The Pleasure Principle - Why
You Overeat by David L. Katz, MD, MPH, FACPM - Yale
University School of Medicine
Food is, and should be, a reliable source of
pleasure. Chewing and eating can relieve tension, which can be -- or can seem
like -- pleasure. The taste of food stimulates pleasure, as does a feeling of
fullness, or satiety. The texture and consistency of food may also evoke
pleasurable feelings. Certain foods, such as chocolate, tend to elicit very
strong pleasure responses (at least in some people) for reasons not altogether
understood, although the involvement of neuro-chemical pathways is clear.
In addition to the pleasure responses to
food that are built into our brains and our metabolism, there are pleasure
responses built into our culture. Socially, food has long (perhaps always),
served as an important focal point of gatherings and celebrations, and is thus
linked to all of our special events. This naturally associates food with good
times, and with comfort during bad times. Culturally, food has long been a
medium of art, as the term culinary arts suggests, adding the beauty of
presentation to the pleasures of eating.
There is a sense of sacrifice whenever one
tries to limit the pleasure of eating by exercising restraint. This oh,
woe is me! response often dooms efforts at improved eating and weight
control before they are ever truly given a chance. But, there is a way out of
First, any pleasure is good only up to a
point. Over indulgence is by very definition excessive, undesirable
and potentially harmful. Examples of our willingness to limit pleasure abound.
Our society imposes constraints on the speed at which we drive, the ways we can
behave in public, alcohol consumption, sexual activity, tobacco use and many
other potentially pleasurable activities. Illicit drugs, such as
cocaine, reportedly evoke a strong pleasure response, yet most of us do not use
such substances, and those who do wind up wishing they hadnt. The
undisciplined pursuit of pleasure often leads to harm!
In this context, nutrition poses a unique
challenge. A feast or buffet is a delight to the eye and palate, not perceived
as excess. We, quite naturally, find it difficult to think of the pleasure
gained from eating, a life-sustaining activity, in the same light as, for
example, drug use.
But, in fact, the strategy to manage the
pleasure of food begins with just that kind of thinking. Eating should be
pleasurable, but not too pleasurable. Too much pleasure leads to harm, and this
is as true of food as it is of any other source. Cocaine use may feel good for
a while, but at a terrible and unacceptable long-term cost to health and
well-being. The long-term cost to health and well-being of food is also, often,
unacceptably high in a society suffering epidemic obesity. By thinking of food
-- or rather what we do with it -- the notion that the pleasure it provides
should be controlled becomes reasonable and easy to accept.
If you eat food that tastes very good, you
will enjoy it as you eat. But, if your weight goes up to levels that make you
unhappy, you will experience the pain of regret and dissatisfaction.
Conversely, if you work hard to control your weight and diet, you may get
pleasure from your appearance or your health, but you may also feel sorry for
yourself each time you forego eating a favorite food. There is a balance to be
struck here. The immediate gratification of pleasurable foods should be
adjusted relative to the long-term pleasure of maintaining a desirable weight
and good health. When you have that balance worked out for yourself, you have
identified your own personal point of preference. This represents
the greatest possible sum of two pleasures -- that from eating what tastes
great -- and that from liking what you see in the mirror and how you feel about
Consider the times in your day or week when
eating favorite foods is most important to you. Protect these occasions as the
times you will indulge in highly pleasurable foods, such as chocolate, or
cheese, or whatever your favorites happen to be (if your favorite food happens
to be spinach, you can indulge any time you want!). The rest of the time,
derive pleasure from how moderation promotes your health and protects your
waistline. Whatever you do to stay at your point of preference can not (its
against the rules!) make you feel sorry for yourself, because it is helping to
maximize your net pleasure. How can that be sacrifice?
The pleasure trade-off
derived from eating favorite foods. However, as intake of these foods rises,
weight may be gained and health compromised, reducing the pleasure from good
health and weight control. The point of preference represents
maximal pleasure -- when pleasure from eating -- and from achieving good health
and weight control are combined.
David L. Katz, MD, MPH, FACPM is
associate clinical professor of public health & medicine at the Yale
University School of Medicine, and Director of the Yale Prevention Research
Center. He is a board-certified specialist in both internal medicine and
preventive medicine. Katz is a nutrition columnist to O, the Oprah Magazine,
and author of 7 books to date, including the nutrition text used at the Harvard
and Yale Medical Schools, and The Way to Eat (Sourcebooks, Inc, 2002:
www.thewaytoeat.net) which details over 50 essential skills and strategies for
getting around commonly encountered obstacles to lifelong nutritional health
and weight control.