Bluefield Daily Telegraph, Bluefield, WV

October 4, 2012

Bad eating habits are a matter of instinct


CNHI

— Dr. E. Kirsten Peters

CNHI News Service

Many people have noticed that foods that are good for us don’t trigger intense cravings. In the late afternoon, when my energy is low, I want a piece of chocolate not a green pepper. When I walk around the grocery store, I go through the meats and produce sections without craving the food I see. But when I get to the bakery, all bets are off.

These patterns of cravings are significant because what we eat affects our health. Obesity and diabetes are problematic in the United States, and too many of us have a diet rich in French fries, doughnuts and soda pop. Why is it that we so intensely want what is likely to be bad for our health?

A recent piece from Oregon State University helps explain our cravings. It seems we have evolutionary adaptation to crave certain things. As hunter-gathers in the wild, humans had to decide what to eat and what to avoid. Our lives depended on our choices.

In the wild, sweet foods are generally good. They are safe to eat, and their calories ward off hunger. When we were hunter-gathers, we were on our feet essentially all day, every day, burning through the calories we ate. Sweet fruit was good tasting and good for us.

Back in the old days, when we could hold off hunger by eating fat-rich foods, we had reason to celebrate. The fatty portion of meat gave us a lot of calories.

Now, however, our natural craving for sweets and fats gets us in trouble. I sit at a desk all day, yet I crave sweets and fats as much as my hunter-gatherer ancestors. It’s easy for me to overeat, especially because there are chocolates in a bowl just a few feet from my desk.

When it comes to the battle of the bulge, a good test is to conjure the image of a food and ask myself if I crave it. Sweet and salty foods are high on the list of what I crave, even when I’ve been eating three square meals a day and don’t need more calories.

The Oregon State news release notes “flavor” is a complicated subject. Only part of what gives a food its flavor is taste. Smell, temperature and texture are also important. Some foods are spicy, a feature that makes them a favorite to some people.

We’re all different, and our individual brains decide what foods we like. But most of us hanker for foods that are high in calories. Now that we can choose at the grocery store or restaurant what we eat, rather than chasing it down in the wild, we too often end up with more calories than is useful for our health.

The good news from Oregon is the way we perceive flavor is only partly instinct. It’s also partly learned. It’s certainly true that the first time I tasted coffee I thought it was terrible. Now I can’t live without it.

We need to work on retraining our senses to enjoy the foods that are good tasting and good for us. That may take more work than pulling up at the fast food outlet, but it’s important labor that can yield rich rewards for our health.

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Dr. E. Kirsten Peters was trained as a geologist at Princeton and Harvard. Her column is a service of the College of Agricultural, Human and Natural Resource Sciences at Washington State University.