“After a good dinner one can forgive anybody, even one’s own relations.”
― Oscar Wilde, A Woman of No Importance

Nourishment is a necessity of life, but eating is one of life’s great pleasures. Our mouth is equipped with about three thousand taste buds, tiny nubs a few hundredths of a millimeter high, mainly on the tongue. Each of these little bumps contains about fifty sense cells that respond to the different tastes.

More than a hundred thousand nerve strands, bundled into two cords, pass information from the tongue to the brain. There are different sensors that report heat and cold, identify texture, and register burning and thus respond to the spiciness of chilies. Every bite and every movement of the tongue sets off an entire firework display of electric signals.

The signals don’t translate into pleasure until they’ve been received in the brain. Experiment showed that if the rats – who’d been given nothing to eat – wanted to receive nourishment, they had to press a lever, which would release a nutrient solution that flowed through a tube directly into their stomachs, completely bypassing the taste/pleasure circuits. Although they could digest as much as they wished, after a few weeks they lost almost a third of their weight.

Unsalted food tastes bland because the body needs salt to function. But we tolerate bitter and sour tastes only moderately because most poisons are bitter and many sour fruits are not ripe. Instead, we devour anything sweet, for sugar is straight energy. Evolution made its creatures absorb as much nourishment as possible – as a precaution against bad times. Diet wasn’t part of evolution’s plan!

Italian scientists from the University of Naples discovered that when food is eaten for pleasure rather than hunger, the ‘reward’ chemicals in the brain are activated, making the body desire foods based on how they taste, rather than as an energy source.

To demonstrate this, researchers enlisted the help of eight healthy participants and fed them their favorite food during what they called the ‘hedonic process’. They later asked participants to eat less palatable foods and examined the results.

They discovered that the reward mechanisms in the body (a chemical called 2-AG and hormone called ghrelin) significantly increased during the hedonic eating process.

Survival requires the body to balance calorie intake and expenditure. If hunger were controlled only by this homeostatic mechanism, humans would eat just enough to satisfy the calorie needs of their body.* But since our entire body is set up for enjoyment and pleasure, we tend to yield to its inner ‘hedonic hunger’ and eat more than we should. Hedonic hunger and the resultant overeating have been compared to drug addiction. The Journal of Clinical Endocrinology and Metabolism investigated the relationship between sleep deprivation and hedonic hunger. The results reinforce the fact that acute sleep loss enhances a similar hedonic hunger stimulus that motivates food consumption without hunger.

In China, almost all business deals are negotiated around the dinning tables. Companies as well as consumers are spending an astronomical amount of money on wine-and-dine. Obesity wasn’t an issue twenty years ago, but it is now, along with other diet-related health problems such as diabetes, fatty liver and high cholesterol.

Food consumed in moderation is a great source of life’s pleasure. Exercise offers a sure way to burn those surplus calories. Learn to cook or bake and share the delicacies with family and friends will stop you from over-eating but at the same time double or triple the enjoyment.

Image Credit: www.bubblews.com

Partial content credit to “The Science of Happiness” by Stefan Klein

*Monteleone P, Piscitelli F, Scognamiglio P, Monteleone AM, Canestrelli B, Di Marzo V, Maj M. Hedonic eating is associated with increased peripheral levels of ghrelin and the endocannabinoid 2-arachidonoyl-glycerol in healthy humans: a pilot study.J Clin Endocrinol Metab. 2012 Jun; 97(6):E917-24.