Exploring the links between pleasure in food and healthy eating habits


Last month, a symposium was held in Paris to tackle the common prejudice which holds that pleasure in food and good health do not really mix. Organised by Chaire ANCA (the AgroParisTech Chair for Food Science, Nutrition and Eating Behaviour, supported by Danone Nutricia Research), the event brought together an international, multidisciplinary panel of researchers and experts to prove that, yes, healthy food can be a source of enjoyment!


There is a common tendency to oppose pleasure in eating and health. But if we are to come up with actions that effectively improve health, we need to put diet back at the centre of our approach to nutrition. (…) It is crucial to factor in the notion of pleasure when we work on nutrition.” Nicolas Darcel is in charge of Chaire ANCA (the Chair for Food Science, Nutrition and Eating Behaviour of AgroParisTech, the Paris Institute of Technology for Life, Food and Environmental Science, which is supported by Danone Nutricia Research). To address the prejudice he is talking about – that pleasure and healthy nutrition do not mix -, Chaire Anca organised a symposium on the issue on December 17th, in Paris. The event brought together an international, multidisciplinary panel of researchers and experts who shared their work on the link between pleasure, eating habits and health. As Danone Nutricia Research Nutrition Director Nicolas Gausserès explained, there is an important issue for his teams: to know how pleasure can be used as a lever to foster the adoption of balanced diets. This is why Danone Nutricia Research, through Chaire Anca, is taking its thinking about pleasure in food to the next level, notably with this symposium: the first of its kind.


Enjoying food is not just about taste


The day was divided into three main sections, each developing a different aspect of the relationship between nutrition and pleasure. The first section focused on how enjoying food is not limited to sensory experiences during consumption.

Edmund T. Rolls, from the Oxford Centre for Computational Neuroscience and the Department of Computer Science at the University of Warwick, explained how the circuits of reward, wanting and liking are formed and work in the brain. In other words, how each brain constructs a different representation of “the reward value of food”. For instance, “reward systems respond more to the sight and flavour of chocolate in chocolate cravers than in non-cravers.” Taste is not just a matter of taste buds: it is built up through experience in our very neurological systems.

Jay Gottfried, Associate Professor of Neurology and Psychology at Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine, specified how the sense of smell influences behaviour, which is shaped in the long run through learning and experience.

He explored the “emotional potency of smells” in particular.

Then Suzanne Higgs from the University of Birmingham’s School of Psychology detailed how “cognition modulates our food preferences, built from experience.” She emphasised that « liking » expectations are modifiable, and that memories, the tastes of others around us and social stereotypes greatly influence our preferences. “As a result, there are wide individual differences in the appetitive and consumption responses to foodstuffs.” Further evidence that pleasure is not strictly related to taste, and that our environment influences the brain’s responses to food.


Pleasure influences eating behaviours


As a result, pleasure can be a key driver for eating behaviours. This idea was explored in the second section of the symposium.

Olivier Trendel, a lecturer in Marketing, Consumer Science and Food Preferences at EM Grenoble, explained how our attraction to certain foodstuffs – what he calls “implicit attitudes” – is a mix of affective elements (such as tastiness) and cognitive ones (for instance, healthiness). He notably established that the more importance we give to cognitive factors, the more likely we are to choose food according to affective elements. “Higher dietary concern increases the influence of affective implicit attitudes on choice.” Which would explain why people who are on a diet tend to express a stronger desire for unhealthy food than “unrestrained eaters”. This preference is a construct: insisting more on pleasure and taste and a little less on health benefits could prove a good lever for promoting balanced diets.

Sophie Nicklaus, from the Centre des Sciences du Goût et de l’Alimentation at the Université de Bourgogne, focused more specifically on how pleasure influences the development of eating behaviours during childhood. “Very few likes and dislikes are inborn, except the enjoyment of sweetness: food preferences are learned, essentially during the first years of life.

Eating habits established in these early years will contribute to the development of subsequent eating habits.

She stressed that pleasure is central in this early stage, since cognitive drivers of food choices are less prominent at that point.


Pleasure and health can walk hand in hand


Finally, the third section asked what conditions are necessary for pleasure to drive healthy eating habits.

Pierre Chandon, Professor of Marketing, and Yan Cornil, a PhD student in Marketing, both from INSEAD (France), talked about the connection between pleasure and moderation. “According to prevailing wisdom, pleasure is the enemy of healthy eating, and dieting should therefore limit sensory imagery and expectations of pleasure to help people choose smaller portions, even at the cost of lowering the pleasure of eating.” They refuted that idea, arguing that “enhanced sensory imagery can make people prefer smaller portions of hedonic food.”

In other words, pleasure can lead to moderation.

Simone Pettigrew, from the School of Business and the School of Sport Science, Exercise and Health at the University of West Australia, focused on the use of social marketing to promote healthy eating habits. Social marketing takes into account factors such as “preference and price sensitivity (downstream factors), family meal rituals and school and workplace food provisions (midstream factors), and the distribution of supermarkets and restaurants in the local vicinity (upstream factors).” This holistic approach can be powerful in supporting healthier food choices, every step of the way.

Daniel Tomé, from the Department of Life Science and Health, Nutrition Physiology and Ingestive Behaviour at AgroParisTech, concluded by explaining how matching physiological and metabolic needs can be a source of pleasure. Drawing on the idea that “food choices are guided primarily by automatic emotional processes and strongly involve learning and memory,” he talked about the educational work that needs to be carried out on how pleasure in eating can be combined with healthy food choices. He also insisted on the importance of social interactions during meals, because pleasure is also a matter of context.


At the end of the day, we had a more accurate idea of how pleasure in food functions, and subsequently how it could be more efficiently linked with healthy choices. There is absolutely no contradiction between health, moderation and pleasure. This is good news for all the people out there who want to change their habits, but are afraid of losing some of the pleasures of life along the way.


Photo © Dimedrol68

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