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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 this dilemma!

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 hadn’t. 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 your health.

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… Pleasure is 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: which details over 50 essential skills and strategies for getting around commonly encountered obstacles to lifelong nutritional health and weight control.

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