Diets Don’t Work, But Not For the Reason You Think

Are things that taste better better for you? Canadian journalist Mark Schatzker investigates the connection between flavour and nutrition in The Dorito Effect

dorito effect diet

(Simon & Schuster, $32.50)

The inability to shift those last five pounds is not simply a failure of willpower; the problem may lay with food itself, suggests Mark Schatzker in his new book, The Dorito Effect: The Surprising New Truth About Food and Flavor (Simon & Schuster, $32.50).

According to Schatzker, efficiency-driven agricultural practices have made whole foods blander and less tasty, which makes them less likely to be eaten and enjoyed. Tomatoes and chicken are cited as the most obvious examples of two formerly delicious foodstuffs that now have little resemblance to their mouthwatering forebears. Complicating matters is the fact that at the same time junk and processed food companies have amped up the flavour of their products through artificial means.

But here’s the real kicker—it turns out that whole foods aren’t just blander today; they’re less nutritious, too. Flavour, it turns out, is intimately connected to nutritional value.

“Flavour is our way of sensing nutrients in food,” says Schatzker. “If you smell a peach or a tomato, you’re picking up sensory information about it.” The most delicious-tasting tomato, he says, is also going to be the most nutritious and vice versa.

Related: What Healthy People Really Eat for Lunch

Food companies eager to move product have manipulated that inherent flavour-brain communication system. They’ve flavoured and enhanced high-calorie, sugar-trap junk foods—making “grape-flavoured” pop, for example–to make them more enticing to our flavour-seeking brains. But unfortunately, there’s no way to make grape-flavoured pop as inherently healthful as a grape.

“You’re not getting the nutrients that are promised by the flavour,”says Schatzker. Instead, you’re getting tricked. “We’ve created food that you might say tells a thrilling very deceptive nutritional lie.”

The dilemma for the health conscious is clear: How to eat a healthy, delicious diet in a world of bland whole foods and hyper-delicious junk food? Schatzker offers this three-point plan:

Eat like the animal you are Stop eating like someone who wants to lose weight, i.e., restrictively, and make flavour your health focus. Real flavour (versus the “natural” flavours concocted in a lab) is a sign that all of that good stuff—including vitamins and minerals—is present. So, if you’re eating a delicious peach, you’re eating wisely and joyfully. In short, give up on the idea that eating healthfully means eliminating deliciousness.

If you’re going to eliminate anything from your diet, make it junk food and and anything else that’s supercharged with “natural” and artificial flavours, says Schatzker.

Re-train your palate Kicking your gummy bear habit or fancy sugar-laden yogurt addiction will take time. But the first step in that journey begins by eating really yummy foods that taste like they should: “Look for carrots that taste really carrot-y, look for tomatoes that taste really tomato-y.”

That doesn’t mean you have to spend half your paycheque at Whole Foods, though. With some exceptions, organic items don’t necessarily taste significantly better than those you find at a farmer’s market or specialty grocery store. “If you take one of those cardboard chickens and tomatoes and raise it organically, it’s not going to taste significantly better,” he says. But it may mean you adopt a more seasonal approach to eating because really delicious produce doesn’t exist all year long in most cases.

Part of re-training your palate includes taking pleasure in food. “Good food shouldn’t be boring. Don’t shy away from indulgences. If you’re going to have a dinner party, roast a duck, make a steak, make mashed potatoes with butter,” says Schatzker. “It’s when you get into essentially fake food that you get yourself into a bad area.”

Become a flavour hunter Spend a bit more time searching for flavourful whole foods and spend a few extra bucks to enjoy it. You’ll eat less of it and gain greater health rewards. Comb farmer’s markets and specialty grocery stores, Google or get to know a few foodies who can tell you where to find the best produce, the tastiest heritage pork or poultry, etc, and the most divine heirloom tomatoes.

This kind of consumer activity may over time instigate the wholesale change needed to restore flavour to whole foods and, by extension, make eating healthfully way more pleasurable.

Schatzker believes consumer demand is necessary to make the changes needed and he’s encouraged by the increasing popularity of farmer’s markets as well as healthful food trends. On the bright side, he notes, “We’re eating millions of pounds of kale!”

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