Toronto author Mark Schatzker’s new book is the rare title on diet and nutrition that delivers good news – and a welcome prescription. In The End of Craving: Recovering the Lost Wisdom of Eating Well, the award-winning writer argues that we can trust our bodies to make wise nutritional choices, and that instead of obsessively counting calories we should simply focus on eating delicious, unprocessed foods. Here he talks to The Globe about how he arrived at that conclusion.
What is the “lost wisdom of eating well,” and what set you on the path of investigating it?
Think of that statement, “If it tastes good, spit it out”; that was [nutritionist] Jack LaLanne. That neatly encapsulates our fear and our mistrust of pleasure and a belief that our inclinations, our urges, are anarchic, and need to be controlled and suppressed. I think there’s also the idea that we’ve lost the ability to eat nutritiously. Because obviously the epidemic of obesity is a very pressing health concern. My sense from all the books I’ve written, starting with Steak, is that we’re getting it completely wrong, in that we think somehow pleasure and health are directly at odds with each another. From a very simple evolutionary point of view, how could this make sense? How could we have evolved to want to kill ourselves by attempting to nourish ourselves? So that’s really the starting point.
You write in The End of Craving that we believe that “food itself is to blame.” You look back at history – when did North America start thinking like this?
I trace it to the epidemic of pellagra, which began in Europe hundreds of years ago. It showed up in North America, I think it was 1901 in Georgia. It was believed to have been an infectious disease and it was treated as such. It appeared to be an epidemic that was expanding, growing state by state. Eventually an epidemiologist named Joseph Goldberger discerned that it had to do with diet. This led to the discovery of niacin - vitamin B3. Also, generally the discovery that food contains micronutrients, which was an expansion of our understanding of how food works. We did, in North America, what you think makes sense: We said if people are not getting enough niacin and it’s killing them, let’s just put niacin in the food supply. Which we did. And we basically made it law that we had to start adding B vitamins – riboflavin, niacin and thiamine, along with the mineral iron – to milled carbohydrates. Bread, flour, corn flour. It worked extremely well. Pellagra was wiped out almost overnight.
You also look at how Italy approached pellagra.
Italy took a totally different approach, one that seems baffling given our nutritional, scientific point of view. They said things like the poor should have access to rabbit meat because rabbits are cheap to raise. They even said people should drink wine if they have pellagra, which sounds bizarre but actually was good advice because the wine back then contained a lot of yeast, which had a lot of niacin in it. So, Italy eats its way out of a nutritional epidemic. And one hundred years later, these two regions could not be more different. The pellagra belt [in the Southern United States] became the obesity belt, whereas Northern Italy has a world-famous diet. They are food obsessive, and they relish and enjoy eating. Yet their rate of obesity is less than 8 per cent, whereas the United States is 42 per cent and Canada [according to self-reported data] is 26 per cent .
What conclusions to you draw from that?
The thing that is so interesting is the cultural difference. We in North America looked at pellagra and we saw the problem as being food. That food was, by its very nature, incomplete. That we didn’t know how to feed ourselves. So, we fixed the food. But we also carried with that the idea that we need knowledge of nutrition, that we need to guide our own eating with scientific knowledge. We think of eating, of tasting food, as some sort of primitive claptrap that we have to overcome. Italy saw food not as the problem, but as the cure. To them, pellagra was very simply a disease of poverty, and the solution was access to better food. One hundred years later, their relationship with food is far less scientific … and much healthier and much more enjoyable.
What’s the main thing that’s wrong with our food in North America?
The idea that obesity is caused by an excess of pleasure, and a hyperpalatable food supply – I think that gets it wrong. What we see when we look at brain scans of people with obesity, it’s not that they enjoy food more, it’s that they want it more. What I looked at is how we’ve changed the sensory properties of food. A good example is artificial sweeteners, which create the sensation of sweet without delivering the calories. What the science is telling us is that the way food tastes is not some frivolous pleasure disconnected from nutrition; it’s an essential part of how the brain understands food, and it guides metabolism. When you start to monkey around with that, you can disrupt metabolism. In the longer term what happens is you create is an uncertainty response in the brain. Sweetness always equalled calories. But now those cues have become a maybe. And the way the brain responds to uncertainty is an excess of motivation. It works harder to get the reward.
You write that “the brain is a more intelligent eater than we are capable of comprehending.” What is the path forward - how do we recover health and well-being?
The important thing, first of all, is to stop thinking we can control our appetite, that we can decide how many calories we’re going to eat the same way that we might decide what pair of shoes to put on in the morning. It’s not under executive control. It’s guided by a deeper part of the brain. When you eat and taste food, you experience pleasure. But part of what you’re experiencing is a nutritional computation taking place in the brain. What we have to do is to eat food the way food was meant to be eaten: without fear or guilt, and with pleasure. And eat real food. Eat as the Italians do. Each meal is an opportunity to indulge in the goodness that nature has given to us. What we need to do is stop altering food.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
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