrum to simply "eat less , move more" which is a wrong extrapolation of a biological phenomenon. That is what I believe genuine obesity scientists find fault with. Not the actual scientific law of the conservation odf energy itself.The commercial diet industry's extrapolation is NOT the scientific law. We need to seperate the two.

The body fights back very, very hard. And we do not control energy balance to a very large degree. Your body is very aware of your blatant exercise and blatant food reduction and your hypothalamus is plotting against you behind the scenes.

This is why , as Dr. Sharma ( another doctor/scientist) has pointed out, that exercise and forced caloric restriction work long term. Once obesity is induced, turning it around is EXCEEDINGLY difficult.

This stuff is very complicated.But I take my hat off to Stephan for working hard to understand it better.

98 %, if not more, of the information on the Internet about obesity is utter bollocks, and put out by people with agendas to sell you their philosophy and products. Stephan is a genuine scientist, and a REPUTABLE source of information.

This food reward hypothesis is encouraging. All genuine scientists who study obesity know dieting is a complete farce, and wrong headed methodology.

Keep up the good work, Stephan. This subject is mind racking. I can only imagine.

Take care,


Anonymous said...

I just wanted to add that nutrition itself is IMMENSELY complex. There are nutrients not even identified yet by science. All food is a minefield through which we carefully tread. We should have an underlying understanding that we don't TRULY know yet what is healthful, nor all the nutrients we need . We're still discovering them.

The unknowns about nutrition far outweigh the knowns. Good nutrition is not like stoking a fire, but rather building an elaborate skyscraper. Proper nutrition build our cells. Our cells need so many nutrients, micronutrients , phytochemicals fiber each day .

VARIETY is the most likely top nutritional principle. Cover ALL our bases.

I eat something completely new every week.I learned a lot of this from Urgelt of YouTube ( a fan of Stephan's work, and a guy who is very scientifically literate).

Might-o'chondri-AL said...
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Angelyne said...

Where do the French stand ? Their culture is built around food reward. They have turned it into an art. Yet they have the lowest obesity rate in Europe. The English have the highest.

Maybe there is something uniquely rewarding about junk food, but I know what I would choose, if offered a choice between a french meal, and McDonald Combo.

Although their obesity rates have been rising, fueled they say, by the increasing availability of fast food.

mem said...


You might find this interesting. I find it very meaningful that alot of the info comes from obese children themselves.

And here is Dr. Robert Pretlow's Weight2Rock site. Some of the ed info/advice could be alot better, but I also think that alot of it is good and we need more pediatrician activists who are really digging into the causes (in this case primarily related by kids themselves) of the child obesitiy epidemic.

Pretlow has arrived very squarely at the "hyperpalatbility" intersection, coupled with an addiction model/comfort eating in the face of much increased stress.

I believe that these are *all* very important pices of the puzzle.

Rafael said...

I am sure that food reward in a great factor in designing diets that would lead to weight loss. However, I do not believe that food reward in the only factor taht will be responsible for the obeisty pandemic. What about calorie density (

Stephan Guyenet said...

Hi mem,

That powerpoint talk you linked to is awesome. I do think Dr. Pretlow is on to something.

Anonymous said...

I finally got around to listening your podcast interview with Chris. Great stuff! Wish it could have gone on for a few more hours :)

A commentator on here mentioned the French, and the latter were also mentioned on the podcast, so I thought I would chime in on my own thoughts on the subject.

What you proposed on the podcast made sense and yes, like every other nation, industrial food prevalence is increasing there as well. Yet, on a maybe less biochemical or physiological level, it's important to consider the importance that French award to food quality, quality here referring to a very general concept that involves all (and possibly other factors) of the following: ingredients of the highest quality, prepared at home or in traditional ways (or, at least with great care, "haute cuisine" style), h enjoyed slowly, over long, extended meals and, in good company.

That means the whole
"culinary/gustatory" experience, generally speaking, differs significantly from what one my experience on a daily basis in North America. And it's an element we shouldn't take for granted in explaining the whole "food reward" topic you have tackled over your last few posts...

lightcan said...

Saying that the French eat a high-reward food all the time might not be totally true. They do like to eat out a lot in Paris (where I was for a few months),if they have the money, and they do talk a lot about food and recipes around the dinner table.
What Eric said is important regarding food quality in France. I was invited to dinner and took part in the preparation too. We went that evening to the special small shops to buy meat, vegetables, cheese, bread. The dinner consisted of vegetable soup, steak and green beans, and some cheese and of course red wine. That's it. Nothing 'haute cuisine' about it. Simple food from simple high quality ingredients for people who appreciate restaurant food but also the food from their local arab diner, or the sashimi from around the corner.
Just because 'haute cuisine' exists it doesn't mean that the ordinary person eats that way or that he forgot the traditional way of cooking.
Another thing I noticed is that they don't eat that many carbs. A big serving of potatoes with everything like in UK or Ireland is unheard of.

Tom Woodward said...

I think Stephan's point about superstimuli in the first post is the biggest factor here. People keep giving examples of tasty cultural cuisine that produces a relatively lean citizenry. But the thing is that the 'tastiness' of that cuisine is all relative based on the food you've been exposed to.

For anyone here who follows the Food Lovers' Primal Palate blog, I'm sure we'd agree that their recipes have deep, rewarding flavor, yet we could also eat those meals daily without overeating or jacking up our metabolism. However, to someone who is used to chips, candy, and soda, those meals may seem bland and lack the reward qualities that those people are now used to. At this point, the manufacturers hooked them with the superstimuli foods and more natural foods, even in what many would call very flavorful combinations, fail to do it for them anymore.

Anonymous said...

Oh, man. This reminded me of the time I was in high school. I'm not going to say that I was in the worst or best shape, but I felt that my health could use for some improvement. Reading the post makes sense because that's exactly how I felt every time I overcame a hurdle. It's different nowadays: I feel its a necessity there fore rewards should be miniscule if anything.

WellnessProposals said...

I couldn't agree with you more! We work hard to make sure that our clients learn to exclude the typical food rewards found within their companies. Funny but few corporate fitness programs seem to do that. Thanks for the series of posts about food rewards.

Adolfo David said...

anyone has an opinion or reference about impact of animal feeding on glycemic index of animal meat/milk?

Alan said...

>>> Indians were excellent hunters

that doesn't negate my point. Picking a bow-and-arrow fight with a wild bear is rather different than picking on a deer.

Bears are apex predators and will willingly attack a man, vice run away. It isn't that easy to do a one-shot stop of a bear with a high-powered rifle, much less a man-powered projectile.

I was actually lving up there in alaska about 12 years ago when a polar bear wandered into downtown Nome, and ate a guy in the street.

Thomas said...

Stephen-I asked this of Don Matesz based on his latest post, but I wanted to ask you this as well. Do you think it is possible for someone to gain or maintain their fat mass with an intake of calories that is below their BMR? I hear people say this all of the time (“I gained weight on 1000 calories per day”), and I just don’t see how this is possible unless there is a serious pathology like hypothyroid. Am I missing something?

Might-o'chondri-AL said...
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Stephan Guyenet said...

Hi Thomas,

I think it would be nearly impossible. BMR accounts for ~70% of a sedentary person's total energy expenditure. If you were eating less than BMR, say 60% of your usual total energy expenditure (TEE), you would be very unlikely to gain fat mass. You could probably maintain fat mass eventually, but only after you had reached a starvation-type body composition.

There is no way a person can gain fat eating 1,000 calories per day. People who make that claim are either misjudging their energy intake, or their fat change.

That being said, I do think it's possible to maintain or gain fat eating fewer calories than your ESTIMATED TEE (based on weight, gender, age, body comp, etc). Metabolic factors such as leptin and thyroid signaling can change total energy expenditure by a few hundred calories per day, which is pretty significant. That is definitely one of the reasons why fat loss is difficult, because simple "eat less, move more" strategies trigger these compensatory responses.

But the body can only adapt to a limited degree, and I don't believe any reasonably normal person can gain fat on 1,000 calories per day.

Adolfo David said...

So kind for your answer. Many thanks

Thomas said...

Thanks Stephen. That's what I thought. There are a lot of people saying that high insulin "traps" fat in the adipose, even at low calorie levels, but that doesn't make sense to me. I'll be interested to see what Don says as I think he's hinting at reduced fat oxidation rates vs. fat intake, regardless of calories (although I'm not sure about this).

bentleyj74 said...

Just a quick follow up...

I have been continuing with what Stephan outlined [I did change to fermented brown rice from white] and have found it difficult if not impossible to come anywhere close to my former calorie intake.

I range between 1000 to 1500 a day depending on calorie density according to nutrition data and my fairly accurate but not precise food measurements. I continue to feel almost uncomfortably full but otherwise no unpleasant side effects that I'm aware of. No lethargy, hunger, etc.

I do note that the switch to the brown rice discouraged second helpings and did trigger the "not another bite" feelings at about half the serving size of the white.

gunther gatherer said...
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gunther gatherer said...

Wow Stephan, I stand corrected. You're definitely on to something.

If fixing dopamine receptors improves all factors of the metabolic syndrome, then food reward definitely plays a role.

Incidentally, I searched Google ("dopamine, metabolic syndrome") and there are hundreds of patents for dopmamine receptor agonists. Rat studies are showing insulin sensitivity increases of 59%.

Maybe we can change "carbs>insulin>metabolic syndrome" to "neolithic superstimuli>dopamine overload>leptin increase>insulin rise>metabolic syndrome"? The superstimuli can still be carbs, especially neolithic ones, but the downstream effects take a slightly different path...

gunther gatherer said...

PS. - Bromocriptine seems to be the drug of choice for the patents mentioned above.

Not surprisingly, it increases dopamine receptor sensitivity. Though it could help a lot of people, I actually hope the drug fails the trials. It would just encourage people to keep eating the SAD and promote more agricultural economic models which aren't sustainable.

Then again, with functioning dopamine receptors we could all be pretty ok with it.

Might-o'chondri-AL said...
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Stephan Guyenet said...

Hi bentleyj74,

Thanks for the update.

Hi Gunther,

Very interesting, I hadn't seen that paper. I'll have to read it.

bentleyj74 said...


The grains really are harder to digest than starches from other sources. Even fermented using your sourdough[?] method for brown rice I find it less digestion friendly than white rice and white rice less so than potatos [white or sweet]and bananas.

If I had to use brown rice as a staple food rather than a supplement I would have a very hard time meeting calorie minimums unless I also added quite a lot of fat or my digestion adjusted.

Using nongrain starch sources I am able to be comfortable closer to 1500 than 1000 with only small additions of butter or coconut oil [20-30% total cal from fat].

I'm a little confused re calorie needs for a moderately active smallish woman. Is this low calorie satiation a good thing or a bad thing?

Stephan Guyenet said...

Hi bentleyj74,

I also find that non-grain starch sources are easier to digest, particularly when compared to whole grains. I think the texture is part of it, and the tannins are another part.

Your calorie needs depend on your size, body composition, activity level, age and other factors. If you are losing fat, then satiation at a low calorie intake is fine. If you're weight stable, then 1,000 kcal per day is too low and 1,500 may or may not be too low. If you start to feel hungry and/or lethargic, then it may be too low.

Payam said...

Stephen, do you think food temperature has any effect on food reward. For example, if someone was to take eat the same exact meals but microwave them to warm them up, like at work for lunch for example, could the simple act of heating the food increase the reward. This would seem to go against our calories in calories out theory.

Also, I have a question regarding bodybuilders. Many bodybuilders achieve an unbelievably low body fat percentage. Could part of their ability to do this be that they eat not for enjoyment but for purpose. In other words, they don't associate rewards with food the way most people do?

Stephan Guyenet said...

Hi Payam,

I suspect that the answer to both of your questions is "yes", but I can't be sure.

Anya said...

Also Payam, take not that most bodybuilders, in order to get to such low body fat percentages, typically consume a lot of protein shakes.

This is the ultimate unrewarding (but very satiating) food. With this technique you can keep hunger at bay, consume almost no fat (thus forcing the body to consume it's own) while consuming very little calories but circumventing muscle cannibalization.

gunther gatherer said...

Sorry, my comment above should have read: "Maybe we can change "carbs>insulin>metabolic syndrome" to "neolithic superstimuli>dopamine overload>leptin DECREASE >insulin rise>metabolic syndrome".

The studies on dopamine are amazing because they're showing total energy expenditure increases of some 33%, all by activating dopamine receptors. Same diet. Makes for a slim rat who's pretty content as well.

If the brain's limbic system is in charge of whether you develop metabolic syndrome (read: obesity) or not, then it stands to reason that we should be eating a much blander diet than we have in the modern world in order to regrow dopamine receptors. This sounds like a bland diet.

But white rice still doesn't work for me. It just makes me hungry sooner afterward and I gain fat even when it's plain and unaccompanied by other foods. Is this because it's a grain? Perhaps boiled potato would not do the same thing.

What Anya said is true, I think protein is more satiating than carbs or fat and if made blandly enough, could be used by those having stubborn weight loss issues.

gunther gatherer said...,_dopamine_and_the_metabolic_syndrome_.13.aspx

More dopamine-metabolic syndrome info. Apparently reviving the receptors improves trigs, insulin sensitivity, HbA1c, glucose tolerance, c-reactive protein, blood pressure, raises leptin levels and increases resting EE.

Can an obese person revive their receptors after a lifetime on the SAD? Remains to be seen...

Anonymous said...

Gunther's article is interesting.

The "blandness" diet fits well into traditional body building diets: chicken breast, steamed veggies, potatoes, and oatmeal. However, I do remember kids in wrestling eating 40+ egg whites everyday, so it is very possible to overdo that with motivation.

Dopmanine is a nice explanation. Damaged dopanmine + comfort eating might be lethal. However, there is something called willpower. And availability.

I've said before, in modern America, the interesting question is why are there thin people? What is the 1% of the population that keeps a BMI of 18? or the 10-15% that is slighly above that.

Might-o'chondri-AL said...
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Might-o'chondri-AL said...
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bentleyj74 said...

@ Stephan,

When you interviewed Job Daniels did you discuss how exactly they ate their tubers?

I saw on the Kitava series that they ate tubers and leaves cooked in coconut cream [as well as coconut meat presumably].

I'm having a hard time reconciling that with the very low reported fat intake.

Even very modest additions of fats will put me over the 20% can they eat coconut and coconut products in significant amounts and still be at such a low fat intake?

I hope this isn't off topic, I'm looking at what traditional cultures do to their bland starches to consume them with such low fat intakes.

gunther gatherer said...

Ok guys, here's a great link in reference to dopamine, food reward and obesity, from Nature mag:

Whether this only pertains to compulsive eating or if it applies to all of us who just can't lose weight I can't say. But it's interesting nonetheless...

Stephan Guyenet said...

Hi bentleyj74,

I think most of the starches they eat are cooked plain in an earth oven, and served plain. Some of them are cooked in coconut cream as well.

Hi Gunther,

You are right on target man! I'm referencing that paper in the review article I'm currently writing with my mentor. I'm also planning to mention it in my next post. Here are two more papers that might interest you. People who produce fewer dopamine D2 receptors gain more fat over time than those who produce less:

Variant alleles of the D2 dopamine receptor gene and obesity. Nutrition Research. Volume 20, Issue 3. 2000

Relation between obesity and blunted striatal response to food is moderated by TaqIA A1 allele. Science 322, 449-452.

They are also more susceptible to addictive behaviors.

Beth@WeightMaven said...

Thanks all for the links. BTW, via Paul Jaminet's blog, I found Kate Wassum of UCLA who's looking into a possible link between the endocannabinoid system and dopamine: Cannabinoids enhance subsecond dopamine release in the nucleus accumbens of awake rats. A high reward diet also high in omega 6? Talk about fraught with peril!

Speaking of reward, I only have my own n=1 experience to go by, but I doubt that a helpful diet needs to be bland. I think that what's important is that to avoid linking taste/flavor with *reward* (e.g., avoiding Seth Robert's "ditto" food where taste can be associated with the reward of high calories, or opioids in wheat or sugar, etc).

Might-o'chondri-AL said...
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David Pier said...

How would all of this inform baby food? Should it be bland? No spices? If the child is going to grow up in a household where the food is highly seasoned, would that affect what the baby food should be?

TCO348 said...

For me tartness is a hugely rewarding flavor. If I have a ketchup to put on fries I want to eat so much more than without. Its the tartness of the vinegar in the ketchup along with the sugar and salt. Same with Buffalo wings. The sauce is essentially butter, vinegar and cayenne pepper powder. That tartness just makes them so delicious. Without it they'd still be good but not as good. I'm surprised its not mentioned higher up the list. Fruit is tart and sweet - a nice combination. A lot of comfort food and addictive food has an element of tartness to it.

What's the reason for an evolved affinity for tart flavor? Is the acidity good for us in some way? Vitamin C is tart - perhaps its a way to get us to consume Vitamin C.

gunther gatherer said...

Loving those papers Stephan, thanks.

I'd be interested to know if "curing" addictions in other areas (drugs, video games, gambling, etc.) would also cure obesity and metabolic syndrome.

Since they function through the same dopamine signalling pathway, wouldn't curing one go a long way towards curing the others? Could things like gambling and metabolic syndrome be, sort of, like, the same disease???

gunther gatherer said...
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gunther gatherer said...

Here's the full PDF of the Johnson and Kerry study on D2 receptors and eating behavior, for anyone who's interested:

TCO348 said...

David, I'm going to take a guess at answering your question about baby food. My guess is that if you feed a baby bland food that baby will grow up to be more sensitive to intense flavors. By more sensitive I mean not desensitized. I mean that it will take less flavor to achieve the same level of pleasure. As a result it will take less sugar, fat and salt in the food to achieve the same level of eating pleasure. In modern society that is desirable. So my guess is that bland is better for the baby in the long run but of course make sure it has all the nutrition the baby needs and that its not bland because its, you know, just water or something. Again though, I'm just guessing.

Brandon Berg said...

I don't know whether someone else has already brought this up, but I had an idea regarding the general rebound of weight after the initial weight loss on a diet.

When you first start a new diet, you haven't learned the ropes yet. You don't know how to make good-tasting food within the parameters of the diet, so it has low reward value.

Over time, though, you get better at making (or selecting from the store) more rewarding food that fits within the parameters of the diet, causing food reward to rise over time.

This could also explain the phenomenon of people getting good results with a diet, going off it after losing weight, gaining the weight back, and then not being able to replicate the original results after going back on the diet. You still know everything you knew about how to work the system, so you never get the low-reward period that you got the first time around.

James Kimbell said...


That's a good point. Probably not the number one factor in the way a diet works, but probably closer than a lot of us think.

I wonder, though, how much of the effect is due to the dieter learning to cook better within the diet, versus the body simply taking a while to calibrate its response to new foods. For example, if I start a vegan diet heavy in vegetables with no added fat, then I'd feel full the first few times before my system 'realized' that these foods are low in calories. Eventually I'd crave larger amounts, while at the same time I'd be preparing the food in ways to make those larger amounts palatable. It'd be difficult to tell how much each of these changes was affecting my intake.

Stipetic said...

itsthewoo, I find your comments enlightening and valid, and I too, wish Stephan would address some of them. At least occasionally.

Lark said...

Couldn't help but notice that all of the cultures mentioned do not have alcohol. Would you say that alcohol has a high reward value, or that it increases the reward value of foods?

Unknown said...

From our experience using bland diets in controlled fat loss in bodybuilders (without supplements of any kind) we have noticed a significant up-regulation of taste sensations in response to food that would normally be considered bland by comparison to the SAD. It seems to me that this upregulation (taking 7-14 days) of gustatory sensations would enhance the food-reward pathways in relation to bland food. If the only foods that individuals are exposed to are repetitive and "bland" by our standards, they undoubtably recognize more subtle flavour differences and variations than we would, their flavour receptors being attuned to these subtler cues. The key question is how do the "hyperpalatable" foods bypass the satiety signals and how do we avoid this pitfall. Such considerations as the variety of receptors activated at any one time (salt, sugar, fat, umami, benzenes, terpenes, etc...) could be a key factor. THis may explain the higher opiod peaking when eating these foods and the associated over-riding of the satiety mechanisms.
Studies blocking opiod receptors in the brains of monkeys have induced starvation behaviours in these same monkeys. People eating bland foods do not exhibit starvation behaviours - their opiod receptors are being stimulated in a healthy manner by food that we would consider bland. Imposing "bland" diets on individuals accustomed to the SAD leads to temporary self starvation behaviour, but only until the flavour receptor mechanism up-regulates to match the food.

Stephan Guyenet said...

Hi Sebastien,

My reading and personal experience match up well with what you wrote.

The tough part is getting people past the initial "hump" where it's difficult to eat simple food because they're accustomed to high-reward food. Some people give up after a few days because it's hard, not realizing that it becomes much easier in just a couple of weeks.

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