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


When last I left off, the subject of discussion was the critical question about the food reward/palatability hypothesis of obesity: Can palatability and reward value of foods be disassociated from the metabolic and hormonal effects of the individual nutrients being consumed and, in particular, the sugar and refined grains that “hyper-rewarding” foods seem to invariably contain?

Let’s start with the experiment in humans that Dr. Stephan Guyenet of finds such compelling support of the food reward hypothesis. This was work done by Ted Van Itallie and Sami Hashim back in the 1960s. (For an idea of the simplistic notions held by Dr. Hashim about obesity and its cause and prevention, I highly recommend this video here. I discuss Dr. Van Itallie’s critical role in shaping the current thinking about obesity — i.e., the mess we’re in today — in chapter 23 of Good Calories, Bad Calories.)

In his “Case for the Food Reward Hypothesis of Obesity, Part II” post, Dr. Guyenet argues that this experiment is important because it demonstrates what he considers one of several critical requirements for the validity of the food reward hypothesis: “Decreasing the reward/palatability of the diet should cause fat loss in animals and humans that carry excess fat.” Here’s what he says:

One of the most striking weight loss studies I’ve seen was conducted in 1965 and involved feeding a bland liquid diet through a dispensing straw (12).  Lean and obese volunteers were instructed to eat as much of the liquid food as they wanted, but they were permitted no other food.  While lean volunteers ate a normal amount of calories and maintained weight, obese volunteers dramatically reduced their spontaneous calorie intake and lost fat rapidly, with one man losing 200 lbs in 255 days without hunger.  This is exactly what one would expect if unpalatable/unrewarding food lowered the biologically “defended” level of fat mass.  Interestingly, the diet was high in sugar but was otherwise very low in palatability/reward value.

This was Dr. Guyenet’s second discussion of the tube-feeding paper. As he explained in an earlier post on this experiment, the total number of subjects was four: two lean and two obese. The two lean were kept on the feeding machine for 16 and 9 days. They didn’t bother to decrease caloric intake, and so their experiment ended then. The two obese subjects, however, curtailed intake dramatically, to 275 calories per day for the male volunteer and 144 for the female). The man stayed with the feeding machine for another 70 days and was then sent home with the formula and the instruction to drink only 400 calories a day. He kept this up for another half year until he had lost the 200 pounds. Says Dr.  Guyenet (in “Food Reward: a Dominant Factor in Obesity, Part II”, his earlier post):

 This machine-feeding regimen was nearly as close as one can get to a diet with no rewarding properties whatsoever. Although it contained carbohydrate and fat, it did not contain any flavor or texture to associate them with, and thus the reward value of the diet was minimized. As one would expect if food reward influences the body fat setpoint, lean volunteers maintained starting weight and a normal calorie intake, while their obese counterparts rapidly lost a massive amount of fat and reduced calorie intake dramatically without hunger. This suggests that obesity is not entirely due to a “broken” metabolism (although that may still contribute), but also at least in part to a heightened sensitivity to food reward in susceptible people. [The italics are mine.]

So immediately we have a problem, and it strikes me as near-fatal for the food reward hypothesis of obesity. In Dr. Guyenet’s first post on the experiment (the one immediately above), he says that the regimen “was nearly as close as one can get to a diet with no rewarding properties whatsoever…. It did not contain any flavor or texture to associate them with, and thus the reward value of the diet was minimized.” In his second post (the first of the two I quote, just to make life confusing), he notes that the diet was “high in sugar” although he tries to hold onto the food reward hypothesis by stating that it “was otherwise very low in palatability/reward value.”

This is why I asked Dr. Guyenet at the AHS whether the formula diet had sugar in it. If it did, then how could it be bland? And how could it have a low food reward value, which is, more or less, the whole point? It might have a lower food value than what the two obese subjects were eating prior to the experiment, but low?

As Hashim and Van Italie noted in a footnote in their 1965 paper, and as Dr. Guyenet notes in his blog, the formula used was Nutrament. This was a liquid diet formula that went on sale in 1960 (according to Wikipedia), and if the composition then was anything like the composition now, a significant portion of the carbohydrate calories came from sugar.

So was it non-rewarding? Hashim and Van Italie refer to it as “bland” and Guyenet assumes it was as well, hence his description of it as “otherwise very low in palatabily/reward value.” But it had to be sweet if it had significant sugar in it; and indeed in the modern incarnation of Nutrament, which may or may not be the same as the original, there are 47 grams in every 12-ounce serving. This happens to be more sugar than you’d find in a 12-ounce can of Coke.

Frankly, the stuff sounds awful, but low in reward value? Well, only if a Coke is, too, and certainly not if Dr. Guyenet includes “liquid calories, particularly sweetened beverages” among the low-hanging fruit of the food reward hypothesis, which he does.

In fact, the point of a diet formula like Nutrament is not just that it contains enough protein and other nutrients that people can thrive on, say, 400 or 800 calories-a-day of the stuff. But it also has to taste good, so that consumers will continue to buy it and drink it day in and day out, even after they’ve moved into the weight maintenance phase of their lives — i.e., for the rest of their lives. It’s an example from the 1960s of what Dr. Guyenet describes as “the goal of processed food manufacturers… to create a product that maximally reinforces purchase and consumption behaviors—food reward!”

We can try to get around this problem by suggesting that bland and sweet is just not high in food reward value, as Dr. Guyenet tries to do, but we’re going to resort to this kind of, well, blatant contradiction only because we want to salvage this experiment as support for the hypothesis. So this formula must have a low-food reward value because an obese subject consumed less of it and lost weight and because we believe that foods with high reward value cause people to gain weight. Now we’re back to circular-definition land, a place I would prefer to never visit.

Now, how about the idea that a “cafeteria” or “junk food” diet makes humans and animals fat, a concept that was pioneered by Anthony Sclafani. The assumption is that such a diet is fattening because there’s something about eating a variety of foods, mostly junk foods, that is so rewarding or at least so less bland than a plain chow diet that both humans and animals get fat eating it. Here’s how Dr. Guyenet describes it:

In this model, animals are allowed free access to standard chow and water while concurrently offered highly palatable, energy dense, unhealthy human foods ad libitum.

In other words, they’re given an unlimited amount of human junk food in addition to their whole food-based “standard chow.” In this particular paper, the junk foods included Froot Loops, Cocoa Puffs, peanut butter cookies, Reese’s Pieces, Hostess Blueberry MiniMuffins, Cheez-its, nacho cheese Doritos, hot dogs, cheese, wedding cake, pork rinds, pepperoni slices and other industrial delicacies. Rats exposed to this food almost completely ignored their healthier, more nutritious and less palatable chow, instead gorging on junk food and rapidly attaining an obese state.

Aside from Dr. Guyenet’s description of standard rat chow as “whole-food based,” my major problem with this (which is the same problem Ramirez et al had 20-odd years ago with the existing research then) is that this is an experiment that changes an unholy host of variables, and the results are evoked to make a point about one: food reward value.

One advantage I have in this nutrition business as an arguably ignorant journalist is that I actually get to interview the researchers who do the work. (Technically anyone could do this, but the researchers are certainly more likely to give their time to a journalist, ignorant or not, than to what one of my acquaintances in academia refers to as “just a person.”) I interviewed Sclafani back on January 30, 2003 for GC,BC, and the interview revealed the obvious problem with this interpretation. As Sclafani told me, they started their cafeteria diet (which he was calling the “supermarket” diet at the time) with a variety of different foods (not quite as wide a variety as Dr. Guyenet is discussing above, but wide nonetheless): chocolate chip cookies, salami, cheese, bananas, marshmallows, milk chocolate, peanut butter and sweetened condensed milk, and then they later simplified it to four foods because the rats didn’t eat all the foods they gave them.

Which foods did they ignore? Sclafani said they never did a systematic study, nor had anyone else, as far as he knew (as of January 2003), but cheese, salami and peanut butter—the foods highest in fat and lowest in refined grains and sugar—seemed to be the foods they avoided in favor of the sweeter, starchy options. So the obvious question: are refined grains and/or sugar necessary to impart not just reward value, but reward value that leads to people and animals getting fat?

In fact, Sclafani told me that they had based their selection of foods on a hunch about what rats preferentially like, and so that’s why they included cheese in the list. It seemed like an obvious choice. After all, don’t you stick cheese in mouse traps when you want to rid your house of mice? And yet, cheese was not among the foods the Sclafani’s rats preferentially ate when given all these other refined carbs and sugary foods to eat instead. Maybe because the cheese was unrewarding. Or maybe because it was relatively if not completely refined-carb and sugar free, as were the salami and peanut butter.

This inability to differentiate food reward and/or palatability from the presence of refined carbs and sugars haunts virtually every example of the studies cited to document food reward and/or palatability.

Another example, not one used by Dr. Guyenet, is Kelly Brownell’s Yale Food Addiction Scale . This scale attempts to identify  people who suffer from addiction to certain foods. The scale is based on a survey that gives a series of statements about eating habits. Subjects must say how true each statement is, on a scale from “never” to “four or more times or daily.” This goes along with a list of foods of which food addicted subjects might have “difficulty controlling their intake.” Here are the first four statements to give you an idea of what Brownell is getting at:

  1. I find that when I start eating certain foods, I end up eating much more than planned.
  2. I find myself continuing to consume certain foods even though I am no longer hungry.
  3. I eat to the point where I feel physically ill.
  4. Not eating certain types of food or cutting down on certain type of food is something I worry about.

So let’s assume, for the sake of argument at least, that the “certain foods” that illicit addictive behavior is very similar to the list of hyper-rewarding foods, the ones most likely to cause obesity. Here’s Brownell’s list of the foods that are most likely to be addictive:

–       Sweets like ice cream, chocolate, doughnuts, cookies, cake, candy, ice cream [yes, ice cream is listed twice.]

–       Starches like white bread, rolls, pasta, and rice

–       Salty snacks like chips, pretzels, and crackers

–       Fatty foods like steak, bacon, hamburgers, cheeseburgers, pizza, and French fries

–       Sugary drinks like soda pop

With the exception of steak and bacon, all of these foods are high in carbohydrates — refined or otherwise (the French Fries) — and/or sugars, even the foods defined as “fatty” with the aforesaid exceptions.  If these foods are addictive and if they cause obesity, is it because they’re addictive or is it because of the metabolic and hormonal effects of consuming them — their effects on insulin signalling? There’s no way to tell without an exceedingly well-controlled and well-conceived experiment, but you can guess where my vote lies.

What about the steak and bacon, then? Well, if you ate nothing but those—steak and bacon every day, plus, say, the hamburgers or cheeseburgers without the refined grains attached, i.e., the buns—you’d be eating a weight loss diet (a ketogenic diet) and would almost assuredly lose weight doing it. So whether or not you consider steak and bacon addictive, it’s unlikely that they could be defined as foods high in reward value because they would tend to refute the hypothesis that high food reward value causes obesity. And now we’d be back to this problem of having to differentiate between hyper-rewarding foods or at least addictive foods that come with refined/easily digestible carbohydrates and sugars and cause fat accumulation and hyper-rewarding foods that don’t, and well, don’t.

Of the examples I could find in Dr. Guyenet’s discussions of the food reward/palatability hypothesis that held the promise of differentiating food reward value from underlying metabolic effects of the foods themselves (and the presence of refined or easily-digestible carbs and sugars), none of them actually came through with meaningful evidence.

The studies most likely to offer such a differentiation were those mentioned by Dr. Guyenet  in his post, “The Case for the Food Reward Hypothesis of Obesity, Part II.” These were the studies evoked as evidence for the hypothesis because they demonstrate that “Individual sensitivity to food reward should predict future fat gain.” About this evidence he says:

I’m aware of three studies that have investigated this question.  In the first, researchers found that the reinforcing value of food relative to a non-food stimulus predicted fat gain over the next year in 7-10 year old children (19).  In the second, the responsiveness of reward-related brain regions to imagining palatable vs. unpalatable foods (as assessed using fMRI) predicted body mass index (BMI) gains in adolescent girls, and this effect was modified by gene polymorphisms in dopamine receptor genes (20).  The third study also used fMRI to demonstrate that greater activation in reward-related brain regions during exposure to appetizing food cues predicted greater BMI gains over time in adolescent girls (21).

But of those three studies, none of them define what the high reward foods were, which foods were considered palatable and which were unpalatable. For all we know, the palatable foods were the ones rich with refined grains and sugars and the reason reward-related regions of our brain light up when we eat them (or at least when obese people do) is because our brains are responding to what these foods do to our bodies.

Reference 19 doesn’t specify at all which foods are actually high in reward value, nor do references 20 and 21, which are both by the same authors. They do, however, include a “cheeseburger” as an example of a processed food, demonstrating a certain bias against cheeseburgers that may be misplaced.

And reference 21 says that while BMI may have been related to the extent of activation in reward-related brain regions, as Dr. Guyenet points out, this was true regardless of whether the food being imagined was rewarding or palatable or not. Or the authors put it, “BMI [body mass index] was positively correlated with behavioral response to both appetizing and unappetizing food images, implying that food cues in general trigger greater attention in overweight vs. lean individuals.”

One obvious interpretation is that overweight individuals are hungrier than lean individuals, and so they have a greater response to any food in their reward centers. And, in fact, one point Dr. Guyenet’s mentor, Michael Schwartz, made of interest in his 2006 review in Nature “Central nervous system control of food intake and body weight” was that “food deprivation strongly augments the reward value… reduced food availability seems to exert a global, stimulatory effect on reward perception.” And so maybe the greater the BMI, the more likely the subjects were hungry or food deprived—a phenomenon I discuss at length in GC,BC— a state that could be due to increased insulin secretion and chronic hyperinsulinemia. And maybe refined grains and sugars augment reward value because they cause us to secrete more insulin and store calories away as fat and glycogen and make us hungry.

In GC,BC I quote Mark Friedman commenting on this potential carbs-insulin-hunger connection regarding just the cephalic phase of insulin secretion, the one that comes just by thinking about a particular food:

This cephalic release of insulin also serves to clear the circulation of “essentially anything an animal or a person can use for fuel. Not just blood sugar, but fatty acids, as well. All those nutrients just go away.” Hence, the thought of eating makes us hungry, because the insulin secreted in response depletes the bloodstream of the fuel that the peripheral tissues and organs need to survive.

And if this happens more in individuals who are insulin resistant,  as most obese individuals are, we’re now back at a hypothesis that maybe the insulin signaling in the body is running the brain’s response, not vice versa. Yes, it’s the brain that’s stimulating the insulin secretion when we think about food, but what makes us hungry and makes the food then seem so rewarding is the effect of the insulin secreted in the body.