Monday, June 27, 2011

Boring is another word for satiating

Satiety is a common topic of discussion on this blog. In the last few posts it came up several times in the comments’ sections. Also, in my interview with Jimmy Moore, we did talk a bit about satiety. I told him what has been my perception and that of many people I know, which is that the least satiating foods tend to be foods engineered by humans.


There is another component to satiety, which applies to natural foods, or foods that are not man-made. That other component is the nutrition value of those foods, and whether they meet our nutrition needs at a given point in time. If our body needs certain essential amino acids for tissue repair, subconscious mechanisms will make us crave those foods from which those amino acids can be extracted. In this context, eating is generally a good idea.

The problem is that we have not evolved mechanisms to differentiate “true” from “fake” nutrient starvation; one example of the latter would be fat starvation due to transient hyperinsulinemia induced by refined carbohydrate-rich foods.

Foods engineered by humans tend to lead to overeating because humans are good engineers. In modern society, business drives everything. Food business is predicated on consumption, so engineered foods are designed so that one person will want to consume many units of a food item – typically something that will come in a box or a plastic bag. There is no conspiracy involved; the underlying reason is profit maximization.

When we look at nature, we typically see the opposite. Prey animals do not want to be eaten; often they fight back. Eggs have to be stolen. Plants do not want their various parts, such as leaves and roots, to be eaten. Much less their seeds; so they have developed various defense mechanisms, including toxins. Fruits are exceptions to this rule; they are the only natural foods that are designed to be eaten by animals.

Plants want animals to eat their fruits so that they can disperse the plants’ seeds. So they must be somewhat alluring to animals. Sugar plays a role here, but it certainly is not the only factor. The chemical composition of fruits is quite complex, and they usually contain a number of health-promoting substances, such as vitamins. For example, most fruits contain vitamin C, which happens to be a powerful antioxidant, and also has the ability to reversibly bind to proteins at the sites where sugar-induced glycation would occur.

Many modern fruits have been bred to be resistant to diseases, more palatable, and larger (usually due to more water retention). But, fundamentally, fruits are products of evolution. So how come we don’t see fruits that are pure sugar? Watermelons, for example, are often referred to as “bags of sugar”, but they are only 6 percent sugar. Ice cream is 25 percent sugar.

Two things must be kept in mind regarding fruits and their evolution. One is that dead animals do not eat fruit, and thus cannot disperse seeds. Sick animals would probably not be good candidates for fruit dispersion either. So the co-evolution of fruits and animals must have led fruits to incorporate many health-promoting attributes. The other is that seed dispersion success is correlated with the number of different animals that consume fruits from a plant. In other words, plants do not want all of their fruits to be eaten by one single animal, which must have led fruits to incorporate satiety-promoting attributes.

Often combining foods, adding spices, and so on, is perceived as making those foods exciting. That is so even with natural foods. If you read the descriptions of the foods consumed by healthy isolated populations in Weston Price’s Nutrition and Physical Degeneration, you will probably find them a bit boring. A few very nutritious food items, consumed day in and day out, frequently without heavy preparation. Exciting foods, requiring elaborate and time-consuming preparation, were consumed in special occasions. They were not eaten regularly.

The members of those healthy isolated populations were generally thin and yet lacked no important nutrients in their diet. They were generally free from degenerative diseases. Their teeth were normally strong and healthy.

Just before writing this post, I took six whole sardines out of the freezer to thaw. I will prepare them as discussed on this post, and eat them with a side of steamed vegetables for lunch. (I tend to eat fruits only on the days I exercise; typically 3 days out of 7.) This lunch will be very nutrient-dense. I will be very hungry before lunch, since I’ll have been fasting for 16 hours, and after I’ll not be hungry until dinner. Frankly, eating the sardines will not be very exciting, since I’ve been doing this for years.

Boring is another word for satiating.


Unknown said...

I have to disagree. Most of these cultures have sauces, but they are very different from ours, mostly made with fermented seafood. I would describe them as being good, but funky. They weren't eating plain foods, but their flavorings were much more complex. I find complex flavorings highly satiating to the point where I have to be careful with my consumption or I won't get enough calories. Some interesting sauces I've tried are Nigerian- ogbono and egusi. Very delicious, very satiating. At home I like to use fish sauce and anchovy paste. I'd love to see a study on the role these foods play in appetite.

David Isaak said...

One thing I find interesting is that carbs and fat seldom seem to appear together large amounts in nature. Many of our most popular junk foods, from ice cream to french fries, seem to blend the two.

I don't seem to be able to be healthy on a low-fat, high-carb diet (though I think I could have when I was young). But some people (and cultures) seem to do well.

Could it be that these two macronutrients simply don't go well together in large amounts? Do they try to drive us down metabolic pathways that are mutually inconsistent?

Or is the problem as simple as having carbs's blood sugar effects override the satiety that usually comes from eating fat?

John said...

For me, it's not quite so simple. For example, a plain baked potato keeps me wanting to eat more and more, despite feeling physically full and not enjoying the taste much. Two or three ounces of unsweetened chocolate satiates me (I don't enjoy that either). I simply think that certain foods (without sauces, etc) are much more satiating: cacao, eggs, fermented dairy. Carbs only make me physically uncomfortable and give me further carbohydrate (and protein) cravings.

Luke McMahon said...

"Fruits are exceptions to this rule; they are the only natural foods that are designed to be eaten by animals." Does this mean that it is safe to eat the skins of certain fruits such as apples?

Ned Kock said...

Hi Melissa. This is one of those posts with a lot of assertions, so I’m not exactly sure what you are disagreeing with. Having said that, many traditional sauces are very nutrient-dense – e.g., sauces that build on bone broths. Foods that are very nutrient-dense frequently taste funky, and are satiating, because of their concentrated nutrient content.

Ned Kock said...

Hi David. Fat significantly reduces the glycemic index of carb-rich foods. Nuts have a reasonable amount of both (more fat), in the same package.

Ned Kock said...

Hi John. The calorie content of the chocolate portions is significantly higher than that of the potato portions you are referring to, right? If yes, it seems like your body is just behaving the way it should in the absence of any major nutrient deficiency. Since you are an athlete (a sprinter, if I recall correctly), your body needs calories.

Ned Kock said...

Hi Luke. It is a good idea to avoid the skins of fruits that tend to retain more toxins, like peaches and kiwis, assuming they are not organically produced. Other than that, the skins of fruits are often where much of the nutrients are.

Christian Wernstedt said...

There is the Shangri-La diet which builds on a rather wide base of observations that indicate that eating the same foods all the time tends to promote a higher fat set point, whereas either changing things up with unusual spices, or eating literally taste-less foods by holding one's nose, lowers the fat set point.

Ned Kock said...

Hi Christian, thanks for bringing up the Shangri-La Diet. It is odd, but seems to work for many people.

The basic principle is the subconscious association between taste and calories, and positive reinforcement of that association.

In a sense, the reprogramming underlying the Shangri-La Diet is what people go through when they adopt a diet free from refined foods. Also, when hard drug addicts go through a long enough withdrawal period …

For those interested in the Shangri-La Diet, which is by no means a stupid fad diet, here is an instructive YouTube video:

petros said...

You suggested to avoid the skin of some fruits to avoid some toxins( and I assume you mean man made toxins because you exclude organic fruit).Does it worth that we pay so much atention to man made chemicals that we end up avoiding the part that may turn out to be the most important for health?(I just checked wikipedia about kiwi fruit and it says good things about the skin).If people such as Bruce aims are right thats not a good strategy.

petros said...

Sorry I meant Bruce Ames (not aims)

gregory barton said...


Sardines and steamed vegetables! Just what I had for lunch yesterday. But with olive oil and vinegar on the steamed vegetables and a thai recipe for the sardines one could hardly call it boring!

Thai sardines:
spring onions, chilli, lemon grass, garlic all thinly sliced, a squeeze of lemon juice and a teaspoon of tomato sauce from the can.

Thanks for another provocative post.


Anonymous said...

hmmm, its an interesting take, the Seth Robert diet thing, and i see where it makes sense for many people due to industrial food hyper-sensitivity and food flavors/enhancers.

however, if it were a personal account.... i have LOVED bland food my entire life. everything had to be plain, always. i would eat bologna, but only by itself, eggs plain, i could live off rice cakes because they have no flavor. plain chicken, im the only person i know who LIKES it. plain potatoes(except white ones taste like metal to me), sardines in water.

its so odd, and always annoyed my parents. i wouldn't eat spaghetti b/c of the sauce intense flavor, so they fed me pasta plain and a side of tomatoes. i wouldn't eat salad because of all the flavors in it. mashed potatoes with nothing on them. hated casseroles.

then there was everyone else, always seeing how much 'stuff' they can pack and flavor into a meal or food item. maybe food should just be eatten as it comes, and naturally. go figure lol. on the fruit, i havent really ever been a fan, but started eating fruit when i developed anorexia, temporarily lived off it, and now am just adding it back it, but geez it stings my jaws and makes my teeth sensitive. and still, i like it plain and by itself

David Isaak said...

Yes, nuts are one of the few cases in naure of fats + carbs in one dense package--though they are low-carb enough to be a staple snack in low-carb diets (especially macadamias, almonds and pecans).

But if you visit low-carb forums, you see that they are also one of the foods that many low-carb dieters tend to overconsume. A common bit of advice when people complain of a weight-loss stall is to examine their consumption of nuts, becasue it is easy to eat too many.

I don't think there are any natural foods that look much like, say, Oreos. But nuts lean that direction.

(I think nuts join fruits on the "want to be eaten" list. True, those that are eaten don't reproduce. But those that are buried or hidden by squirrels and birds often sprout, and this is an important means of dispersion. The animals not only disperse the nuts, but even "plant" them.)

David Isaak said...

I apologize for my prolixity, but this was a particularly stimulating post.

As to satiating = boring...I'm not sure that's exactly the word I'd use.

One of the most satiating meals I eat consists of various fancy forms of cheese omelettes. They are spiced, sauced, and certainly couldn't be described as boring.

But by the time I'm finishing eating, the thought of another bite makes me queasy.

On the other hand, people seem to be able to consume massive quantities of potato chips, buttered popcorn, Wheat Thins, macaroni and cheese...all of which I think would have to be described as "boring." Boring, but overconsumable.

I'm with you on foods being engineered to be non-satiating. And the standard recipe for that is processed carbs, fat (often highly engineered for shelf-life), and salt.

spughy said...

It should also be noted that vitamin C, in addition to being a health-promoting antioxidant, is a poop-promoting laxative, when ingested in large enough quantities. I would guess that is more likely the reason for the high vitamin C content, not so much the antioxidants. Fruit wants to be pooped out, and the closer to the source, the better, as it's more likely to be a suitable environment for that particular species. For instance, blueberries that get eaten by bears and then pooped out a day later when the bear has wandered down to an estuary don't accomplish much - but blueberries that get pooped out six hours later just a little further down the hill do.

This is why fresh cherries are so good at making me eat too many of them, even when I know what's going to happen. ;-)

bee said...

talking of boring, i read somewhere that the per capita sugar consumption in britain in the 1800s was way less than a pound. bland, flavourless food with very little sugar.

it must have been satiating from the nutritional perspective. i am fron india, where we add a crap tons of spices and flavourings to everything. for the past year, i've been eating grain-free, sugar-free and find myself slowly moving towards very bland, nearly salt-free food.

i guess my body is nutritionally satiated and doesn't need those "extras".

Kindke said...

A bit off topic but I just wanted to point out an observation,

After a big tasty meal when your feeling full, time passes quicker, or rather, your perception of time is that it passes quicker.

When your very hungry and know that you cant eat for awhile, time passes very slowly, or rather, your perception of time is that everything is moving in slow motion.

(You can see this affect best when actively trying to do extended fasting, like 48 hours or so.)

David Moss said...

I think it would be more accurate to say that boring equal not counter-satiating. Water is boring, but not satiating (or if you think, to be fair, this should only be applied to caloric thing- water with a bit of sugar). It's true that really un-boring (rewarding, compelling) food can tempt you to eat it regardless of satiation, but something being boring isn't sufficient (water) or necessary (Melissa's counter-examples) for satiety.

Oh and also I would second John's point, I find chocolate (or other fats come to that) far more satiating than potatos or any other bland untasty starch, even though a couple of potatos is about the same calories as a couple of ounces of dark chocolate.

montmorency said...

This article seems to go in a few different directions, and I am not quite sure of your main point(s).

However, in your point that boring is the same as satiating, this sounds dangerously like Stephan Guyenet's points about reward centres and that basically, in order to reduce our calories, we should eat as boringly as possible (he does so by eating lots of potatoes, which would certainly bore me, and not satisfy me).

I might find sardines moderately satiating (although I would go for fresh ones ... can't be doing with frozen food...), and fairly boring, but not quite satiating enough (and veg wouldn't help).

My own preference, which others might find boring, would be steak (with lots of fat, but no condiments, herbs, spices or sauces and just lightly cooked) and eggs, or at least beef in some form (not processed, not ground, not frozen). I do not find this boring though I do eat it most days. My point is that it is satiating because it fulfills my need for protein and fat. Whether it is boring or exciting is irrelevant.

Krishnan said...

Hi Ned, I've been reading for a while think its a great blog.

I'd like to suggest an alternative hypothesis (or perhaps simply another factor which accounts for a significant portion of the variance) of the co-evolution between humans and fruits and why the sugar content is "so low" (in comparison to ice cream).

The energetic cost of fruit being composed of such large amounts of glucose is very high. In addition, while I personally am only aware of limited data to support this conclusion, cells within fruit could not physically support such high levels of sugar due to the osmotic pressure this would put on the cells within the fruit.

I have often seen arguments like this amongst this nutritional community which come from a human-centric viewpoint. That is to say we interpret the structure and biochemistry of fruit as a result of the animal support systems which it hopes to exploit. While this is part of the picture, this is surely missing a large part: what is feasible for the fruit in the first place... it's gotta look out for its own energetic costs before reproduction right?

Thanks again, I know its very challenging presenting all sides of an issue at once because you're not trying to write a book. Love the blog, the analysis is good and it is well written.

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