Catching up on lost time – the Ancestral Health Symposium, food reward, palatability, insulin signaling and carbohydrates… Part II(c)


We’ve been discussing the food reward/palatability hypothesis of obesity and whether this idea adds anything meaningful to our understanding of obesity.  Is the evidence for it sufficiently compelling that we should cease to pay attention to the fact that insulin, as Yalow and Berson noted in 1965, is “the principal regulator of fat metabolism?”

One point I’ve been making in my posts and in my books is that it’s possible to find evidence in favor of virtually any idea – including the Flying Spaghetti Monster as the ruling force in the universe. More important to the validation of an idea or a hypothesis is the strength of the evidence that seems to refute it. Can the hypothesis survive more or less intact our best attempts to refute it?

This is one of the points I was trying to get across at the Ancestral Health Symposium: that the foods we eat today during our current obesity epidemic might have a high reward value, and that diets consumed by lean populations in faraway locales might not, isn’t particularly interesting. Yes, it supports the hypothesis, but how do we explain epidemics of obesity in populations that  eat diets that don’t appear to have a high reward value? Do we need an entirely different hypothesis for them? That would be unfortunate.

“Here’s the fundamental concept that I think explains a lot of obesity in industrialized nations,” writes Dr. Stephen Guyenet of .

We live in a more or less Darwinian economic framework (capitalism). Food manufacturers are in constant competition, and any food that sells poorly will rapidly disappear from stores. How do you get people to buy your product? You produce something that causes them to come back and buy it again. In other words, the goal of processed food manufacturers is to create a product that maximally reinforces purchase and consumption behaviors – food reward! If the product is not extremely rewarding, it won’t sell because it’s competing against other products that are extremely rewarding. Only the most rewarding products survive.

This certainly sounds reasonable, but don’t we also want a hypothesis of obesity that explains obesity rates in populations that lack such highly evolved food industries – obesity in non-industrialized nations? This would be a hypothesis that explains obesity-ridden populations in which the local industry isn’t quite so diligent in increasing food reward, if there are food manufacturers to speak of at all?

This is the question I asked in chapter one of Why We Get Fat. It’s why I listed a host of populations in which levels of obesity were reported, in some cases, approaching or exceeding those in the U.S. today, and yet with none of this Darwinian competition between food manufacturers, none of this extremely rewarding food (or at least not extremely-rewarding as we would define it today).

These populations included the Pima in 1902, the Sioux on the Crow Creek Reservation in 1928, the citizens of Naples in the years of extreme poverty following the Second World War and African-Americans in Charleston South Carolina in 1959. They included Zulu in Durban South Africa in 1960, and the citizens of Nauru in the South Pacific in 1961 — “By European standards,” a local physician wrote, “everyone past puberty is grossly overweight.” They included Trinidadians in the early 1960s and Chilean factory workers. They included urban Bantu pensioners “the most indigent of elderly Bantu,” in Johannesburg, South Africa in 1965, and so on.

What these populations had in common was varying degrees of poverty — from very poor to unimaginably poor — and the absence of a Darwinian food industry as Dr. Guyenet and others would describe it. They did have sugar and refined grains, but don’t we want a hypothesis of food reward that can make a claim more meaningful than “rewarding (or hyper-rewarding) foods are foods with sugar and/or refined grains in them?” (And if this ultimately is our definition, as I’ll discuss shortly, then we should be able to establish whether the reason they’re rewarding is or is not due to the peripheral effects of these foods, rather than their ability to influence brain chemistry, set point, etc.)

We also want a concept (or at least I do) that explains how we can have populations in which obesity and malnutrition and under-nutrition co-exist — for example, obese mothers with starving children, a common observation now in the literature.

Take Jamaica, for instance, where the British-trained diabetologist Rolf Richards, as I have quoted in Why We Get Fat and in my lectures, discussed the situation in 1973:

It is difficult to explain the high frequency of obesity seen in a relatively impecunious [very poor] society such as exists in the West Indies, when compared to the standard of living enjoyed in the more developed countries. Malnutrition and subnutrition are common disorders in the first two years of life in these areas, and account for almost 25 per cent of all admissions to pediatric wards in Jamaica.  Subnutrition continues in early childhood to the early teens.  Obesity begins to manifest itself in the female population from the 25th year of life and reaches enormous proportions from 30 onwards.

Now if we blame the mother’s obesity on the hyper-rewarding nature of the food she’s eating, we have to ask why these foods are rewarding only to the women and not to their children. The children aren’t fat, after all (not yet, anyway). In fact they’re starving. They’re under-nourished. We also have to explain why these foods only become rewarding from “the 25th year of life” onward? And, perhaps most important, we have to explain why these women don’t fight the hyper-rewarding nature of these foods and remain lean.

After all, the food reward/palatability hypothesis of obesity, as we discussed in the first post on the subject, dictates that these foods cause neurochemical changes in the brain, which then raises the adiposity set point, thus making us eat more and get fat.  Put simply, raising the set point in the brain makes us hungry or at least hungrier. Okay, so if this is right, then we can assume that the reward value of the food eaten in Jamaica made these women hungrier; they ate more, they got fatter. But why couldn’t they control their impulses and remain lean? Why couldn’t they experience the semi-starvation—or at least the perception of not having enough to eat—rather than their children who are indeed semi-starved?

Rather than giving in to the urge, consuming the superfluous calories themselves, and getting fat, why didn’t these mothers fight the urge and give those excess calories to their starving kids? If one of them has to go hungry or at least feel hungry, evolution, it seems, would always favor the mother doing it rather than the child.

We can try to rescue  the food reward/palatability hypothesis of obesity in a case like this by simply making the claim that if these people are fat, then obviously something about their food must have been hyper-rewarding. (Something other than the refined carbs and sugars, as we’ll discuss in the next post.) But now our definition is becoming circular: The women get fat because of the hyper-rewarding nature of the food they’re eating, and we know that the food is hyper-rewarding because they’re fat. We just have to find or identify the particular foods in their diet that are the hyper-rewarding ones, and, as I said, it would be nice if they weren’t just sugar and refined carbs.

In his blogs, Dr. Guyenet suggests that home cooked food has a lower food reward value than processed, restaurant-produced fast food. This is one reason why, he suggests, populations like the Ache of Paraguay, the !Kung San, Polynesians and Melanesians (not counting those on Nauru and other islands that were obese) were lean: They “cooked their food in earth ovens and used no flavorings or salt .“

That we don’t cook our foods by these simple, spice-free, salt-free methods is offered as another explanation for the current obesity epidemic — “the shift from simpler home-cooked food to professionally engineered/processed food designed to maximize palatability and reward.” And this is also an explanation often offered for why carbohydrate restriction and paleo diets (not necessarily two different things) are weight loss diets. It’s not that they’re simply absent refined grains and sugars, as they are, but that the meats, fish, fowl, vegetables, and maybe tubers consumed are home cooked and/or so relatively bland that somehow they are low in food reward value.

But we can be confident that these extremely poor populations with high levels of obesity were also getting by on simple home-cooked food. Without having had the opportunity to visit Trinidad in the early 1960s or the South Dakota Crow Creek Reservation in 1928, I’m going to assume with confidence that a large proportion of the population, if not all, were not frequenting fast food joints and buying hyper-rewarding candy bars and soft drinks. So why were they fat? Certainly the presence or absence of flavorless home cooking is not enough to explain it. Nor can we explain it by claiming that only the affluent were obese, as Dr. Guyenet suggests, because these populations were anything but affluent.

So why were they fat? A familiar question.

Well, maybe it’s the low-hanging fruit of food reward—the refined grains and sugars? Populations that got fat ate significant quantities—particularly, the sugar—and populations that didn’t, well, didn’t. And when obesity suddenly blossomed in populations, it was because sugar and refined grains were new additions to their diets. And so diets that work for weight loss and weight maintenance are those that restrict refined grains and sugars (and maybe easily digestible starchy vegetables, as well, or maybe not) and diets that don’t, well, don’t.

This is what I argued in my books, although I’m arguing that the problem is caused by the metabolic hormonal effects of these foods in the periphery, their effect primarily on insulin signaling and, ultimately, fat accumulation. And the reason we find these foods rewarding and palatable is because of these metabolic hormonal effects.

As I’ve suggested in prior posts, the kinds of observations that are meaningful in situations like this—two competing hypotheses/paradigms—are only those that can differentiate between the two competitors. Evidence or observations that can be explained equally well by either hypothesis might have rhetorical value—good in an argument, in the spur of the moment—but they don’t add much to the scientific question at hand: Which hypothesis/paradigm is the right one?

This is why the observation that the Ache, the !Kung San, the Polynesians and Kitavans and Masai are lean or were lean, for instance, doesn’t tell us anything of significance about which hypothesis is right: Their lack of excess adiposity might be a result of their bland, unrewarding diets or it might be because their diets lack or lacked any significant amount of refined grains and/or sugars.

And even if the foods or diets that are consumed by obese populations and individuals today in the U.S. and elsewhere do seem indisputably rewarding and palatable, we’re still left having to demonstrate that this palatability, this high food reward value, is not due to the nutritional composition of the diet and the peripheral effects of the nutrients—the metabolic and hormonal effects in the body.

This was a point made back in 1989 by Israel Ramirez, Michael Tordoff and Mark Friedman of the Monell Chemical Senses Center in Philadelphia in an article entitled “Dietary Hyperphagia and Obesity: What causes them?”(Friedman is one of the scientists whose thoughts on obesity and over-eating significantly shaped my own. I owe him a debt of gratitude. For those who want to read what I think may be the single most thoughtful article written on obesity and hunger in the post-WW2 era, I’d recommend Friedman’s article with Edward Stricker, The Physiological Psychology of Hunger: A Physiological Perspective.)

The Monell researchers were discussing only the concept of palatability, not the food reward value of a particular food. (The idea that food reward and palatability could be differentiated — that they weren’t precisely the same thing — hadn’t gotten much if any play up until then.) So the question was whether or not palatability (whether a food tastes good) could be legitimately disassociated from nutrient composition and peripheral effects of the food. As Ramirez et al said repeatedly in this article, researchers almost invariably assumed that a food could be defined as palatable if the animals (or humans) ate more of that food than some other food, but this was an inference and nothing more.

It was well known at the time (although it may have been forgotten since then), as I discussed in Good Calories, Bad Calories, that animals can be made to like one food more than another, and so eat more of the one than the other, by interventions that influenced their underlying physiologic/metabolic/hormonal states. Here’s how I illustrated this in GC,BC:

Throughout the first half of the twentieth century, a series of experimental observations, many of them from [Curt] Richter’s laboratory [at Johns Hopkins University], raised questions about what is meant by the concepts of hunger, thirst and palatability, and how they might reflect metabolic and physiological needs. For example, rats in which the adrenal glands are removed cannot retain salt and will die within two weeks on their usual diet from the consequences of salt depletion. If given a supply of salt in their cages, however, or given the choice of drinking salt water or pure water, they will chose to either eat or drink the salt and, by doing so, keep themselves alive indefinitely. These rats will develop a “taste” for salt that did not exist prior to the removal of their adrenal glands. Rats that have had their parathyroid glands removed will die within days of tetany, a disorder of calcium deficiency. If given the opportunity, however, they will drink a solution of calcium lactate rather than water—not the case with healthy rats—and will stay alive because of that choice. They will appear to like the calcium lactate more than water. And rats rendered diabetic voluntarily choose diets devoid of carbohydrates, consuming only protein and fat. “As a result,” Richter said, “they lost their symptoms of diabetes, i.e., their blood sugar fell to its normal level, they gained weight, ate less food and drank only normal amounts of water.

In short, change underlying physiologic/hormonal conditions and it will affect what an animal chooses to eat and so seems to like or find rewarding. The animal’s behavior and perceptions will change in response to a change in homeostasis – in the hormonal milieu of the cells in the body.

It’s quite possible that all those foods we seem to like, or even the ones we find rewarding but don’t particularly like, as Dr. Guyenet argues, and that subsequently cause obesity (not necessarily the same thing) are those foods that somehow satisfy an underlying metabolic and physiological demand. This in turn might induce our brains to register them as more palatable or rewarding, but the initial cause would be the effect in the periphery.  The nutrient composition of the food, in this case, would be the key—what it’s doing in the body, not necessarily the brain.

Here’s how Ramirez, Tordoff and Friedman phrased this issue back in 1989:

In order to demonstrate that diet palatability per se causes hyperphagia [overeating or a voracious appetite], it must be shown that obesity-inducing foods are more palatable than control foods, this greater palatability is not merely a reflection of the postingestive [after entering the digestive tract] consequences of the foods, and altering palatability without altering nutritional composition can cause obesity. This has not been done.… Although various experiments have been cited as supporting the palatability hypothesis, they are not decisive because, in every case, palatability was confounded with changes in nutritional composition.

That an experiment is “not decisive” unless this is done is the critical point. If an experiment that ostensibly changes food reward makes an animal eat more of a particular food and/or get fatter, and it does so by changing nutritional composition—say, the foods that are defined as more rewarding have more sugar in them, or are more refined, or have a greater water or fat content—then the researchers have to demonstrate that it’s not the change in nutritional composition and post-ingestive effects of that change that is causing the overeating and obesity. An observation that one diet produces obesity compared to another because it’s ostensibly more rewarding or palatable has to do the same. Otherwise either hypothesis could be true, and we haven’t learned anything.

Take the idea, as Dr. Guyenet suggests, that people will eat more at a sitting if foods are palatable than if they’re not, which seems kind of obvious. The better a food tastes, the more likely we are to eat more of it. But then Dr. Guyenet adds that this is true even of foods with “little or no nutritional quality.” This is how he phrases it in a recent post:

Many human studies have shown that people eat more food at a sitting if the food is higher palatability than if it is lower palatability (11).  This is true even if palatability is manipulated using substances that have little or no impact on the nutritional quality of the food, including saccharin (sweet), monosodium glutamate (savory) and herbs/spices.

The reference is a review article that actually makes the point that the evidence is ambiguous on the eating more issue when the foods have little or no nutritional quality. “Several studies showed no effect of sweet taste on either hunger ratings or food intake,” the authors write, “when the sweetener was provided in the form of gelatine, corn flakes or fromage blanc or as aspartame- or saccharin-sweetened drinks.” In fact, the authors then go on to suggest this is true of all “sweet taste” whether from caloric sweeteners or non-caloric, which doesn’t seem to do my hypothesis any favors either.

But what I’m arguing is that the key isn’t whether people eat more, but whether the foods stimulate fat accumulation. And if they do make us fatter, how?

The food reward hypothesis suggests that it happens because of the effect of the sweet taste in the brain, not in the body. If the former, then sugar and saccharine might be expected to be equally fattening, so long as we consider sugar and saccharine-sweetened beverages to have equal reward value or to be considered equally palatable by humans.

If the reward value is not the critical factor, then it’s a reasonable assumption that sugar-sweetened beverages will be more fattening than saccharine or aspartame-sweetened beverages. And we could do a clinical trial and see which turns out to be true, although we can also guess what we think such a trial (randomized, well-controlled) would find. Not surprisingly, I’d vote for the sugar-sweetened beverages being more fattening.

This doesn’t mean, by the way, that artificially-sweetened beverages could be absolved of having any fattening properties because we might still secrete insulin in response to these beverages. They may fool us into thinking that they have carbohydrate or sugar calories in them. And this insulin secretion could be cephalic — a kind of Pavlovian response — which would mean that the brain is telling the pancreas to secrete insulin (via the vagus nerve). But it would now be doing so not because the food is rewarding necessarily, but because the body has come to associate sweet taste with the presence of carbohydrates and feedback loops in the brain are working to get the body ready by secreting insulin.

In my next post, I’ll discuss more of the evidence offered in support of the food reward/palatability hypothesis and ask the question that Ramirez et al did: are palatability and food reward confounded with changes in nutritional composition, and if so, what might that confounding be?