Science of Food column: Learn 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 in the apple send signals that tell the brain there is enough vitamin B6, potassium, fiber and sugar, for example. When the brain knows 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 hormone 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 gastrointestinal 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 Oreos cannot easily initiate the “off switch” like an apple. Our man-made sugars such as high-fructose corn syrup and aspartame 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 ourself 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 gut 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 such as Prozac act upon. Serotonin also plays a role in digestion, and therefore, it’s 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 one-fifth of eating currently takes place in the car in adults 18 to 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 lie 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, which include lots of fresh fish, vegetables and herbs combined with whole grains, garlic, olive oil, hummus, lemons, nuts, figs, tomatoes and red wine.
Ideally, we can still eat for pleasure while getting all of 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.
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 the University of Colorado, Denver and Colorado Mountain College. She can be reached at 970-401-2071 and firstname.lastname@example.org.
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