Preventive Medicine Column
Dr. David L. Katz
If people didn’t want ever-bigger sodas, Mayor Bloomberg would not be inclined to address soda size as a matter of policy in NYC. But is bigger truly better?
The notion that more- measured in calories- is better used to make sense. It made sense throughout the long sweep of human history during which calories were a rate-limiting commodity in the struggle to survive. It made sense even more recently when calories were still relatively scarce and hard to get, and physical activity unavoidable. It made so much sense, in fact, that we equated food/calories with security and success, and spoke of bringing home the bacon, being the breadwinner, and making dough.
It made sense THEN. But now, it makes as much sense as bringing coals to Newcastle!
Getting more of what you don’t have enough of is good; getting more of what you already have too much of is anything but! More calories and more sugar at no or little extra charge means getting fat and probably sick for free- and winning the opportunity to spend a fortune trying to fix that!
But of course, soda tastes good- right? Maybe.
I used to drink soda as a kid, being raised on a typical American diet until I was old enough to see the light and take matters into my own hands. Since I first gave up soda (I have not had one in literal decades at this point) I have had several occasions to taste it – whether on purpose or accidentally- and had this basic reaction: yuck. When one doesn’t drink soft drinks for some time and then goes back, they taste far more like what they are- extremely sweet, highly processed and rather dubious concoctions- than the treat we pretend them to be.
I don’t dislike soda because soda isn’t good for me. I dislike soda because I dislike soda! Once I gave my taste buds a soda-free holiday, they did the rest. They went through rehab, rediscovered their native predilection for native foods- and made it easy for me to avoid soda for the rest of my life. I don’t like it.
A large volume of research I have reviewed for several of the books I’ve written, 20 years of clinical practice, and personal experience convince me that taste buds are malleable little fellas: when they can’t be with a food they love, they pretty readily learn to love the food they’re with. And once they do, familiarity becomes a powerful reinforcing agent. We like what we know.
Most of the evidence I’ve encountered suggests that habituation to new and improved versions of foods and recipes can happen in as little as two weeks, or even less. And there is enormous opportunity to trade up choices within food categories, and derive stunning health benefits- acclimation, but no real heavy lifting, required.
So here’s the thing: if it takes only about two weeks to adjust to new and better foods, then what stands between us and the dietary promised land where we can all, as a matter of routine, love foods that love us back- is a hill only two weeks high. For far too long, we have been making a mountain out of this molehill!
But to climb it requires the coordinated efforts of the supply side, and the demand side. Food suppliers are right to note they can’t sell what we won’t buy! And the precautionary tales they cite- like McLean Deluxe- are valid. But, they helped create the prevailing palate, and are now profiting mightily from feeding it. They share in the responsibility of rehabilitating it, by providing reformulated products that are genuinely better for our health- not products that merely pretend to be.
Imagine a program in which the ‘taste for change’ is shared by both demand and supply. We might, for instance, develop a public service campaign to raise awareness about the adaptability of taste buds; about that two week-high hill of taste habituation; and the need to give new and better-for-us products a trial period before reaching a verdict.
If we prime the public reception, perhaps we would see robust sales. And if better-for-us products come to be preferred, it would encourage food companies to produce more of them- and less of the alternative.
True, we are genetically adapted to like sweet- along with salt, fat, calories, and variety. Predilections for all of these favored survival during the long sweep of human history before the advent of agriculture- and for some time afterward. But this is just our nature- it ignores the power of nurture! Richard Dawkins, arguably the most influential evolutionary biologist since Darwin, argues brilliantly at the close of his seminal book, The Selfish Gene, that unthinking genes got us here- but they do not control our destiny! Units of cultural transmission- units of choice- called memes can carry the day. We can make health a prevailing cultural meme by replacing our unconscious adaptations with conscious choices.
The current impasse- junky foods feeding junk-loving palates- was engineered, and can be reverse engineered. The hill is not all that high, and the prize on the other side is truly great. We can get there from here, but only if we acknowledge the interdependence of supply and demand, and share a taste for change.
Dr. David L. Katz; www.davidkatzmd.com