Calorie Learning: Introduction

In a series of posts, each titled Calorie Learning: [something], I’m going to use a blog to communicate self-experimentation. To see the whole series, look in the category Calorie Learning (under Self-Experimentation).

This research will be about how we (or at least I) learn to associate flavors with calories — more precisely, smells with calories. This learning is at the heart of the Shangri-La Diet, which derives from a theory that says the flavors of your food increase your set point if they are associated with calories. The stronger the association, the bigger the increase.

Why study this? 1. Maybe I can improve the diet. 2. It matters. It happens with every bit of food you eat. It controls what you eat and your appearance (assuming my theory is right). 3. Little is known about it. As I wrote in the appendix to The Shangri-La Diet, Anthony Sclafani has studied this learning extensively in rats. No one has studied it extensively in people. 4. The experiments can be simple and easy — or at least that’s what I think now.

A few weeks ago, a friend told me how much she liked those cellophane-wrapped white-bread sandwiches sold in delis and bodegas. Egg salad sandwiches, for example. They were addictive, she said. That sounded about right: White bread (and bread in general) is digested very fast, witness its very high glycemic index. Fast digestion means the calorie signal it generates in the brain overlaps a great deal with the flavor signal it generates in the brain. The more overlap of the two signals, the stronger the association created. The stronger a flavor’s association with calories, the more you like it.

Her comment gave me an idea: I can create a random new flavor by randomly combining many spices, mixing them into butter, and spreading the butter on white bread. The spices supply the flavor, which I can reproduce as often as I want by making a big enough batch of spicy butter when I start. Spice mixtures are cheap. I can easily and cheaply make a huge number of flavors that should taste entirely new. This means I can start fresh — which is where you want to start when doing a learning experiment — as often as I want. White bread is cheap, easily available, has little flavor, and provides a strong signal per calorie. If I want to increase the time between the flavor and the calories, maybe I can spread the butter on crackers, which have few calories, and eat the bread later.

Will it work? Stay tuned.

7 Replies to “Calorie Learning: Introduction”

  1. Hi Seth-
    I meant to reply to your original brandy post, but see you’re expanding on this (th/m)eme.
    Would the association be accelerated if you took flavorless calories along with the flavor? (Flax capsules, totally flavorless). Anything wrong with exaggerating the association in this way?

  2. Jeff, yes additional calories should strengthen the association.

    as for your “anything wrong?” question I don’t think I understand what might be “wrong”.

    in these experiments I will probably try flavorless calories — e.g., eating plain bread with my nose closed.

  3. This is as interesting as being an undergraduate again, at the start of a new semester, in an exciting class with a dynamic professor, sitting at the edge of my chair with sharpened pencils in both hands–without the angst. Thanks, Seth.

  4. somewhere in the Taubes tome, Taubes talks about insulin release in *anticipation* of eating. He says that if you think about eating, there is an initial release of insulin that precedes consumption and then a later release after consumption. I wonder if the initial release could be a learned effect based on what types of food you expect to eat. Taubes argues strongly that if you don’t have insulin in your system, you can’t gain or maintain fat.

  5. Exaggerating the caloric content seems like a Useful Lie, if the goal is to learn to like a food. Now how can I get my wife to like veggies? šŸ™‚ (This is a social engineering problem, she has an aversion to things that taste “green”) says – “What if you didn’t teach your toddler to eat a lot of fruits and vegetables? Is it too late? Probably.”

    The old trick of mixing veggies in with calorie-rich companions seems like it should not work if taste sensitivities are ultraspecific-

    “Creative ways to get your kids to eat more vegetables can include camouflaging them in with other foods, like chopping up and mixing vegetables in with pasta sauces, lasagna, casseroles, soup, chili, omelets, etc. or adding veggie toppings to pizza. You can even find recipes for things like banana raisin pancakes, carrot beef meatballs or zucchini cookies, that your kids might enjoy.”

  6. Hi Spacenookie,
    Taubes discusses the anticipatory release of insulin resulting from thoughts about food, or exposure to the smell of food, in the last or second-to-last chapter of his book. I just finished reading the tome last night, so this section is still quite vivid in my mind.
    Now that I’ve finished the book (one of the best books I’ve read in my lifetime — ever!), I am going to re-read Seth’s interview with Taubes. Btw, I’ve haven’t done the SLD diet in quite a while (I’m 5’11” and 142 lbs., an ideal weight for my height), but I’ve been cutting way back on carbs and increasing my intake of protein and fats, especially red meat, eggs, whole milk, and cheese. I also take 2400 mg of fish oil in capsule form daily. I can honestly say I’ve never felt better both physically AND mentally in my whole life. I just had a dentist visit two days ago and the dentist was impressed at how good my oral health was. I used to suffer have one or two cavities filled almost every year, and my gums always had swelling. My gums are doing much better and I haven’t had a cavity in almost two years.

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