Can We Make Low-Fat Foods More Palatable?

August 1, 1997

Why we like--and eat--fatty foods was the focus of an address by Dr. Adam Drewnowski, PhD, University of Michigan School of Public Health, at a symposium, "Reducing Dietary Fat: Putting Theory Into Practice," held last December in New

Why we like--and eat--fatty foods was the focus of an address by Dr.Adam Drewnowski, PhD, University of Michigan School of Public Health, ata symposium, "Reducing Dietary Fat: Putting Theory Into Practice,"held last December in New York City. "Fat is responsible for the textures,aromas, and flavors that make food taste good," said Dr. Drewnowski." Fat makes food creamy, allows it to retain moistness and gives itgood heat transfer properties--all of which contribute to creating thecalorie-dense foods people love to eat," he added. Until recently,however, the biological basis for the appeal of fat was unclear.

Naloxone and Food Craving

In a study funded by the National Institute for Drug Abuse, Dr. Drewnowski,professor of environmental and industrial health, and colleagues attemptedto isolate the craving for sweet and high-fat foods by administering theopiate blocker naloxone (Narcan) to 20 binge-eaters and 20 nonbingers,some of normal weight and some overweight. According to the "opiate"hypothesis of this study, the craving for food may be linked to stress.Researchers found that pleasure in food is mediated by opioid peptides,leading many people to reach for sweets to alleviate stress.

Said Dr. Drewnowski: "Naloxone lowered both the bingers' and nonbingers'consumption of Snickers bars, cookies, M&Ms, and chocolates, whileit increased their intake of bland foods. We think that naloxone workedby reducing the overeating induced by taste, that is, by pleasure."In the study, naloxone's blocking action most strongly affected women whosaid they were addicted to chocolate.

Socioeconomic Factors

Socioeconomic factors also affect the kind and amount of food a personconsumes. By examining world-wide population data from 1969-1994, Dr. Drewnowskidemonstrated that the makeup of a country's diet changes as its gross domesticproduct (GDP) rises. As a country becomes richer, its people graduallyincrease their intake of meat, milk, sugar, and eggs and eat less grains,potatoes, and complex carbohydrates. Said Dr. Drewnowski: "Among developedcountries, greater variety in the diet leads to an increase in the consumptionof fat."

Long-term data for Japan, for example, showed that between 1955 and1990 (parallel with Japan's economic growth), the Japanese ate more dairyproducts, meats, fruits, vegetables, eggs, fats and oils and smaller amountsof complex carbohydrates. Yet, despite the steady increase, the rate ofconsumption of fatty foods in Japan was still lower than that in the UnitedStates, noted Dr. Drewnowski. With the richer diet and an increase in lifeexpectancy, the populations of developed countries reflect a growth inthe number of cases of obesity, cancer , and coronary heart disease. Dr.Drewnowski emphasizes that one's "diet is intricately tied to thechronic diseases one suffers, with richer countries registering higherdeath rates from cancer and cardiovascular disease." Cancer, he believes,is even more closely linked to diet than heart disease.

In underdeveloped countries, data show that there is also a shift toa more harmful diet, with a sharp increase in the consumption of locally-produced,high-fat soybean products and other oils. For these countries, a rise indiseases induced by higher fat intake could prove disastrous in light oftheir often inadequate medical facilities.

Yet, says Dr. Drewnowski: "We should not expect people to eliminatecertain foods from their diets; it just isn't going to happen." Hesuggests instead that the food industry begin a significant drive to providea wide variety of enjoyable low-fat, low-sugar foods. Reducing the amountof fat we eat and lowering the energy of our diets does not have to meanwe are consigned to a life of eating without pleasure.