While I have been known to take the odd photograph of a dish at dinner, and occasionally eat at the most au courant of restaurants, I would never describe myself as a foodie.
I’ve had the same breakfast every day for the past 10 years: a glass of green sludge (a powdered supplement mixed with water to boost my vegetable intake) chased by a smoothie (mixed berries and a scoop of chocolate-flavoured protein powder). When “cooking” for myself, most snacks and meals are the following: protein bar or apple with almonds for snacks, salads with protein of some sort for lunch and dinner. Healthy, delicious and efficient.
But even this can be a chore. More than once I’ve wished I could pop a meal in pill form, just like George Jetson did, and get on with things.
However, humans are programmed to desire food. We need it for basic survival, but also have cravings when our bodies are in need of particular nutrients (those with low iron might want for red meat, for instance). So I’ve often wondered: Does my lack of interest in food, beyond it being healthy and quick to make and eat, make me a freak of nature or, like the Jetsons, ahead of my time? And is there anyone out there like me, quietly ignoring foodie-ism in favour of powdered supplements?
To get to the heart (stomach?) of the matter, I posed these questions to some of the country’s leading experts in nutrition and science to learn what it is that drives our eating habits – taste buds, brain circuitry, social cues, all of the above? – and why I am so meh about meals.
Tongue and taste buds
“The average person has 3,500 taste buds, and each bud has 75 taste receptors that process sweet, salty, sour, bitter, umami,” says Christy Brissette, a clinical dietitian at Toronto’s Princess Margaret Cancer Centre. “But flavour is complex – it’s made up of taste and smell, but also texture and temperature. Because taste is the primarily reason we choose certain foods, people eat less food when they can’t taste or smell as well.”
Could my apathetic appetite have roots in defective taste buds? Brissette suggests that I put myself through the PTC test, which involves placing a paper strip coated in phenylthiocarbamide on my tongue and waiting for something to hit my taste receptors. If the strip tastes bitter, it means I’m a supertaster, and that I have especially sensitive taste buds. I taste nothing, which Brissette explains, means I’m not particularly sensitive to anything and so should be open to eating everything.
“Seventy-five per cent of people can taste PTC, 25 per cent can’t,” she says. “Those who can don’t like broccoli, cabbage, kale, coffee, and they’re more likely to not be smokers because the taste is too much.”
I’m cool as a cucumber when it comes to kale, so being disinterested in food because of a dislike for particular flavours doesn’t apply.
Brissette brings up a couple other possible factors. “Saliva has an effect on the ability to taste food. We need it to mix food and drink to bring flavours to the taste buds.” Having a dry mouth can inhibit the ability to fully appreciate flavour. A dental hygienist once told me that I salivate a lot (true story), so that’s not it.
The second: the nose. “Compounds in food and drink stimulate olfactory nerve cells, which are high up in the nose and connected directly to the brain,” she says. I don’t have the greatest sense of smell, but I do have one … so maybe this is all in my brain.
Brain and behaviour
York University professor Caroline Davis studies the psychobiological factors that affect food consumption – biologically based personality traits, such as acting on impulse or without inhibition and not anticipating future consequences. She describes eating as very primitive and very complex: “There are so many factors that influence any complex human behaviour, and there may not be many things more complex than eating.”
Unlike, say, putting down a glass once you’re done drinking from it (which Davis says is a simple, almost automatic, action), the behaviour of eating starts long before the food goes in our mouths. “We have to want to eat, find the food, start to eat, and repeat the behaviour. We have to learn what we like, what we don’t like; then, we have to remember them,” she says. “Then, we have to learn the cues to predict that food is around – smells, for instance – and the process of eating.”
The brain’s reward centre is triggered in multiple ways by food. Because we ingest it, it affects our pleasure pathways as drugs do, but it also affects our emotional brain through our senses. “We see food, think about it, smell it, hear the sizzle, see the kitchen,” Davis says. “So much happens [in the brain] before you even see the plate in front of you.”
There are several factors that can affect our eating behaviour, and stress – “whether from pleasure or not,” Davis says – is among them. “I love shopping. Even if I don’t buy, I love the process of looking. And I used to find if I was really hungry but went shopping, the hunger disappeared because I was in another rewarding environment.”
She also recounts an anecdote about her daughter who lost weight while she was going through a divorce. “Her mind was so preoccupied,” Davis says, that eating quite literally wasn’t given much thought.
Very simply, she says, some people are just not motivated by food. Being busy with other interests can mean that food doesn’t become a central motivating factor.
I identify with her explanation – I’m a self-employed journalist with a side business, and I travel a lot, all of which are rewarding and can be stressful. Often I don’t have time to grocery shop, let alone get excited about planning a meal.
But there’s something else affecting my brain’s reward centre. It’s not that I don’t get hungry, it’s that I’m apathetic as to how that hunger is satiated – protein bar? Steak frites? Whatever is easiest and requires the least amount of work. (You’ll never see me with chicken wings: It’s too little meat for the amount of work and cleanup required.) What is it that’s playing with my pleasure receptors?
Hormones and hedonism
Alfonso Abizaid runs a lab in Carleton University’s department of neuroscience, where his main topic of study is how the brain works to make people eat, and, more specifically, the effect of the hormone ghrelin on, among other things, feeding. “I don’t think I’ve ever heard of anybody that doesn’t eat for hedonic purposes,” he says when I describe my situation.
As Abizaid explains, ghrelin is secreted by the stomach, and its level is elevated when we’re hungry. “When your stomach is empty, and you haven’t had food for a few hours, your stomach will begin secreting this hormone,” he says, “and when it reaches the brain, the receptors for this hormone are found in all these different brain regions that regulate feeding. Reward mechanisms and the areas important for learning memory and emotions also respond to ghrelin. On all these different levels, this hormone is important for initiating feeding, cravings for food and the food that we are most driven to eat.”
This doesn’t mean one would crave ice cream all the time, Abizaid says. “It can be different for different people. For you, it might be those berries that you eat in the morning.” Frankly, they do feel rewarding – as though I’m starting my day off in the healthiest way possible.
But eating habits also affect ghrelin secretion and, therefore, enthusiasm about eating.
Abizaid asks if I’m a grazer. I am. As of about 10 years ago, in an effort to shed pounds then maintain my weight, I started eating a meal or snack every two and a half to three hours.
“If you’re a grazer, ghrelin levels remain constant throughout the day, so you don’t have these massive rises in this hormone, these massive signals telling you that you need to eat,” he says.
This is another eureka moment: A result of my appetite flat-lining, never rising nor lowering with any dramatic effect, is that my curiosity about food has, too.
“I had a grad student that was the same as you,” Abizaid says as an aside in our conversation. “He’s very strange, I’m sorry. He had very regimented eating patterns, and it was almost always the same thing, he only varied at suppertime. For him, it was about efficiency: He didn’t want to waste too much time making food. But he got out of that. He befriended people who liked to cook, and he started creating his own things, but he still was very regimented on what he ate every day. It didn’t mean that he didn’t enjoy food, but it was never a driving force for him to eat – the actual enjoyment.”
His anecdote reveals the effect of social cues and community on eating habits. I look to an expert in Vancouver to explain how powerful social influences can be, and what, if any, their role is in my situation.
There’s no denying that popular society celebrates, lately to an obsessive point, all things food. It’s hard not to get drawn down this path, enticed by a crumb here and there, Hansel and Gretel style, even a little. Perhaps my apathy can be chalked up to some weird form of rebellion, a means of giving a cold shoulder to foodie fanaticism.
Gwen Chapman, a professor at the University of British Columbia and co-author of Acquired Tastes: Why Families Eat The Way They Do, thinks that may have something to do with it.
“Cosmopolitan eating – those in upper-middle-class positions in cities being familiar with a wide variety of foods, and an exotic variety of flavours – there’s a lot of moralism around this. There can be a lot of pressure around food, and the belief that a good person eats in certain ways.” she says.
“Food becomes so imbued with who you are and performing a certain kind of personality, there can be high expectations around that – that if you’re going to increase your social status, you have to eat in certain ways. So are people like you responding to the pressure to eat right by saying: ‘I don’t care about any of this?’”
Rebellious snobbery. I would say that’s a small factor as well, or at least a contributing factor to not wanting to change my habits. I can’t be the only one over our collective obsession with food, though, can I?
Every expert I spoke to said these traits and habits – particularly the emphasis on efficiency – were more common in men than women.
Brissette says women have a better sense of smell than men, a small influence that could contribute to women being more enthusiastic about eating.
Abizaid cites rituals around food, ones he has noticed women are prone to partake in: “Even women that I know that don’t eat that much, they like to cook and prepare and they talk about food. And that speaks a lot about motivation.”
Says Chapman: “Discourses of healthy eating are received differently by men and women. Healthy eating is often seen as a thing women do – particularly if it’s related to dieting – so subconsciously men may be turned away from healthy ways of eating.”
In a search for other people like me, I found only a few men. One, Mark Binks, a photographer in Toronto, thinks that he has been this way his whole life and is unapologetic about it. “I’m a creature of habit,” he says. “And inefficiencies really get on my nerves. I’ve eaten the same breakfast for the past 10 years. I don’t need to change it, it tastes fine, I know exactly how long it takes so I can plan my morning perfectly. On a day to day, [I eat] to not be dead.”
He, too, is fuelled by some rebellious snobbery. “This obsession with everything being yummy all the time, it’s so juvenile. Kids need everything to be sweet or delicious or they won’t eat it. Yes, I like delicious food, but every single meal? It feels immature in a way to have to have every single thing be yummy. It’s not an efficient way to live my life.” (He and I both also agree that our favourite thing to drink is water.)
I asked Binks if, because of how he thinks of food, he ever feels that something is wrong with him. “No, I feel the opposite. I feel like something’s right with me. The way you and I eat is probably the way people ate historically. You didn’t have choices. I think it’s more in tune with organically what’s supposed to be happening.”
Now, to digest what I’ve learned. I am part of a quiet, satiated minority, even if it’s because I’ve accidentally trained my stomach and brain to view food as fuel rather than a rewarding treat.
It is surprising to learn that regulating a simple thing – how often I eat – can radically alter my desire for food, but to know the causes is comforting. I don’t feel compelled in the least to change my eating habits, which I admit is in part a result of the ride of being above our food-obsessed culture.
Freak of nature? Not really. But don’t bother asking me out for dinner.
This story ran in The Globe and Mail (December 27, 2015)