Science of Food column: How to Indulge without the bulge
Science of Food
Nature offers us such a delicious and nutritious treat in the form of a sweet crunchy apple packed full of “molecular goodies.” And rarely do we eat more than one apple. The diverse phytonutrients present in the apple send signals to the brain and tell the brain that there is enough vitamin B-6, potassium, fiber and sugar, for example. When the brain knows that the body has received what is required to fuel and nourish us, it sends out messages to tell us to stop eating. This satisfied feeling, stemming from an innate neurological network, is satiation. In other words, it’s a feeling of fullness, the “off-switch” as the mind and body connect to establish this sense of communication for optimal weight and health.
We all possess this internal intelligence that allows us to sense when we are “full.” This internal signal is rooted in millions of years of evolutionary refining that enables us to survive. Signaling networks in the body are operating like a huge orchestra with chemical messengers to tell the central processing center located in the hypothalamus when we’ve had enough to eat.
Such internal cues and the scientific basis for this mind-body connection come in part from recent research on the hormones leptin, shown to be an important player in regulating appetite and hunger. Leptin, often referred to as the “satiety hormone,” is released by fat cells to tell the brain when we’ve stored enough fat and thus it is not necessary to eat any more. The chemical messenger cholecystokinin, present in the GI tract, is another hormone that is involved in creating the “off-switch,” and there are many more we have yet to discover.
Synthetic additives, sugars and pesticides can disrupt the brilliant neurological network that creates the feeling of satiation. Eating processed foods with minimal nutrients, so called “empty calories,” will not make us feel full, or at least not for very long. That’s why an order of French fries, a super-sized soda or a bag of chips or Oreo’s cannot easily initiate the “off switch” like an apple. Especially our man-made sugars like high-fructose corn syrup and aspartame, they can confuse the body and cause rapid storage of fat, especially when paired with a sedentary lifestyle. On the other hand, whole foods provide molecular diversity in what I like to call “Nature’s pharmacy,” giving us all the nutrients to maintain, restore and heal our “self” on a daily basis.
However, it is more than just these physical molecular events occurring in the body telling us to stop eating; mental wellness, will power and mindfulness are also involved. There are neurological receptors in the gut, such as those that bind the molecule serotonin, that are also communicating with the brain. Science has recently started referring to our guts as the second brain due to its role in the neurological network. Serotonin, as most people know, is linked to depression and what typical pharmaceutical drugs like Prozac act on. Serotonin also plays a role in digestion and thus becomes apparent that mood and mental wellness affect food choices and eating habits.
WHAT AND HOW TO EAT?
The underlying concept is to practice “mindful eating” that begins with sitting at a table to eat and slowing down. Studies have shown that about 1/5 of eating currently takes place in the car in adults 18-50 years old where typically eating occurs faster. There is a lag time for the food to process and the satiation signals to reach the hypothalamus, so simply chewing longer and eating smaller bites will help reduce portion sizes. Our bodies are craving nutrients to maintain the processes keeping us alive and healthy, so eating foods with “empty calories” keeps the brain signaling to eat more.
The key is eating nutrient dense foods that also taste delicious. If possible, eat a diverse array of whole foods, cook at home more often and eat together with family or friends. Bring awareness to portion sizes of snacks by placing some on a plate instead of eating out of a bag. Do not sit or lay down after a meal; take a walk, go skiing or do house chores to utilize some of the fuel just consumed. Mindful eating has been practiced by many cultures for thousands of years, like the Mediterranean people. I found a lot of inspiration for my own diet from my travels to Greece and Italy, especially in the coastal villages of the Amalfi Coast that includes lots of fresh fish, vegetables and herbs combined with whole grains, garlic, olive oil, hummus, lemons, nuts, figs, tomatoes, red wine …
Ideally, we can still eat for pleasure while getting all the nutrients needed to fuel and nourish our bodies and to enjoy the activities of life. Through molecular signals and conscious practices, the food establishes a connection to please the body and the mind. And as the holidays quickly approach with all the delicious food to be enjoyed, I hope this month’s Science of Food column offers some practical tips on how to indulge without the bulge.
Dr. Lisa Julian Ph.D. has a passion for organic chemistry the “molecules of life” and its application to food and health. She’s the owner of Elevated Yoga & Holistic Health in Frisco and teaches science and nutrition at CU Denver and CMC. She can be reached at (970)401-2071 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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