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You Are What You (Think You) Eat

Last week’s post on marketing [7] took me in an interesting turn this week. I stumbled on an article on NPR [8] highlighting a past but very provocative study that I’ve been toying with for a couple of days now. Having spent years researching the placebo effect [9], Alia Crum, a clinical psychologist and researcher for Columbia Business School, was intrigued by the possibility that food could also be subject to certain physical placebo-generated outcomes. She wondered if our beliefs about a food or drink could influence the effects it physically elicited in us. After all, if what we believed about a sugar pill could make a measurable difference in our physiological functioning, why would a food product be any different? And on that note, weren’t we all being constantly fed (pardon the pun) elaborate messages about the food we bought? Did the variety of labels and claims [10] somehow weave themselves in our mental fabric enough to not only impact our consumer behavior but maybe our body’s responses themselves?

She put her inkling to the test by setting up an experiment in which participants all drank the same 300 calorie French Vanilla shake, with one group believing they were drinking a 620 calorie decadent “Indulgence” shake and the other group operating under the impression that they were enjoying a “Sensishake” with a mere 140 calories and no fat or added sugar. The result confirmed Crum’s hunch. Those who were given the “Indulgence” labelled shakes reported greater satiety, but the bigger news was to come.

While the “Sensishake” group showed relatively stable ghrelin response [11] (a key hunger-stimulating hormone), the “Indulgence” group demonstrated a dramatic drop in ghrelin – about three times the drop as those who thought they were drinking a low-calorie shake. In other words, those who thought they had enjoyed a rich, calorie-dense treat showed the hormonal response associated with doing just that, whereas the subjects who thought they had consumed a low-calorie shake (in the truth the same shake) responded hormonally as if they had, indeed, only had a lower calorie snack. What’s up with this?

Honestly, the first thing that came to mind when I read about this was a placebo-focused study [12] done in housekeepers related to exercise. Essentially, the researchers (one of whom was Alia Crum, it turns out) assembled a cohort of hotel housekeepers who performed the same amount of work each day for their jobs but did little to no other exercise. The researchers, Crum (then a student) and Harvard psychologist Ellen Langer split the women into two groups for the study. They told one group that their work constituted more than the Surgeon General’s recommended daily activity and broke down the timing and physical effort of their work tasks. The control group didn’t receive any message related to exercise or exertion. A month later when they checked back, the women who’d received the encouraging messages about their daily physical efforts reported no change in their activity levels but showed rather significant physical changes. They’d lost on average two pounds each and lowered their systolic blood pressure by ten points. Again, nothing substantial had changed in their behavior. You could argue they put a little more elbow grease into their cleaning routines, but nothing about their duties or outside exercise was different. Another point for the power of mentality apparently.

The whole premise had me intrigued. What else was out there to demonstrate the physiological impact of believing what we were eating/doing was healthier/less healthy than it actually was. What could amplify good impacts? What would ameliorate negative choices? In particular, I’d hoped to dig up more on the nutrition front. What other hormonal effects had been measured in correlation with certain messaging in a study setting? Unfortunately, my search came up relatively dry on the physiological front, but I did get to read some interesting perspective on the sociological and emotional associations and their potential “placebo” effects. I’d recommend this article on “placebo analogies in diet and food culture [13].” (You can view the full article as a PDF [14].) Clearly, our food intake and perceived satiety [15] hinge greatly on how our food is prepared [16] (e.g. home-cooked), how it’s presented (e.g small plate/big plate), how it’s eaten [17] (e.g. big utensils, in a group, while watching T.V.). How very Sam-I-am…

Beyond all this, however, I think of the power of mindset [18] as what must be the subtle and (so far) under-researched physiological impact of our assumptions about the foods we eat. What does a chocolate donut do to us? Well, we pretty well know that in general. However, what if we ate that chocolate donut with full caution-to-the-wind, basking-in-luxury abandon versus if we ate it beleaguered by shame and self-recrimination? I’m not going to suggest that a person who eats total junk food [19] all their lives with a carefree attitude is going to have a better chance at health and longevity as the person who has a good Primal eating strategy [20]. That said, I still think attitude matters [21]. A happy, casual mentality will act to blunt some of the bad impacts of an unhealthy lifestyle, whereas an angry, hostile or fearful mindset will blunt the positive effects of the healthiest choices. The obvious choice is to try to harness the potential of both positives – healthy living with positive thinking [22].

Ironically, I think this message can have special resonance or importance in a health-focused community like ours. There’s talk lately about whether the paleo world encourages or contributes to orthorexia [23], the clinically defined obsession with dietary purity. Truthfully, I don’t think this obsession stems from any food philosophy or that paleo thinking feeds it more than other dietary approaches do. That said, I do believe in the mental breathing room of the 80/20 Principle [24] keeps dietary life in perspective. As most people share with me, it’s not so much the practice of the ratio and giving themselves exactly that 20% but more the chance to make choices outside the daily basics without feeling like they’ve failed.

Likewise, it’s why I’ve said time and again that I don’t believe in guilt [25] – certainly not when it comes to a food or exercise choice anyway. No one has ever gotten healthier by feeling worse about themselves. Beating ourselves with an emotional stick won’t result in any positive change and will only block our ability to give ourselves wholly to the present choice of how we want to live in this moment. In that regard, it’s better to eat the stupid donut and move on than to perseverate for hours or even days over having taken a single bite. When it comes to the power of negative thinking and messages about our food, guilt in particular can have a very real impact. Research has shown [26] that feeling guilty genuinely makes us feel heavier and makes physical exertion feel more difficult. Why bother with it at all? Do what you will and simply own your choices as well as their known impact.

When it comes to the positive side of this placebo equation, I think it can get really interesting. If we’re told a shake is indulgent, and that suggestion can spark a hormonal response to that effect, we can harness that power by filling our days with positive messages about what we choose to eat. Do we allow ourselves to feel deprived because we’re not raiding the candy dish at work like others do, or do we believe that our food is the most luxurious and satisfying [27] out there? Some years ago, much was made (for a rather brief blip of time) about a luxury-focused diet, an approach that encouraged people to steer their food consumption toward smaller portions of the best, most luxurious quality of food they could afford. While it didn’t exactly do much to encourage ideal eating, it did raise a good point. If we feel like our food is an indulgence, we’ll enjoy it more [28], and placebo research backs up the idea that we tend to enjoy things more based on perceived expense.

How about keeping some paleo food porn in your work area? Maybe it’s just a paleo magazine or cookbook in your desk drawer or at home in your kitchen. (Yes, I clearly believe in the power of a good old-fashioned cookbook [29] as well as online recipes [30].) Being part of communities (online or physical) that celebrate the same food choices for the sake of enjoyment as well as health underscore the message that your food is an indulgence to be savored [31]. Cultivating a mindset that sees food not just as a health strategy but as a deeply meaningful, richly layered experience to be relished will undoubtedly lower your body’s stress and shame response – and increase your daily dose of pleasure [32]. (Grok [33] would approve.)

I’m curious about what you all think of this. What intrigues you in this? What do your instincts, experience or other reading tell you? I hope you’ll share your thoughts and enjoy the end of your week. Thanks for reading.