Go With Your Gut
By HARRIET BROWN
Published: February 20, 2006
LAST week's reports that low-fat diets may not reduce the risk of heart disease and cancer have left Americans more confused than ever about what to eat. I'd like to make a radical suggestion: instead of wringing our hands over fat grams and calories, let's resolve to enjoy whatever food we eat.
Because, as it turns out, when you eat something you like, your body makes more efficient use of its nutrients. Which means that choking down a plateful of steamed cauliflower (if you hate steamed cauliflower) is not likely to do you as much good as you think.
In the 1970's, researchers fed two groups of women, one Swedish and one Thai, a spicy Thai meal. The Thai women — who presumably liked the meal more than the Swedish women did — absorbed almost 50 percent more iron from it than the Swedish women. When the meal was served as a mushy paste, the Thai women absorbed 70 percent less iron than they had before — from the same food.
The researchers concluded that food that's unfamiliar (Thai food to Swedish women) or unappetizing (mush rather than solid food) winds up being less nutritious than food that looks, smells and tastes good to you. The explanation can be found in the digestive process itself, in the relationship between the "second brain" — the gut — and the brain in your head.
Imagine sitting in your favorite Japanese restaurant before a plate of sushi, chopsticks poised. You take in its fragrance and the beautiful cut of the fish, the shapely rice and nori rolls. Those delectable smells and sights tell your brain that the meal will be enjoyable, and the brain responds by pushing your salivary glands into high gear and ordering your stomach to secrete more gastric juices.
Result: you get more nutritional bang for your buck than you would, say, faced with a platter of lutefisk. In that case, your brain might send fewer messages to your mouth and stomach, causing the food to be less thoroughly digested and metabolized.
Does this mean we should be reaching for the Krispy Kremes and forgoing the raw cauliflower? No. The food has to have nutritive value in the first place. But maybe we could take a lesson from the French, whose level of heart disease is lower than ours despite their richer diet. The French savor the taste and texture of food and the experience of eating; we tend to eat dutifully (how much cauliflower can you choke down?), on the run (hardly realizing what we're eating), or rebelliously (devouring a whole box of Entenmann's because we feel deprived).
In fact, we're hard-wired to enjoy food; it's a survival mechanism. Volunteers in the 1946 University of Minnesota Starvation Study, who spent six months at half rations, developed a slew of peculiar rituals around eating. They devoted hours to meals that might normally take a few minutes, cutting a slice of bread into tiny bits with a knife and fork, arranging the bits on the plate, chewing each mouthful 200 times — all behaviors engineered to prolong both the act of eating and the enjoyment of the limited food available.
The health writer Lawrence Lindner tells of a committee that gathered to hammer out the wording of the United States Dietary Guidelines in 1995. One committee member suggested that the first guideline read "Enjoy a variety of foods" — language that was rejected as "too hedonistic." (In the end, Mr. Lindner wrote, the committee "opted for the apparently less giddy 'Eat a variety of foods.' ") So let's vow to enjoy our food, not wolf it down in the car with a heaping order of guilt. Call it Slow Food, conscious eating, or eating the French way, the point's the same: eating well and with pleasure is more than hedonism — it's good nutritional policy and practice. Bon appétit!
Harriet Brown, the editor of the forthcoming anthology "Mr. Wrong," is working on a book about anorexia.
Last year there was a movement amongst many people I knew to forego (or supplement) the traditional "be with Jesus in the desert, deprived of material pleasures and reminded of one's dependence upon God" Lenten route for (with) "cultivate awareness of the glory and joy of God in one's personal daily life."
During college, Lententide usually functioned as a prompt for me to try to spend more time/energy to spiritual/theologic issues. I sometimes managed to fit in attendance at the First Churches/Edwards Lenten Book Study. This year I'm already doing Thursday evening prayer at Emmanuel Lutheran and will begin attending the Wednesday evening "Beginnings" program at the Congregational starting with Session 3, plus I plan to do 8:15 Sunday morning FCCN Adult Bible Study Lenten series.
Cramming my schedule full of doing things feels rather counter to the spirit of Lent, however. (Not that I think I *shouldn't* do these things, just that they're not necessarily appropriate substitutes for the traditional fasting.) Plus, the point of fasting during Lent was to be daily aware of one's dependence on God, so focusing on God a few days a week is a good start but doesn't seem to quite cut it.
So the above NYT article got thinking about how I had delusions of going vegan after I graduated college and how I don't eat particularly well now because I'm picky and lazy, so perhaps making a real effort to balance nutrients and eat well would be a good exercise for Lent. (I am reminded of Layna's Lenten resolution last year to get 8 hours of sleep each night.)
This is the day that the Lord has made. Let us rejoice and be glad in it.
Edit: I'm scheduled to meet with Pastor Hamilton next Thursday and checked his blog and read:
Mardi Gras Sunday. [...] And the sermon will be jazz sermon on the power of laughter -- "And Sarah Laughed."
We never did get the Sarah Sunday of the Women in the Bible series. I was going to go to Emmanuel Lutheran this Sunday in prep for Lent, but I'd like to go to FCCN for this.
We hope to create a great, big exhalation, in preparation for the inhalation we will need for our Lenten journey which begins on ...So, um, it's a conspiracy to not let me leave FCCN.
Ash Wednesday, March 1st, next week. We will completely shift our perspective from celebration to contemplation.
The Four Witnesses. During Lent, I will be preaching on the way the four gospels present Jesus. Each gospel offers a different vantage point for seeing Jesus. One of the most central questions to us, as Christians, is a question which Jesus himself posed to the disciples: "Who do you say I am?" During our Lenten wilderness journey, this question will be our guide.