March 23, 2015 • Sports Medicine & Nutrition

Nutritional Value: Eating for pleasure and performance

Eating well is an art and a science. It requires balancing three equally important factors: nutrition, convenience and pleasure.

For many performance-oriented teens and adults, however, dire nutrition headlines, scary food recalls and health experts acting as the food police have conspired to squelch the pleasure principle. Those who do take pleasure in food and enjoy what they eat often feel guilty for doing so and worry endlessly about their health, weight or performance. Others simply stop listening to all nutrition advice, thus missing out on key benefits.

fishHow people approach and experience what they eat is crucial. Less disease, maintaining a healthy weight and improved daily physical and mental health doesn’t have to mean deprivation and despair around food. It turns out, in fact, that the principles of enjoyment and pleasure are vital to fully obtaining the benefits of eating healthfully. Research on the Mediterranean Diet and the French Paradox, as well as other findings on eating and wellbeing, confirm just how important is to enjoy what you eat.

The Mediterranean Diet

Founded in 1990, the non-profit Oldways promotes the science and health benefits of the traditional Mediterranean Diet. Consisting mainly of fruits and vegetables, beans and nuts, healthy grains, fish, olive oil, small amounts of dairy and red wine, the Mediterranean Diet has become universally recognized by nutrition and health experts as the “gold standard” eating pattern that promotes lifelong good health.

The principles of enjoyment and pleasure are at the center of the Mediterranean Diet. Along with engaging in an active lifestyle (daily walking), those who seek out the joys of good foods and drinks, well prepared and consumed with pleasure, in the company of family and friends, experience the fullest benefits.

The French Paradox

The French Paradox refers to how the French have one of the lowest rates of death due to heart disease despite enjoying a diet loaded with pleasure from regularly consuming cheese, eggs, rich sauces, sweets and red meat — high-fat or high-cholesterol foods associated with an increased risk of heart disease.

While important in determining an individual’s specific risk of heart disease, scientists agree that genetic factors don’t explain this cultural paradox. Numerous studies have shown that people who immigrate to the United States from the Mediterranean and other countries, and begin to eat like Americans, soon lose the protective advantages of their native cuisines and lifestyles. They begin to suffer from the same dietary-related diseases that Americans do, such as heart disease, diabetes and obesity.

Additionally, based largely on animal studies, a large part of the protection the French enjoy had been attributed to their regular consumption of red wine. More recent research on humans fails to support that notion.

So what are the French doing right? The French diet is more diverse and while there are some differences in the actual foods consumed, that’s not all. Substantial differences in food attitudes and the food environment also have been observed between France and the United States. For one, the French see eating as a more pleasurable experience than do Americans, who tend to worry more about food.

Food, life and pleasure

Food scholar Dr. Paul Rozin, a psychology professor at the University of Pennsylvania, has spent a lifetime studying people’s attitudes and beliefs about the relationship between diet and health. His work on food includes comparative studies of food attitudes and the function of pleasure in a number of cultures, including the U.S., France, India and Japan. In a nutshell, Dr. Rozin said, “Americans can learn from the rest of the world about eating and enjoyment. For example, the French are thinner than us, healthier and they experience food more positively than we do. Every bite isn’t seen as being toxic or as going to kill you.”

Rozin maintains that this appreciation and enjoyment of food is central to helping explain the French Paradox. It’s simple — the French weigh less, which decreases heart disease risks, because they eat less.

“What Americans love is getting a deal on a big bowl of food,” Rozin said. “The French on the other hand love a small bit of delicious food.”

In other words, when it comes to food choices, an American mindset that favors quantity and convenience makes it very hard to resist all-you-can-eat buffets, super-sized portions and inexpensive fast food deals. The French, on the other hand, focus on quality and pleasure which appears to set them up to be satisfied with smaller portions.

Denying one’s self altogether of the pleasures associated with good-tasting food isn’t the solution either. Most people simply crave the “forbidden” foods more, and sooner or later that leads to over-indulging. Rozin’s solution for Americans is simple: eat less and you’ll enjoy it at least as much. Similar to other researchers, Rozin has demonstrated consistent evidence of “duration neglect” with respect to the memories people form about meals. That is, having a small portion of a highly favored dish will have roughly the same memorial effect as a large portion.

“It’s not how much you eat that makes you remember it as a good meal,” Rozin said. “It doesn’t matter if you have two spoonfuls or 10, you carry away the same memory of pleasure.”

Rozin cites his ongoing work on the three types of pleasure as it applies to thinking about food — anticipatory pleasure, as in looking forward to something; actual pleasure, which happens in the present moment; and remembered pleasure, as in reliving the experience afterward.

Indulging in the same experience (especially if it’s highly anticipated or thought about beforehand), results in little, if any, remembered pleasure of it later. This is akin to going to a favorite restaurant and ordering the same thing each time. It’s comforting and it makes life easier, however, the memories one forms are so similar they simply blend together.

It takes trying something new to make a meal experience more interesting and create powerful memories. The French have mastered this concept. They favor unique dining experiences that bring joy and pleasure to their lives, such as fine meals that take time and effort to prepare and eat and that revolve around conversations with friends. Perhaps this is the real reason the French, as well as other cultures that adhere to traditional foods and ways of eating, live longer and healthier lives.

Nutritional Value is a column that focuses on athlete health and wellness. It appears regularly in Coach & Athletic Director magazine.

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