We are genetically hard-wired to seek pleasure, because that's what helped our species survive back in the day. In today's health- and weight-centric culture, however, pleasure gets a bad rap — ironic, given that the modern food environment heavily promotes indulgent and less-nutritious foods. When we feel conflicted or confused about our food choices, rush through our meals or eat while distracted, we deprive ourselves of food pleasure and eating satisfaction. This can have negative consequences for health. Here's why you can — and should — eat for both nutrition and pleasure.
The reality is that true pleasure leads to healthy choices, because ultimately we want our food to both taste good and make our bodies feel good. Feeling sluggish or overly full is the antithesis of pleasure.
What makes a food pleasurable? Taste is obviously one factor, but it's also about what would feel good in terms of temperature, texture and substance. The crispiest, juiciest, most flavorful apple in the world won't bring you true pleasure if you're hungry for a warm, filling meal. Similarly, if you are craving a big salad but all that's available to you is a burger, you're not going to take a lot of pleasure in your meal.
Most people find a variety of foods pleasurable, and some of those foods are going to be more nutritious than others. Marrying pleasure and nutrition often takes some thought, both about what you would like to eat and where and how you are going to procure it. This is true whether you are cooking at home or sleuthing out restaurant options. A good place to start is to experiment with some tasty new vegetable recipes at home or check out farm-to-table-type restaurants that are doing interesting things with seasonal vegetables.
Pleasure provides satisfaction and the sense that you've eaten enough. In their book "Intuitive Eating," dietitians Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch point out: "When you eat what you really want, in an environment that is inviting, the pleasure you derive will be a powerful force in helping you feel satisfied and content."
One of the principles of intuitive eating is to honor your hunger. The reasons are twofold. The first is that eating when you are moderately hungry makes it easier to eat in tune with your body's true needs. When you eat when you're not hungry, you may be eating mindlessly or for reasons that have nothing to do with sustenance, such as to stave off boredom or soothe emotions. When you delay eating until you're ravenous, it's easy to overeat because you feel as though you have a bottomless pit to fill.
The second reason is pleasure. Eating when you're not hungry — or are too hungry — will diminish your pleasure no matter how otherwise appealing the food is. Have you ever eaten enough to take care of hunger, yet not felt quite satisfied? It's probably because your food choices for that meal didn't provide enough pleasure or otherwise "hit the spot."
A balanced, varied, nutritious diet allows for both pleasure and health. A rigid, restrictive, rules-based diet does not. Rigid diets also tend to lead to struggles with food guilt, further contributing to a lack of pleasure in your meals.
Denying yourself foods you really enjoy because you've labeled them as "bad" can lead to overeating or out-and-out binging on "forbidden" foods. If you love real ice cream but try to substitute a low-fat, sugar-free frozen concoction, you may end up eating the whole pint but still be far less satisfied than if you ate a single scoop of the good stuff, slowly and mindfully.
When your meal comes with a side helping of guilt, it erodes whatever pleasure you would otherwise feel, because you don't allow yourself to feel it. If you eat a cupcake but feel guilty about it, do you really enjoy it? Not likely. Plus, guilt doesn't feel good, so you may feel the urge to eat a second cupcake to soothe those bad feelings.
When you feel guilty about your food, you may eat quickly to get the experience behind you, which doesn't let you truly taste your food. This prevents you from either enjoying it or realizing that maybe it doesn't taste so good and isn't even worth eating. When you eat fast, it's also easy to overeat before your stomach has time to tell your brain that you've had enough. When you slow down and savor your food, you wring more pleasure from it and find it easier to stop before you're stuffed.
Cultivating true mindfulness — in eating and in life — takes practice, but there are a few things you can do right away to take a step in that direction. One is to try the "eating one raisin" exercise to experience how much more you notice when you slow down. Another is to start tuning in at two key points in each meal — pay attention to the flavor and sensory qualities of the first few bites, then pause mid-meal for a check-in. Are you satisfied yet, or still hungry? Does the food still taste good?
Dennett is a registered dietitian nutritionist and owner of Nutrition by Carrie.