Why Your Stomach Doesn't Like Health Food

So you should stop feeding it such sad diet fare

Whenever I encounter a particularly sad diet food -- like a rice cake -- all I can think is, "how does anyone ever feel satisfied with that?" 

Turns out, nobody does. Including your stomach.

In a new study just published in the journal Health Psychology, Yale researchers asked 46 people to taste identical milkshakes. The subjects were told that one milkshake (labeled "indulgent" and offering "decadence you deserve") contained 680 calories, while the other (promising "guilt-free satisfaction") was a mere 140 calories. In reality, both milkshakes were the same 380 calories. But when people drank the "indulgent" milkshake, their stomachs' levels of ghrelin (a hormone that rises with hunger and falls with fullness) declined rapidly. When they drank the "guilt-free" shake? Ghrelin levels were stable and the study subjects stayed hungry. The study authors write: "Participants' satiety was consistent with what they believed they were consuming rather than the actual nutritional value of what they consumed." 

Maia Szalavitz on Time Healthland wonders what the findings mean for food marketers, since "accurately labeling health food as such may make it less satisfying" but consumers nevertheless clamor for such labels. I think the study offers one more great reason to break up with the notion that you have to earn the right to eat "bad" food and otherwise just be miserable eating "good" foods. Whether your goal is to lose weight or just be healthy, eating such "healthy" foods that leave you unsatisfied won't get you there -- because you'll inevitably end up overeating later on when the hunger pangs get too persistent. 

Instead, just like the government's new MyPlate guidelines suggest, we should eat food we enjoy. It just makes sense: Taking pleasure in your meals ensures that you'll feel full and satisfied when you're finished. This makes it easier to eat less if that's what you need to do (and I'm not saying it is because this is not diet advice masquerading as "feel good about your body" advice).

But I also think this study might indicate just how out of tune we are with the whole concept of hungry/full. When your only exposure to "health" food is stuff covered in marketing claims, of course your stomach has a knee-jerk "no way will this fill me up!" reaction from the first "low-fat" sip. I don't mean to hop on the perfect eater bandwagon but processed foods formulated to be "healthy" tend to taste synthetic and unsatisfying, while processed foods designed to taste great are also excessively filling. Considering how much of our food culture revolves solely around these two options, it's no wonder that we've skewed "full" to mean "stuffed to bursting" and feel hungry with anything less.

Going cold turkey on all processed food isn't necessary or realistic for most of us -- and, like any extreme food stance, would mess with our heads in a different-but-not-better way. But it is worth asking yourself if you're really enjoying a meal that promises "decadence you deserve" -- or if it would be worth finding that middle ground of (less processed) food that's both healthy and delicious.

My guess is, your stomach just might thank you. 





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