There is an incredible amount of science that goes into designing food. That’s right: In case you did not know, a bunch of guys in lab coats invented those crackers you love. It was not a kitchen full of grandmothers making snacks before a game of bridge—except for maybe in the case of bran muffins.

Much of modern food, and in particular packaged food, comes from a laboratory environment where a few things go into consideration. Not surprisingly, how the company can make lots of dollars seems to outweigh considerations for the consumer’s general health. The way to achieve this is by making a food delicious. Not just the kind of delicious of Granny’s bran muffins, which she would sneak prunes into for guaranteed efficacy, but the kind of delicious that allows a consumer to fool themselves into thinking they want or need more.

Sometimes the nutrition world refers to these as “highly rewarding foods.” They are the kind of things that make our brain salivate because they are sweet or salty or deliver a specific kind of crunch. They also typically get very small after chewing and swallowing so you have lots of space in your belly for more.

These foods don’t typically have a lot of other nutritional value. They are the crackers, chips, candy bars of the world, and eating them and thinking about eating them makes our brains happy in the way only a donut or a bag of nacho-flavored corn chips really can.

And your friends, bless them, stock all their summer barbecues with these foods because they inherently know it will satisfy the guests. What’s a picnic without some chips and salsa?! How many of us have eaten an entire additional meal of chips and salsa after already cleaning up on the potato salad and kielbasas?

Food should be joyful and wonderful. Our tastebuds should delight. Our bellies should feel the abundance with which we are blessed. And yet, the consumption of these foods seems to often be pleasurable only while we are eating them, then fade to guilt or the extra four miles we have to run the next day.

The question is: How can we create balance in between enjoying those foods while not eating them in excess? Some people have this ability by nature, and I am suspicious they are actually an alien life form in a human body. When people write down in their food journals “7 tortilla chips,” I start watching their eyes to see if they blink sideways or something.

For many of us, the answer comes in the dirty term “portion control.” Studies do show us that the portions and even the plates we use today are significantly larger than even just a couple of decades ago. While portion control can be used to guilt ourselves into being comfortable with a measurable level of deprivation, we can achieve the same awareness and results with something a little more compassionate.

When people pause to honestly assess their current need or desire for a food, they make far better choices. It costs nothing and you don’t have to count out potato chips at the table. It is perfectly okay to enjoy the pretzels, and for best effect we should do so intentionally and with self-honesty. That means taking a moment to consider how much we want or need, making that available to ourselves, and then setting the rest aside.

In the American diet, we are seeing a trend to replacing foods with nutritional value with these highly rewarding foods because we can mindlessly consume the latter. In all my years as a clinician, I’ve never seen someone binge on salad. With those foods designed for consumption, our dopamine receptor sites are firing on all cylinders and we’re thinking more about the pleasure centers of the brain than nourishing the body’s structure and function.

It’s summer; there are barbecues and late-night ice cream cones. Enjoy those delightful foods but first, load up on the nutrient-dense ones. Get your fruits, veggies, good fats, and proteins from clean sources. Make sure your body has everything it needs in order to thrive and perform. Then you can feed your soul with the cookies. //

 

Ammi Midstokke goes outside to do all the things without prejudice or preference, so long as it justifies more calories in the form of peanut butter. Last month she wrote about fiber in the outdoors.