Friday, June 28, 2013

Food Reward Friday

This week's lucky "winner"... beer!!

Beer is a fermented beverage primarily made from malted barley, hops and water.  Barley is a perfect grain for brewing because it contains the enzymes necessary to break down its own starches into sugar, making them accessible to alcohol-producing yeast.

Beer is the main alcoholic beverage in much of Northern Europe and North America.  It's popular because it's a highly rewarding beverage.  This is easy to demonstrate.  Most people find beer repulsive the first time they try it, because it's bitter.  Yet most people gradually come to enjoy beer, usually quite a lot.  This is due to the behavior-reinforcing (rewarding) effect of the drug it contains (ethanol), as well as its additional carbohydrate calories.  The brain gradually causes you to enjoy the flavor paired with the drug and calories.

As a matter of fact, most people consume beer when they're neither thirsty nor hungry, and sometimes they consume it to excess, resulting in nausea and drunk-dialing ex-girlfriends.  We consume it, and the substantial number of calories it contains, because it's rewarding and pleasurable.  Think about this: one 12-ounce can of Budweiser contains 146 calories.  If a person drinks four of those in an evening, that's 584 calories that she didn't need-- the equivalent of a large dessert.  On top of it, alcohol increases hunger and decreases the ability to make constructive choices about food, leading to more overeating of unhealthy calorie-dense food.

None of this means we should completely avoid beer, and in fact a little bit of alcohol may actually be healthy, but moderation is in order.  Cutting back on alcohol is a low-hanging fruit in any fat loss effort.

In 2013, drugs are a major driver of calorie intake in the absence of hunger.  These are generally calories we don't need.  Alcohol is the biggest one, but coffee and tea are probably number two because they often come along with cream and sugar.  Chocolate is number three.  I previously discussed drug-containing foods and beverages in my series "Why do We Eat?  A Neurobiological Perspective" (1, 2).


Robert said...

Thanks for the interesting and funny post, Dr. Guyenet.

I think I understand the concept of pleasurable drugs overcoming our aversion to bitter tastes and creating our enjoyment of fermented or odd roasted bean drinks, but what about non-drug laced fermented foods? There is no drug to overcome disgust in kimchi, sauerkraut, or fermented dairy yet most cultures enjoy one or more forms of these foods?

Does habitual consumption of these foods notify the brain of rare and/or needed nutrients which creates pleasure the 7th time consuming kimchi, where the first time there was only disgust?

I pulled the 7th time reference from "French kids eat everything" --the author mentions that the French make children try a food many times as parents know children will eventually appreciate most foods.

Thank you for your thoughts.

Otto said...

"Cutting back on alcohol is a low-hanging fruit in any fat loss effort."

And that's the whole story right there. Beer has been around too many years (i.e. thousands) to be easily lumped with fast food monstrosities, so although I always enjoy your Food Reward Friday series this is about the weakest one you've offered. The arguments are more about the modern cultural position of beer (that drunk dialing GFs on a Friday night moment is achieved more quickly and efficiently with cocktails, by the way) than beer itself, a drink thaat although packed with calories does have nutritional qualities as well.

But if you're dieting? Yup, lose the booze. The single easiest way I personally lose weight is to avoid all alcoholic drinks for a few weeks, esp my bad habit of late night drinking in front of the TV (and don't worry, I already know that I'm not a perfect human being). In fact, while I'm here would you critique my proven weight loss technique for me?

1) avoid fats
2) avoid sugars (incl alcohol of course)
3) exercise
4) 6 weeks
5) 10 to 16 kbs gone.

By the way "avoid" means minimize with going crazy obsessive.

And to keep it off, I avoid beer :-)

John and Mel said...

My friends think I am crazy, but I always said that it is the carbonation that makes beer particularly fattening. Carbonation is an extremely salient and repeatable signal that the brain can latch onto and correlate with the alcohol/calories and thus drives a craving response. When I want a beer, if I drink a bottle of carbonated water, the craving disappears for a good while - it's like a sort of deconditioning effect. Brain fooled! This helps to explain why beer makes me gain weight and wine doesn't. (OK, less sugar in the wine too, but I don't think that accounts for the full effect - I like wine, but never I crave it).

Stephan Guyenet said...

Hi Robert,

Drugs plug directly in to the system that is designed to recognize desirable food, attractive mates, and anything else beneficial: the reward system. But any food with certain characteristics activates it. The reward system likes safe, calorie-dense foods, so it looks for foods that are fatty, sweet, starchy, salty, and low in bitterness. These are reinforcing just like a drug, though not necessarily to the same extent.

Humans also appear to have an instinctive attraction to tart flavors, (at the risk of telling a just-so story) perhaps a carryover of our evolutionary history eating fruit. For example, certain Pacific islands had little or no tart fruit. The inhabitants would ferment taro and/or breadfruit into a tart substance that was highly prized, and was sometimes used to flavor other foods-- it was their only source of tartness.

Hi Otto,

I'm not going to critique your weight loss method if it works for you. But since you asked, I'll tell you a little bit about how we handle this in the Ideal Weight Program. We have two fat loss diets (each of which also has a lifestyle component): the FLASH diet and the Simple Food Diet. The FLASH diet is lean protein and vegetables with a few twists, and it's made for people who are highly motivated and want to lose fast or break a plateau. It's high in protein, low in fat, and low in carbohydrate.

The Simple Food Diet is a less intensive approach that pulls together a variety of fat loss theory and technique from the scientific literature. It doesn't restrict naturally occurring sugars or fats that come as part of a carefully selected list of high-satiety foods (including fruit/avocado, meat, and specific dairy foods), but it does restrict ADDED sugars and fats, as well as alcohol (particularly high-calorie alcohol like beer). This allows us to reap the benefits of increasing satiety and reducing calorie density without running into the limitations often associated with low-fat diets, i.e. low diet satisfaction and poor adherence.

Hi John,

Your friends might be crazy, but you aren't. Physical sensations such as carbonation or texture can be reward cues that your brain associates with the drug/calories in the beverage. I wish I could remember which researcher alerted me to this, but his soapbox is that physical sensations such as carbonation and the sting of chili peppers and horseradish can become quite rewarding, in addition to the canonical food reward factors. I think he must be right. What's beer without carbonation, and what's Indian food without chili pepper?

Chris Masterjohn said...

Hi Stephan,

Where would you draw the line across which cutting alcohol becomes a low-hanging fruit? If someone consumes two glasses of wine twice a week, for example, which for them does not lead to any other alteration in food intake, is cutting back likely to have significant effects on fat loss?


Phil Koop said...

"high-calorie alcohol like beer"

It may well be that beer is more rewarding than other forms of alcohol.

Intuition tells us that beer must also be high in calories compared to an equivalent amount of alcohol in another form. After all, it contains sugars in addition to alcohol.

But most people are surprised by the number of calories in their glass of wine or whiskey, rather than in their beer. As you can see in this video (around the 30s mark), a bottle and a third of beer, a glass and a half of wine, and two fingers of whiskey each have 200 calories:

David L said...

Unless there is something particularly rewarding about current beer formulations, I have difficulty accepting your argument given what we know about beer consumption historically.

To overgeneralize, beer and similar beverages like cider were the primary source of liquid for a large number of people prior to the introduction of tea. Pure water was rarely consumed if at all possible. I have visited Shakespeare's family house in England, and they were very explicit about the level of beer consumption. Additionally, I am reading a book about The Battle of Bunker Hill, and beer and cider was what New Englanders they drank when they weren't drinking rum.

People have argued that these people drank low alcohol beer, but this is apparently a myth -- they generally drank the full test, even the children. Obviously, these population groups were not inherently obese as far as we know, so I find it hard to believe that the drinking of beer is fattening per se.

There are those who claim that beer is better than bread, nutritionally, but I'm not sure I will go that far. However, by introducing alcool, which is good in moderation, beer seems like a net positive, as far as I can tell.

In conclusion, I find your article not compelling.

Stephan Guyenet said...

Hi Chris,

I can't give a specific number because it hasn't been tested, but I doubt four glasses of wine a week is a problem if it doesn't lead to overeating. In the Simple Food Diet, we suggest limiting alcohol to 1 drink per day or less of wine or dry spirits. The FLASH diet recommends avoiding alcohol except occasionally.

Hi David L,

A few points. The average European hundreds of years ago lived a radically different life from ours. Beer isn't going to make you obese if you're a farmer working the fields all day, and you eat mostly simple food: whole grain (or partially refined) wheat/rye bread, legumes, vegetables, and a little bit of meat. No processed food, no cars, no TVs with food ads, no drive-thrus, no washing machines, etc.

I don't believe that beer and cider were more consumed than water by the average person in Europe. What's the evidence for it? I could believe that affluent people did this, but making beer and cider is resource-intensive compared to water and so I doubt less affluent people could afford to drink large quantities of it every day. Wells were/are a relatively safe source of water, and these were relatively common in Europe back then.

A third point is that we actually don't know how fat the average person was hundreds of years ago. Affluent people were often overweight/obese, because their diets/lifestyles resembled ours today (refined highly palatable foods, added fats/sugars, little physical activity, high food availability, etc.) but we have very few records on the non-affluent.

Gabriella Kadar said...

The hard physically labouring ancestors started the day with a shot of brandy. When I was a kid visiting the relatives in Transylvania it was very strange to me that breakfast consisted of plum brandy (overproof of course), smoked dried sausage, chunks of bread and espresso plain or with boiled milk. I always figured it was a sort of painkiller/muscle relaxant so they could get their worn out bodies moving in the a.m.

I was reading recently about the daily ration for beer provided to those who were working. Hops were introduced as a preservative. Various herbs were used prior to and since. The beer made by monks does contain many different ingredients, even quinine.

When I was in Cuba back before the end of the Soviet Union, factory workers leaving work visited the beer truck. They would buy for next to nothing very large plastic cups of Hatuey ale. During that time I'd also sampled quite a number of bottles of this stuff and the alcohol content according to the label was very high (over 10%. I can't remember the exact percentage anymore but it was surprisingly strong stuff.) Happy workers. Happy me: I bought some too.

In Italy it is not unusual for extremely long lived country folk to report that they sip wine all day long. A bottle a day. It keeps them going that's for sure.

Human beings will always seek something to make their unbearable lives more bearable. If it's not alcohol then it is something else. We are a resourceful species.

Otto said...

Thanks Stephan, good of you to reply with that detail.

Fwiw (not much) my typos were

kbs = lbs

minimize with = minimize without

(though you'd probably guessed them already).

glib said...

No redeemable value in home made, unfiltered beer? There are substantial amounts of all B vitamins (except B12), and some minerals.

What is the current thought of advanced nutritionists about ingesting substantial amounts of yeast? Any impact on gut flora?

Robert said...

A new cross-over trial out of Harvard (David Ludwig group) claims that glycemic index affects brain blood flow, subsequent hunger (by driving hypoglycemia), and cravings controlling for calories and palatability.

Here's the link -

And NY Time's interpretation of the study which is useful to know because this is what the public is reading.

Jane said...

ABSTRACT Because of an epidemiologic association of decreased risk of death from ischemic heart disease with moderate use of alcoholic beverages, and because numerous abnormalities found in people with ischemic heart disease are also found in animals deficient in copper, rats were fed a diet deficient in copper and were given either beer or water to drink. RATS DRINKING BEER LIVED NEARLY SIX TIMES AS LONG and had lower plasma cholesterol, less cardiac enlargement, and higher liver copper. Apparent absorption and biological half-life of oral radiocopper were increased by beer. The effects were not attributable to alcohol, chromium, or copper in beer. Beer intakes were similar to those of some people in the United States. Results may explain seasonal cycles in plasma cholesterol and may be germane to the epidemiology of ischemic heart disease because diets in the United States seem to be low in copper. [emphasis added]

'Beer mitigates some effects of copper deficiency in rats'
Leslie M Klevay & Robert J Moore
Am J Clin Nutr 1990, 51:869

Tim said...

Wow, Jane, that's one of the weirdest papers I have ever seen. And there is not exactly a shortage of weird papers in nutritional science...

Chris Masterjohn said...

I don't know, Tim, this one is pretty weird:

Br J Nutr. 1986 Jan;55(1):43-7.Swallowing food without chewing; a simple way to reduce postprandial glycaemia.
Read NW, Welch IM, Austen CJ, Barnish C, Bartlett CE, Baxter AJ, Brown G, Compton ME, Hume KE, Storie I, et al.

"Whether it would ever be practicable to advise patients with diabetes or obesity to reduce mastication as a means of controlling blood glucose is questionable. Swallowing food in diced portions would certainly reduce the pleasure of eating and could be dangerous if
patients had any history of oesophagitis or stricture. Such advice also runs contrary to the stratagem used in some slimmers’ clinics where patients are advised to chew their food thoroughly in order to reduce the rate of ingestion. In spite of these considerations, it could
be argued that such a simple device could allow patients to reduce blood glucose levels without fundamentally altering their diets and may thus prove more acceptable than the ingestion of viscous polysaccharides or beans, which can cause abdominal discomfort, distension and flatulence."

Tim said...

As a German, I have to stand up and defend not only beer in general but of course that particular beer on the photo. It is a dark wheat beer, a bavarian speciality, which is really the "red wine" under the beers. It is brewed in a traditional way, using another kind of yeast than those developed for modern lager beers. It is not filtrated and the yeast settles in the bottle, so you habe to carfully rotate it before pouring it into the glass, which is an art by itself. However, it is worth the effort because wheat beer is nutritionally superior to other beers, with much higher amounts of B vitamins and phenolic compounds from hops, like xanthohumol, which is a potent anti-cancer agent. And best of all: it actually tastes quite well in its non-alcoholic variant (so you can go easy on your ex-girlfriends).

Tim said...

Good find Chris!

I can imagine the rebuke at the breakfast table: "How many times have I told you NOT to chew your donut? Stop chewing and gulp it down or you will become diebetic when you are grown up!" ("And drink up your beer or you will end up like those poor control group mice in the Klevay et al. paper!")

We should create a collection of the funniest papers in nutritional science :)

Anonymous said...

I have read before that hops are estrogenic... is there the possibility that the stereotypical beer belly and man tits of the regular beer drinker have something to do with this? Other than that, reading a history of the drugs we commonly use, apparently before coffee and tea were introduced, most Northern Europeans were nothing if not portly (at least the better off in Dutch and English cities and such - perhaps not field workers), and that coffee was considered an emaciating drink when it first became popular. Of course the coffee drinkers were hardly starving, but the average physique of the time was a stocky, beer built physique. There was even a reaction in Germany, defending good old German beer (for economic reasons if nothing else). Beer soup was the standard breakfast!

Stephan Guyenet said...

Hi Kurent,

It's very difficult to know how much fat the average person carried hundreds of years ago, because there are no systematic records. Most of the information we have comes from the affluent and educated, who tended to be fatter than average. For example, king Henry VIII reportedly had a 52-inch waist late in life, and may have died of diabetic complications. The rich were fat for the same reasons we are today: easily accessible, tasty, calorie dense food, drink, and a sedentary lifestyle.

What I can tell you for certain is that Germans are fatter today than they used to be a few decades ago, and that this cannot be attributed to increased beer consumption. Germany still has a much lower obesity rate than the US.

Regarding the beer belly and gynecomastia, I think this probably relates more to excess fat mass than to estrogenic effects of hops. I've never seen a lean person with gynecomastia.

Tim said...

I think the idea that the infamous "beer belly" is due to the phytoestrogens in beer falls under the catogory of popular myths most people believe to be true just because they sound so convincing.

Phytoestrogens are much more copious in soy and flaxseed than in beer. Yet Asians who eat lots of tofu don't typicaly seem to have beer (or tufu) bellies. Nor do I, having a tablespoon of ground flaxseed with my daily musli.

That's not to say that you can't get a beer belly by drinking lots of beer. Of course you can, because, as Stephan pointed out, it has a lots of calories which go down all to easy.

Dyxelogisk said...

Stephan G
"I don't believe that beer and cider were more consumed than water by the average person in Europe. What's the evidence for it?"

"In spite of the ideal of moderation, consumption of alcohol was often high. In the 16th century, alcohol beverage consumption reached 100 liters per person per year in Valladolid, Spain, and Polish peasants consumed up to three liters of beer per day. In Coventry, England, the average amount of beer and ale consumed was about 17 pints per person per week, compared to about three pints today; nationwide, consumption was about one pint per day per capita. Swedish beer consumption may have been 40 times higher than in modern Sweden. English sailors received a ration of a gallon of beer per day, while soldiers received two-thirds of a gallon. In Denmark, the usual consumption of beer appears to have been a gallon per day for adult laborers and sailors.[4] It is important to note that modern beer is much stronger than the beers of the past. While current beers are 3-5% alcohol, the beer drunk in the historical past was generally 1% or so.[citation needed] This was known as 'small beer' and was drunk instead of water which, unboiled, was prone to carrying disease."

Information taken from :

Tash said...

(Full disclosure: I drink bitter beer, like sauteed spinach, and take my coffee black).

I would suggest that adults tend to consume more bitter things than children due to changing taste sensation.

People hate spinach when they're kids and grow to like it, but not because spinach has a drug in it, but because we can tolerate/like the bitterness when we are older.

(Anecdotally, my daughter ate pureed spinach as a baby, but once she hit 2, she now eschews all bitterness in favor of sweetness.)

Also, many (myself included) prefer a very bitter hoppy IPA to a bland Bud light, even though they both have alcohol.