Thursday, May 22, 2014

Can You Think Yourself Full? How Our Thoughts Affect Hunger

The day after I published my post about wheat and gluten, the corner of the blogosphere where the health geeks hang out was all a-flutter. A new study came out casting aspersions on the concept of non-celiac gluten sensitivity.

Celiac disease is well-known and accepted within the medical community, but the notion that people not diagnosed with celiac would have reactions to gluten met with some skepticism. Yet many people have eliminated gluten-containing foods from their diets and report feeling better.

This new study was conducted by the same scientist who first posited gluten as the culprit in irritable bowel syndrome. He was unsatisfied with his original study, and so conducted another more rigorous one in which self-described gluten-intolerant participants were unwittingly fed high-, low-, or no-gluten diets. The researchers found complaints of GI distress were wholly unrelated to the intake of gluten. The study suggests a 'nocebo' effect is at work. People think eliminating gluten will make them feel better, and so it does.

I read several quite snarky articles telling non-celiac gluten avoiders that it's all in their heads and stop being such a whiner and eat some toast. (I'm paraphrasing here.)

However, a friend and reader sent me this article, which explains this study more thoroughly. If you believe you are gluten-sensitive, or are tempted to surreptitiously feed toast to someone who is, please read the article. Unsurprisingly, the gluten study is more nuanced than the reported sound bytes.

All In Their Heads?
The whole thing got me thinking about the mind and how it affects our health... and then I came upon this little gem reported by National Public Radio.

An experiment was conducted by Alia Crum, a clinical psychologist at Columbia University Business School. I'll admit I'm kind of amused that Columbia Business School has a clinical psychologist on staff. Is this common? Or is everyone still broken up about Lehman Brothers?

Anyway, Crum has always been interested in the placebo effect. This, of course, is the phenomenon of a physically ineffective 'remedy' becoming effective only because the patient believes it to be so. Crum had a  hunch that how we think about our food might actually affect how we metabolize it. She tested the theory with milkshakes.


Crum made up a batch of milkshakes and poured them into two different cups--one labeled 'indulgence' and '620 calories.' The other was labeled 'Sensishake, zero fat, zero added sugar, 140 calories.' In truth, each shake came in at the same 300 calories.

Half her test subjects had the 'diet' shake, the other half had the 'indulgent' one. Then each participant had blood drawn. Those who drank the one labeled 'indulgence' actually had lower levels of the hunger hormone ghrelin. Their belief that the shake was more fattening actually sated them more than the diet shake had its consumers. In fact, they all consumed the same thing, but they believed they were consuming something different, and their hormone levels followed suit.

Here's a video from NPR explaining ghrelin and the study in greater (and amusing) detail:
Of course, this is just one study, and part of me wonders if the indulgent shake drinkers subconsciously were thinking 'oh crap, I just drank 600 calories' and if that had any effect on their ghrelin levels... more research is needed, but it's an interesting starting point, at least.

What does this mean?
Can we think ourselves thin and healthy? Can we convince ourselves that Doritos are nutritious and will that make it so? Well, no. Obviously, our thoughts do not alter the nutritional content of foods, but it does suggest that enjoying our food, thinking of it as satisfying and nourishing and yes--even indulgent--stimulates a physical response.

I'm betting this is part of why eating at the table with our peeps, rather than at our desks or in front of the TV,  is so important. Food, however simple, is much more satisfying when consumed in a relaxing, undistracted, convivial environment. Of course, eating with my children does not often meet these criteria, but I do it anyway, in faith that someday, it will.

This is giving me a lot of food for thought (pun intended.) The Darling Husband just emerged to forage for a post-dinner nummy-num. I directed him to some home-made granola (made with coconut flakes, nuts and fat... but no sugar.) He ate a bit and said, "Boy, if that wasn't like kissing your sister." (Apparently this is an expression, meaning something that should be pleasurable was devoid of pleasure. Should the Darling Sister-in-law be reading this, your brother would like you to know that is not intended as a slight against you--it's an expression, and he's sure you feel the same way.)

Anyway, for all the talk of health and inflammation and nutrient density, this is a good reminder that God meant for our food to be YUMMY. Life-giving, sustaining and YUMMY.

Needless to say, I'll be adding a little sweet to the next batch of granola.

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