Last week's reports that low-fat diets may not reduce the risk of heart disease and cancer have left Americans more confused than ever about what to eat. I'd like to make a radical suggestion: instead of wringing our hands over fat grams and calories, let's resolve to enjoy whatever food we eat. Because, as it turns out, when you eat something you like, your body makes more efficient use of its nutrients. Which means that choking down a plateful of steamed cauliflower (if you hate steamed cauliflower) is not likely to do you as much good as you think.
In the 1970's, researchers fed two groups of women, one Swedish and one Thai, a spicy Thai meal. The Thai women — who presumably liked the meal more than the Swedish women did — absorbed almost 50 percent more iron from it than the Swedish women. When the meal was served as a mushy paste, the Thai women absorbed 70 percent less iron than they had before — from the same food. The researchers concluded that food that's unfamiliar (Thai food to Swedish women) or unappetizing (mush rather than solid food) winds up being less nutritious than food that looks, smells and tastes good to you. The explanation can be found in the digestive process itself, in the relationship between the "second brain" — the gut — and the brain in your head.
Imagine sitting in your favorite Japanese restaurant before a plate of sushi, chopsticks poised. You take in its fragrance and the beautiful cut of the fish, the shapely rice and nori rolls. Those delectable smells and sights tell your brain that the meal will be enjoyable, and the brain responds by pushing your salivary glands into high gear and ordering your stomach to secrete more gastric juices. Result: you get more nutritional bang for your buck than you would, say, faced with a platter of lutefisk. In that case, your brain might send fewer messages to your mouth and stomach, causing the food to be less thoroughly digested and metabolized.
Does this mean we should be reaching for the Krispy Kremes and forgoing the raw cauliflower? No. The food has to have nutritive value in the first place. But maybe we could take a lesson from the French, whose level of heart disease is lower than ours despite their richer diet. The French savor the taste and texture of food and the experience of eating; we tend to eat dutifully (how much cauliflower can you choke down?), on the run (hardly realizing what we're eating), or rebelliously (devouring a whole box of Entenmann's because we feel deprived).
In fact, we're hard-wired to enjoy food; it's a survival mechanism. Volunteers in the 1946 University of Minnesota Starvation Study, who spent six months at half rations, developed a slew of peculiar rituals around eating. They devoted hours to meals that might normally take a few minutes, cutting a slice of bread into tiny bits with a knife and fork, arranging the bits on the plate, chewing each mouthful 200 times — all behaviors engineered to prolong both the act of eating and the enjoyment of the limited food available.
The health writer Lawrence Lindner tells of a committee that gathered to hammer out the wording of the United States Dietary Guidelines in 1995. One committee member suggested that the first guideline read "Enjoy a variety of foods" — language that was rejected as "too hedonistic." (In the end, Mr. Lindner wrote, the committee "opted for the apparently less giddy 'Eat a variety of foods.' ") So let's vow to enjoy our food, not wolf it down in the car with a heaping order of guilt. Call it Slow Food, conscious eating, or eating the French way, the point's the same: eating well and with pleasure is more than hedonism — it's good nutritional policy and practice. Bon appétit! Harriet Brown, the editor of the forthcoming anthology "Mr. Wrong," is working on a book about anorexia.