If you have ever wondered why you cannot seem to get enough of that sweet potato pie, this blog post is for you.
There is something special about holiday food. Yams, oven-roasted, and decorated with brown sugar and cranberries. Green beans, minced and boiled in white sauce. Ham, glazed and cooked to a juicy tenderness, cut in thin slices for you to enjoy. Is your mouth watering yet? Meals throughout the year are certainly delicious, but for some reason, during the months of November and December, food seems to taste so much better.
Instinctively, we know that fats, sugars and salts are pleasant to eat. We also know that spending time in the company of other people allows for relaxation and pleasant memories. The Holidays are special in that they combine all of the above into a perfect cocktail of good times. Add a little egg nog, and things really liven up. (Pro tip, if you are looking to feel better after a night of too much eggnog, check our blog post “Too Much Alcohol Last Night? We Can Help With That.”)
In this post, we walk you through the reasons why these things are so enjoyable, along with the science to back up our claims.
Ingredient No. 1: Fat
Hams, gravies, sauces, stuffing
Outside of alcohol, the human body absorbs calories from three sources: carbohydrate, protein and fat. Compared with the other two, fat is more than twice as nutritionally-dense, when measured by calorie content. One gram of fat contains nine calories, compared to just four calories in protein and carbohydrates.
In our modern day food paradise, this is more detrimental than helpful, but for most of human civilization, fat was a good thing. In hunter-gatherer days, a fatty piece of meat provided an excellent source of calories — hugely beneficial when you have no idea when the next meal will take place. To promote fat consumption as an energy source, the human body developed a craving for fat over time.
Additionally, the body digests fat differently than protein and carbohydrates, breaking down clumps, or globules, of dietary fat into smaller and smaller globules until it can be processed by the small intestine. This process takes longer than the breakdown of carbohydrate, thus causing you to feel fuller for longer. Again, when food was hard to come by, this was a nice plus.
Fat also binds with certain flavor molecules, particularly the “nut” flavors and “chocolate” flavors. By consuming these compounds with high amounts of fat, the flavors stay in the mouth for longer periods of time, increasing enjoyment. If you have ever experimented with low-fat versions of traditionally fatty foods, such as ice cream, nut butters or baked goods, you know the flavor is sufficient … but not quite the same.
Ingredient No. 2: Sugar
Chocolates, pies, cranberry sauce, sweet potatoes, glazes
Many a diet has been ruined by a sweet tooth, and sugar has been compared to heroin, crack cocaine, methamphetamines and nearly every other addictive drug. As anyone who has breached a tray of cookies with good intentions only to finish the entire thing off knows, sugar seems to elicit a powerful effect on our self-discipline.
In 1990, Neuroscience and Biobehaviorial Reviews published an article examining why sugar tastes so good, noting that if sugar provides so little nutritional value, how could humans have evolved to crave it so much? In the paper, the authors surmise that “preference for sugars evolved because they are common in plants and easy to detect rather than because of any special nutritional merits they offer.” In other words, sugar was a convenient find in our hunter gatherer days, and we thus learned to enjoy it.
Another theory put forth by anthropologists is that sugar usually indicates the absence of toxins, so developing a sweet tooth was an evolutionary hack hunter gatherers used to avoid eating poisonous substances. (Conversely bitterness usually indicates the presence of something harmful; thus the reason why most of us dislike bitter foods.)
It is also worth noting that the sugar of today did not exist thousands of years ago. While fruits do contain high amounts of simple carbohydrates (sugars), white sugar is a highly-processed ingredient and is never found as white sugar in a natural state. As described in this 2009 paper, the extreme concentration of sweetness found in white sugar causes the brain to release unnaturally high amounts of dopamine, often known as the addition hormone because it makes us feel so good. As with any addictive substance, if we put ourselves through a dopamine rush enough times, our body begins to require that substance to perform normally. Sugar is no different; thus the comparisons to the long list of addictive drugs.
Ingredient No. 3: (Our personal favorite!) Salt
Meats, gravies, stews
Unlike fat (caloric density) and sugar (easy to find, indicating safety), salt does not have clear-cut benefits. While salt is indeed critical to the body for a variety of physiological processes, including the regulation of blood pressure, sweat and neurological functioning, on the surface these do not appear to justify special taste receptors on our tongue. After all, the human body needs hundreds of other vitamins and minerals, but we do not have “Vitamin A” taste buds. “Why is salt special?” researchers have asked.
As we discuss in a previous blog post, it could be that salt can help ward off depression and lower stress rates. A study recently published in Appetite found that women with less salt in their diet are more likely to be depressed – and that depressed men and women are more likely to add salt to their food at the table. Additionally, in 2011, researchers at the University of Connecticut induced dehydration in rats by feeding them sodium chloride to examine whether blood sodium levels affected the rats’ stress responses. Compared with a control group, the rats that received the sodium chloride secreted fewer stress hormones when exposed to stress and also displayed a reduced cardiovascular response.
“It turns out we aren’t just born loving salt. We also learn to love it because of its benefits,” Professor Emeritus Micah Leshem, a biopsychologist at the University of Haifa’s Department of Psychology, said to the Salt Institute.
Ingredient No. 4: Community
Whether it is relatives or friends this holiday season, most of us will be surrounded by people we enjoy seeing, reliving shared memories and making new ones. A Stanford University blog post notes that while it is custom throughout most of the world to sit down and enjoy a large meal with other people at least once a day, no such tradition exists in the United States. In fact, it is estimated that 20 percent of all American meals are eaten in a car. Separately, a Harris poll found that 59 percent of American adults report that their family today has fewer family dinners than when they were growing up.
Eating alone is linked to obesity, lower academic performance and increased risk for drug or alcohol abuse in children and young adults. Conversely, a study released this year found that children who experienced regular family meals showed higher levels of general fitness and lower levels of soft-drink consumption later in life. Children also seemed to have more social skills, as they were less likely to self-report being physically aggressive, oppositional or delinquent. These benefits of shared meals continue well into adulthood: In 2015, Cornell professors found that firefighter platoons who eat meals together have better group job performance compared with firefighter teams who dine solo.
The holidays are a magical time of year. Perhaps it is the good food that abounds, satisfying our taste buds with fats, sugars and salts. Perhaps it is the memories that are created when meals are shared with family and friends. Perhaps it is the gift-giving and acts of service, as countless studies have shown that doing things for other people is one of the greatest sources of happiness. Perhaps, it is a combination of all of these.
No matter the recipe, this is a time of year to relax and enjoy life with loved ones. After working hard at managing work and family for 11 months, training hard for a racing season, dieting hard to reach your goal weight, or just doing your best to live a healthy life, it is time to ease up a little before starting again in January.
Cheers to happy memories this 2017. We wish you a wonderful holiday season and look forward to sharing the great things to come in the New Year!