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The Pleasure Principle: Why We Love Sugar, Salt, and Fat

Article first posted on 1MD.org/, May 31, 2021

Michael S. Fenster, MD, FACC, FSCA&I, PEMBA; known to friends and fans simply as “Dr. Mike,” is The Food Shaman. He is a board-certified interventional cardiologist and professional chef.

Dr. Mike has appeared as an expert guest on many national radio and television programs, including The Doctors, and 1MD is proud to have his seal of approval on our Krill Oil Platinum and Turmeric Curcumin Platinum formulas. He is currently working with our team to develop a one-of-a-kind joint health formula that will revolutionize preventative joint health care.

He spends his free time between wandering the beautiful Montana mountains, the Florida Gulf, where he passively pursues his dream of a simple, pirate’s life, and writing. His novel Fallacy of the Calorie shows a deep understanding and appreciation for the experiential nature and integral role that food and cuisine plays in our society, and our own personal health and wellness, and crafts a prescription to break the vicious cycle of addiction at the heart of the modern Western diet.

We bring to you, an excerpt of this novel which we believe goes to the core challenge facing those who struggle with food choices and offers help in understanding the process of reprogramming ourselves and our relationship to what we eat.

Wide Person, Tall Person, Thin Person, Small Person

Many people believe that all human beings are equal based on ideas like those expressed in the preamble to the Declaration of Independence: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” (1) This and other documents express equality with respect to the ability and opportunity to pursue innate rights and identical protection under the law. No argument here.

But it only takes a quick look around to clearly demonstrate that we are not equal in all respects. If we as a species were categorized in some extraterrestrial guidebook our description would read like something straight out of the imagination of Dr. Seuss: wide person tall person, thin person small person, fit person fat person, dog person cat person, poor person rich person, nice person snitch person, smart person dumb person, beer person rum person, and so on.

As a consequence we are not identical. But while it is clear that we are abundantly different on the outside, we do share a common physical and social evolution, biology, and physiology. The commonality that makes us all human also makes us similarly vulnerable.

But where and how are we vulnerable, particularly when it comes to food?

Being human, we are susceptible at both a psychological and biological level. While individual psychological and psychosocial forces have molded us for thousands of years, the imperatives at the biological level have existed for millions. Under duress, the basic instincts for survival and procreation buried deep within our reptilian brains can crack the veneer of more recent social constructs; just look at The Hangover 1, 2 or 3.

The Science of Your Subconscious

On a good day we keep the beasts caged and go about our business. We are able to function in our crazy balls-to-the-wall modern society because we have both a conscious mind and an unconscious mind. The conscious mind controls our everyday awareness. It allows us to function in our daily world by processing the pertinent information, sensory and intellectual, in a rational way. It incorporates this logical information with perceptions, memories, feelings, and fantasies. (2) The conscious mind contains everything that you are aware of, which is of course why it is your conscious mind.

The unconscious or subconscious mind is composed of those feelings, thoughts, urges, and memories that lie just outside of conscious perception. Although you are not consciously aware of them they can have a tremendous influence on how you perceive, decide, act, and ultimately on what you choose to eat. (3)

The subconscious mind exerts its influence by way of instincts and learned responses. Instincts are hardwired into the base of the most primal parts of our brain. They are the result of millions of years of evolution. When you respond by instinct you are generating an immediate physical reaction and bypassing conscious control. Instinct is how a spider builds a web and a bird builds a nest, and why your cat keeps dropping dead things on your doorstep.

Our subconscious mind operates on such an instinctive level. These pre-programmed instincts are how baby geese avoid being eaten. Goslings execute an escape response when confronted by a silhouette cast by a cardboard hawk, even though they have not had any previous exposure to a hawk. When the silhouette resembles a goose, there is no such reaction. (4) Powerful stimuli elicit such potent reaction from modern humans as well. It’s why we intuitively cower at the Batman but ask Aquaman for an order of fish tacos.

When we respond to such a stimulus by instinct it generates some immediate physical reaction. It is an action that bypasses any intellectual control. Anyone who has gone out for a night to remember, only to find the next morning they can’t, has had an experience bypassing frontal cortex inhibition. There is a reason Viagra is not to be combined with alcohol.

Reprogramming Habits & Changing Behaviors

Habits are behaviors that tend to be regularly repeated. Very often, they are repeated at the subconscious level, although they may start with a conscious decision. (5) Take the case of Average Joe. Average Joe is driving to work when he sees a billboard announcing a special at the local fast food restaurant. For a limited time only, the purchase of the McMortum breakfast sandwich comes with a free supersized deep fried potato slab and extra-large soft drink.

Average Joe stops by every morning for the next week during the special. He feels pretty good about himself. He’s getting an increased quantity at no extra charge; he’s a pretty smart shopper. He pays no mind to the slow damage to his body from what he is ingesting.

The next week, even though the offer has expired, he finds himself shelling out several dollars extra for the sandwich, slab, and coffee. He can’t even remember driving there. The initially conscious decision resulted in an action reinforced at the subconscious level. The positive reinforcement led to the repetition of the behavior until it became an unconscious habit. If this sounds hauntingly familiar, it should.

The Processed Food Breaking Point

In the US and in many industrialized countries we cram ourselves full of the overly processed, artificially preserved, prepackaged, and pre-prepared foods of the modern Western diet. The modern Western diet, while well advertised and marketed, is no more nutritious than a scheiße sandwich.

We know it. We know how it makes us feel. So why do we eat it? Why do we go back time after time? Why is this siren song so irresistible? The short answer is addiction. The eating experience is directly hardwired into our pleasure center. The cerebral response to the ubiquitous ingredients of the modern Western diet, such as sugar, is to tweak on those areas that respond to other refined white powders—of the illegal variety. And like Walter White there are those who work to make foodie crack. They are not just Breaking Bad; they are cranking SAD.

Individuals have what is commonly referred to in the food industry as a bliss point or breakpoint with respect to sugar, salt, and fat. (6) On a graph of pleasure versus quantity, the bliss point sits at the top of an arc. For these ingredients there is generally increasing pleasure with increasing quantity, to a point. After that point there is decreasing pleasure with increasing quantity. The breakpoint is that point between these experiences. It is the point after which a dessert becomes too sweet or a chip too salty.

As long as there is something to perceive the subconscious mind will perceive it and react to it. Agribusiness, the food industry, and Madison Avenue all know this very well. Their job is to translate your reaction into profit. Our ancient instinct for survival can cause us to show up at the drive-through, order, pay for, and blindly ruminate pseudo-food before we have consciously even perceived what we have done.

Fighting Back Against The Misdirection Of Psyche

An ancient hardwired instinct for survival, forged long ago in a challenging, ferocious environment, can be made to betray us. The renowned scientist Carl Sagan remarked that “(s)urely there is something in us deeply seated, self-propelled, and on occasion able to evade our conscious control” (p. 405). (7) That something has been beguiled. The natural inclinations for balance, homeostasis, have been overwhelmed by abundance, accessibility, and the tweaking of our pleasure knobs. We have been massaged with subtle control and misdirection about the content of what we eat.

Quantity substitutes for value, and does a poor job. It is an addictive black hole at the center of the hot, sugar-glazed donut. It is a vicious cycle; the deeper you descend the harder it is to get out. Our weakness has been exposed and exploited. We stand stripped of our ability to taste anything at all. Worse, we no longer even seem to care; we wander unaware. Amid the machinations and maneuverings, in the cold confusion of The Borg Agribusiness and Food Conglomerate, we feel resistance is futile. But if we know our weakness, we can fight back.