Around the Web, Food Reward Edition

[1] Interesting posts this week:  Peter at Hyperlipid links to a new wonder drug that could rescue pharmaceutical company fortunes. In another post, Peter introduces a puzzle: The obese burn more calories at rest than the lean … but they don’t lose weight faster on calorie-restricted diets.

Via @DrEades, lack of sun exposure during childhood may be the cause of nearsightedness; 2 hours per day outdoors prevents myopia.

Mark’s Daily Apple had a nice post on oral hygiene which observes that rice farming did not introduce caries in Asia, whereas wheat farming did in Europe, and maize was the most tooth-destructive grain.

Via Fight Aging!, evidence from beetles that early life immune activity accelerates aging and shortens lifespan.

Art Ayers returned from a long hiatus with an endorsement of fecal transplants. Seth Roberts argues that personal science is becoming more productive than institutional science. Melissa McEwen declares chicken “the ultimate crap meat” and argues that “much of human history has been about the acquisition of starch and fat.” Wired discusses the mystery of the Canadian whiskey fungus.

Julianne Taylor offers “My Plate” alternatives. Dr. John Briffa writes that MSG can increase brain glutamate levels leading to neurotoxicity and promoting obesity. Beth Mazur gives us “Triggers”:

[2] Music to read by: I like the choreographed trombone throwing and handkerchief wiping. Best listened to from a standing desk:

[3] Food reward fascination: So many people have contributed intelligently to the food reward discussion that it’s impossible to link to all of them; I would say that roughly a dozen blog posts and well over a hundred comments were interesting to me.

Let me just mention a few posts:

A few comments that caught my eye:

  • Todd Hargrove has set forth an interesting idea: “Even if eating bland food reduces your need for calories, it does not necessarily reduce your need for reward. Perhaps there is a reward set point just as there is a fat mass set point. If this is true, it would suggest that moving the weight set point down by eating less palatable food would fail unless it also reduced the reward set point. Perhaps this explains the emotional struggles that some people have with losing weight, and why people can tend to trade one addiction for another.”
  • Andrea Reina notes that if the goal of the Shangri-La Diet is to dissociate flavor from calories, then eating tasty non-calories should be just as helpful as eating tasteless calories. R.K. replied with a link to a piece by Todd Becker quoting Seth Roberts endorsing that idea.
  • ItsTheWooo2 has a fascinating story. She has shared her biography starting here, discusses the role of leptin and insulin starting here, and discusses exogenous leptin as a weight maintenance therapy here. Briefly, she believes that the obese develop extranormal numbers of adipose cells, do not lose fat cells when they lose weight, so that to achieve normal weight they have to shrink the fat cells to subnormal size, but that subnormal cell size eliminates leptin secretion. As a result, normal weight obese have subnormal leptin levels, which convinces the brain they are starving, which leads to weight regain. Therefore, the obese need small doses of exogenous leptin to maintain normal weight.
  • Betty tells her story of becoming obese following an infection and then becoming slender again during a pregnancy. It sounds to me like the infection induced autoimmunity which caused her obesity, and pregnancy cured the autoimmunity which returned her fat mass setpoint to normal. Of course, Chris Kresser has previously discussed possible autoimmune origins of obesity.

[4] More insight into food reward: In an email Aaron Blaisdell introduced me to the work of psychologist Kate Wassum, who apparently has generated evidence that “the processes that control how much a reward is ‘liked’ are dissociable from those that control the ability of reward-paired cues to trigger reward ‘wanting’.”

This distinction can help resolve many of the puzzles in food reward:

  • The optimal diet should be strongly liked (and thus healthy because our evolved biology likes what is good for us) but not wanted (since wanting drives appetite and addictive eating which tends to reduce the variety of the diet and induce malnutrition).
  • The most obesity-inducing diet will be strongly wanted but not liked. A not-liked diet is probably unhealthy and promotes disorders such as obesity, while a wanted diet promotes overeating.

If liking and wanting are truly dissociable, then the strategy of eating bland food strikes me as a dubious one.

Bland food is food that is not liked. Eating bland food strives to reduce wanting by reducing liking. But if the two are dissociated, this strategy may not work. If Todd Hargrove is right and we need a certain amount of reward, the strategy might backfire as lack of healthy stimulation of the reward system may increase pathological wanting.

[5] Malnutrition and Obesity: JS Stanton’s snacking-and-food-reward post makes a number of interesting points, but I particularly liked his mention of the “nutritional leverage hypothesis” – basically, the idea that malnutrition causes obesity – put forward by Mike of Fat Fiction.

I have long believed that malnutrition is a major cause of obesity, but it is difficult to show that from published data, in part because the obesity often occurs long after malnourishment begins. (Possibly suggesting that methylation deficits leading to epigenetic changes are important.)

But I think that in the already metabolically damaged, it may be much easier to show that malnutrition is important, because malnutrition has a strong effect on appetite and interacts with the food reward system. So food reward research may help prove the importance of malnutrition in obesity.

In support of the nutritional leverage hypothesis, JS and Mike cite a Chinese trial in which taking multivitamins triggered weight loss.

[6] Cute animal photo:

Via Yves Smith.

[7] Kids like to splash:

[8] New US “Food Plate” to test the food reward theory: The US Department of Agriculture is replacing its “Food Pyramid” with a “Food Plate”:

One might think the USDA has adopted the food reward theory of obesity and has intentionally designed the “Food Plate” to create a bland, unrewarding, fat-less diet. But it gets worse.

They demonize some of the healthiest fats as “Empty Calories”:

Currently, many of the foods and beverages Americans eat and drink contain empty calories – calories from solid fats and/or added sugars. Solid fats and added sugars add calories to the food but few or no nutrients….

Solid fats are fats that are solid at room temperature, like butter, beef fat, and shortening.

Among the approved foods, “Dairy” includes calcium-fortified soymilk and soy beverages; and “Protein” features beans, nuts, and seeds including soy products such as tofu. Approved “Oils” include corn oil, cottonseed oil, safflower oil, soybean oil, sunflower oil, and canola oil – but not butter or animal fats. They do count a few liquid fats among the demonized “solid fats”:

A few plant oils, however, including coconut oil, palm oil, and palm kernel oil, are high in saturated fats and for nutritional purposes should be considered to be solid fats.

I’ve long believed that Department of Agriculture bureaucrats have entirely captured the Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion, and use it to promote support for agricultural subsidies by propagandizing in favor of the heavily subsidized crops: wheat, corn, and soybeans. This Food Plate is entirely consistent with that idea.

As I mentioned to Steve in the comments, we’ll be working on our own graphical representation of our diet this summer. It will be slightly more complex than the Food Plate – not quite as suitable for kindergarteners, but hopefully more appealing to the food reward system!

[9] I didn’t know that’s what Little Richard looked like:

[10] Meet Bill Lands: In our book, we devoted several pages to Dr. William E. Lands’s work on omega-6 and omega-3 fats. He could give some good advice to the USDA on which oils are healthy. Via O Primitivo, here is a video of Dr Bill Lands discussing polyunsaturated fats.

[11] XMRV link to chronic fatigue a false alarm?: We’ve previously discussed the possibility that a new human gamma retrovirus, known as XMRV, causes chronic fatigue syndrome (see Retroviruses and Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, Aug 24, 2010). This week, Science published two papers arguing that the claimed link was due to laboratory errors, and their editorial called the XMRV-chronic fatigue link “seriously in question’’. The Whittemore Peterson Institute, where the link was discovered, has written a detailed reply.

[12] More on mucin deficiency and GI tract cancers: One of our most popular posts, Dangers of Zero-Carb Diets, II: Mucus Deficiency and Gastrointestinal Cancers (Nov 15, 2010), discussed the possibility that a downregulation of mucin production in order to conserve glucose elevate risk of gastrointestinal cancers.

A new paper out this week (“Suppression of MUC2 enhances the proliferation and invasion of human colorectal cancer LS174T cells”) adds more evidence that a deficiency of mucus in the gut promotes cancer.

Meanwhile, yogurt consumption reduced colon cancer risk by 35%.

[13] Not the weekly video: Would you buy vegetables that were run over by a train?

[14] Shou-Ching’s photo art:

[15] Weekly video: A juggling otter:

Leave a comment ?


  1. Thanks for the mention!

  2. Regarding XMRV, here’s my comment I left at another blog:

    We’ll have to wait for Lipkin to be sure who’s wrong with regards to XMRV.

    But my guess: There isn’t XMRV in ME/CFS patients, the WPI-culture picks up a contamination, not necessarily in the WPI-lab.

    The question that still remains, is if the other WPI-tests (Antibodies and western blot of viral proteins, if I’m not mistaken) will persist with Lipkin.

    Why exactly did it take so long to get the Lipkin study started? Oh, I know, I read Osler’s Web.

    Even if it is proven that the WPI is wrong with regards to XMRV, what they have done is so much better for scientific process than what people inside the NIH, CDC and so on have contributed. All they can do is refute, because they don’t try to push the science forward, they don’t try to find out new facts about this disease, they only reacts to the work of others outside.

  3. Paul, re: USDA ‘Empty Calories’

    It’s even worse than that – did you notice they included CHEESE in ’empty calories’?

  4. The USDA Food Plate is so disappointing and I’m sure it will be the guideline for our children’s food in school. Looking forward to the PHD version.
    Maybe Melissa will add PHD to her paleo-vs-primal-vs-atkins diagram.

  5. Peter Silverman

    That was a shock about peanut butter in the William Lands video.

  6. Hi Jacqueline,

    Yes, another worse point — they say most dairy choices should be non-fat or low-fat.

    It’s like they want to starve and poison our kids, all at once. This is the diet for school lunches and the Women, Infants, and Children welfare program.

  7. Thanks for the link to Kate Wassum (via Aaron).

    Interestingly, these are my notes from part 2 of the series (starting around 10:40 or so): “Dopamine is released based on expectations rather than actions (it’s the drive to get it, the craving); the pleasure is related to opiates. Dopamine is wanting it; opiates are liking it; addictions are chasing after dopamine; addiction is wanting more, but liking it less.”

    Yesterday I was driving around western Virginia, and came across a billboard of a McDonalds Big Mac with the tag line: “crafted for your craving.”

    Well, at least they’re honest about it!

  8. Hi Peter,

    In addition to having zero omega-3s and high omega-6s, peanut butter is atherogenic by an unknown mechanism, as we discussed in our book. Tree nut butters are much better.

    Hi Beth,

    Great stuff! Thanks.

    The liking vs wanting, dopamine vs opiates distinction really helps me. I was having trouble grasping the bland food recommendation considering that our evolutionary preferences must be good for us.

    Best, Paul

  9. Dopamine vs. opiates act on the same pathways but are different – it can be confusing.

  10. Very confusing! I’m a babe in the woods in this brain stuff. But at least I have a starting point now.

  11. I’m not sure about this idea that “eating tasty non-calories should be just as helpful as eating tasteless calories.” Certainly that may be true “if the goal of the Shangri-La Diet is to dissociate flavor from calories,” but it seems that eating tasty non-calories in the form of non-caloric sweeteners is worse than eating tasty calories. ( This would suggest that the benefit of the SL diet isn’t simply breaking the dissociation between calories and food (perhaps it’s simply making our calories non-pleasurable and therefore giving us no inducement to eat them aside from physiological hunger).

    Also: it seems to me that technically “calories from solid fats and/or added sugars” are empty calories, in that they contain no micronutrients (aside from a modest amount of vitamin A and- sometimes- vitamin k2 in butter). Of course, they ought also to include oils and (more loosely) pasta and white bread in the category too, but that doesn’t mean that solid fats aren’t nutritionally empty too. On the assumption that people ought simply to reduce the number of calories they consume through sheer moral fibre, then it makes sense to blacklist nutritionally empty calories and only exhort people to eat things that contain micronutrients.

    Finally: “Department of Agriculture bureaucrats have entirely captured the Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion, and use it to promote support for agricultural subsidies.” I think would be more accurate if it said “large private agricultural businesses have entirely captured the Department of Agriculture and Centre for Nutrition Policy,” instead of repeating the idea that “the bureaucrats” are simply conspiring against us.

  12. Have there been as many studies on Leptin and thin people, as opposed to Leptin and the obese? I’ve always wondered if I’m deficient in Leptin because I have to try really hard to gain even just a little weight as opposed to being overweight. Big downside is if I’m not careful I can lose weight really quickly and have to start buying size 00 clothes. Having wonky metabolism is not good either extremes.

  13. Paul, this one’s more for you and Emily to dissect, but I found it really fascinating that some of Kate Wassum’s research is in the interrelation between dopamine and the endocannabinoid system (e.g., “Cannabinoids enhance subsecond dopamine release in the nucleus accumbens of awake rats.”

    It’s gonna be tough to tease out which was the bigger public health disaster in the late 20th century: high fructose corn syrup or omega-6-laden veggie oils!

  14. How is MSG different from the L-glutamine supplements you can take for sugar cravings? (or is it?) I have always wondered that and this seems like the right place to ask.

  15. Hi Beth,

    Thanks much, that’s a good find!

    Hi Tierney,

    Well, glutamine is different from glutamate. Glutamate is neurotoxic at high doses, glutamine isn’t. Glutamine can be turned into glutamate but this is a regulated process, so eating glutamine won’t generally increase brain glutamate levels. Eating MSG will.

  16. Hi Paul,

    I watched the Lands videos and reviewed much of his efaeducation site. I was wondering whether for an average American (tissue HUFA >80% n6), high n3 supplementation is useful initially to drive the balance below 50%? Or will minimizing n6 sources in the diet and eating fish naturally accomplish this over time?

  17. Hi Kevin,

    That’s a good question and the answer isn’t entirely clear. I tend to think one should just eat low omega-6 and normal omega-3 and wait for tissue levels to equilibrate. Excessive omega-3 can bring its own problems, and though it improves n6-n3 balance it can create an excess of PUFA and cause lipid oxidation and liver stress.

  18. Regarding MyPlate, I used to have high regard for Marion Nestle as she was one of the pioneers of the food debate in the US. Of late, however, I wonder if she is reading anything that contradicts or challenges her thinking, they way a good nutritional scholar should be doing. Her comments on NPR earlier today did not convince me whatsoever. There is still nothing in the mainstream that is challenging the low fat, high fiber paradigm. I continue to cringe any time I hear anything described as “healthy” in the realm of diet or nutrition. I wonder how many more people are going to be sick and obese and unhappy before a clue is gotten that the paradigm is wrong and simply cannot be interpreted graphically to seem better. I’m annoyed that they’re selling the same thing in a new package. So very American.

  19. Hi Paul,

    Thank you – I will avoid n3 supplements then. I have learned a lot from the blog and will be ordering the book.

  20. Hi Paul,

    Not sure how I missed this post from early June!?

    In any event, are you familiar with Byron Richards and his work? He’s not part of the Paleo ring of bloggers/authors, yet covers the same/similar ground. Main areas of interest being leptin and thyroid function.

    Here’s his most recent newsletter on “Dawn of the New Leptin Era”:

    Published books: _Mastering Leptin_ and companion _The Leptin Diet_. See:

    Website (rich with content, not just supplement sales):

    Richards’ “Leptin Diet” with its 5 steps has helped me tremendously, especially with food cravings, and with the ability to comfortably go 12-16 hrs daily w/o food (an impossible feat before).

    I can’t help but think Stephan is innocently just now learning what others have been working with for a while now. I agree with you that the “brain stuff” is all very interesting; I find it even more so now that we’re discovering the “brain” exists all throughout the body.

    (Sorry If this has been addressed elsewhere on your site. The information on your blog is increasing exponentially at a rapid pace! A very good thing, though challenging to keep up with at times.)

    Best, KKC

  21. Thanks, KKC. I’ve heard of Byron but haven’t read him, I’m glad to get your recommendation and will look into it.

    I have to admit my blog is hard for me to keep up with at times too!

Leave a Comment

NOTE - You can use these HTML tags and attributes:
<a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.