In anticipation of our national feast, aka Thanksgiving dinner, I feel duty-bound to warn you, dear reader, of the tricks foods play on your brain. This warning comes a la Janet Raloff‘s article, “Tricks Foods Play,” in the October 8th issue of Science News. Ms. Raloff reports on examples “of newfound and surprising ways that foods can confuse calorie-sensing networks and foster obesity.” According to the article, “to maintain a constant weight, a 160-pound man would need to consume ‘about 1 million calories over the course of a year […] and expend almost exactly the same million calories.’” To maintain weight you have to expend as many calories as you consume. Newfound? Surprising? And wouldn’t that hold true for any healthy, normally-functioning person, not just 160 lb men?
But wait, there’s more. Some things that you thought were obvious, aren’t. Raloff quotes Marc-Andre Cornier who explains that “We know, for instance, that the more obese you are, the more you underestimate the number of calories that you eat and the less likely you are to feel hunger and satiety.” Let me get this straight. First I’m fat then I underestimate caloric intake? All this time I thought it was the other way around, that the more I underestimate the calories I eat, the fatter I become. But that’s just old-school and boring. You can’t sell magazines (or get grants) with that.
Raloff continues to turn your intuition on its head by reporting this gem. “Among recruits who started with a normal weight, frequent diet-soda drinkers went on to become overweight or obese during the next seven to eight years at roughly twice the rate seen among participants who avoid diet drinks.” To be sure I’m not just being mean, let’s think about it. Does anyone really prefer the taste of diet over regular soda? Maybe someone does, but a quick poll tells me it’s unlikely. So why do people drink diet soda? Answer: to slow the rate of weight gain. So what should we conclude from this study? That people who are gaining weight are more likely to drink diet soda. Raloff reports, however, that “Fowler’s group concluded that artificial sweeteners might be fueling the obesity epidemic that they [the sweeteners, presumably, not Fowler's group] had been designed to fight.” Now that’s surprising and newfound. Is it true? I’m certainly more skeptical than Ms. Raloff.
Raloff concludes that, “these findings suggest that the brain, a longtime master at tracking caloric intake, can be fooled.” Hmmm. But wait! Don’t despair! There’s yet one more surprising, newfound finding. Raloff reports that “Cornier and his colleagues showed that halfway into a yearlong program of supervised treadmill exercise, most of a dozen adult recruits were losing fat and weight.” Obvious? Well, yes, for you and me, but we don’t have the credentials necessary to fund such a study–or to report on it for a national science magazine. If we were qualified, we would conclude that “this exercise regime appears to help repair the default network’s faulty switch.” And you thought it was all about burning off calories.
So while I’m gorging myself on turkey and stuffing, potatoes and gravy, and, of course, pumpkin pie, I will rest assured that it’s not my fault. The food tricked me into eating it.