Thursday, August 2, 2012

One Day We Might Be Able to Have a Diet of Junk Food Without Affecting Our Health and Fitness

Whenever I hear about some new drug or technique to tackle obesity or protect us from diet-related disease I always think of the professor from Futurama. For non-Futurama fans: the professor typically begins "Good news everybody!" before announcing some incredibly sophisticated, yet crazily inappropriate invention which has either fundamentally missed some basic point or is ludicrously over-engineered.
These days there seems to be a prevailing sense that we are entitled to derive pleasure from everything we do; because of this, many people don't get the idea of permanently giving up foods they like. Instead, we encourage scientists to find professor-like solutions to what they see as the problem. "Good news everybody! Using my digesta-block-a-tron I can stop fat from being metabolised. I just install this dial in your chest and you can choose how much fat from a meal gets digested!"
The basic point apparently being missed - the elephant in the room, if you like - is that if we all stopped eating junk, we would start enjoying the basic food we currently think we are not able to enjoy and the medical problems we are spending billions trying to resolve would begin to diminish in the population. Of course I accept the near-impossibility of this - I still daydream about cakes thanks to my latent sugar addiction. We have been led by the nose into a mire of confused cravings and unclear directives from organisations with misguided and dubious agendas.
Yet it's by no means clear the scientists' intentions are quite so innocent. A cynic would say that their 'solutions' are not driven by the desire to uphold our right to enjoy our food, but by the desire for money - for them, their employers, or both. A cynic would say they are not missing the point at all - they simply don't care.
The rest of us are missing the point precisely because of the scientists and what they tell us:
Well hey, the scientists have found the problem - we just to turn off those obesity genes!
...or maybe we all just need to take some drugs like statins to prevent us getting heart disease!
...and it's not that we shouldn't eat so much sweet food - we were just sweetening it the wrong way!
...and it's not that we should eat less starchy food - we just have to remember to block its digestion using more drugs!
So imagine this: you eat a piece of chocolate cake. It looks like chocolate cake, tastes like chocolate cake and has the texture of chocolate cake. Yet when you have finished eating it, you are not left with that wired, sugar-loaded feeling, and more to the point, do not experience the sugar low 30 minutes later. The reason these expected feelings did not transpire is that it was not chocolate cake - at least not as we currently understand it. For reasons I will come onto, what you have just eaten was nutritionally equivalent to a steak of grass-fed beef, servings of carrot, broccoli and zucchini, and a handful of wild-growing berries and nuts.
There are likely to be billions of research dollars being pumped into taste research, given the potential for commercial applications. If at some point, scientists are genuinely able to create the cake described above, and if it genuinely has precisely the same impact on our bodies as the steak, vegetables, berries and nuts, would any of us still want to eat healthy food? Would the doctrine of self-discipline central to the health and fitness industry lose its meaning? If we could choose what we thought we were eating but ensure that what our bodies were getting was nutritionally optimal, would it all become too easy?
How might the scientists achieve this? What follows is educated speculation. For the purposes simplifying the discussion I talk about food as if it were made up of a homogeneous mass of the same molecule.
One possibility, and the one we are most familiar with today, is trying to find molecules that taste like one thing but are in fact another - just as we have done with artificial sweeteners. Yet the problems with this approach became evident soon after well-intentioned but deeply misguided regulatory bodies allowed them to be included in our foods.
Until now we have been less interested in what a molecule does once it has passed the taste test. Imposter molecules like Aspartame have successfully made things taste sweet, but then had other, undesirable effects. Finding a molecule that tastes like one thing but digests like another might be an approach doomed to failure. After all, our bodies are used to dealing with molecules that occur naturally in food - so unless the molecule that is digesting really is the naturally occurring one, we are back in the Aspartame situation where there are potential side effects.
Yet maybe there is a way the molecule of real food could be cloaked by another molecule, only to be released by the digestion process. The cloaking molecule has one taste, but when digestion begins it releases the molecule of genuine food. Of course for this to work, the cloaking molecule would have to be a harmless by-product. Not only that, but by changing the digestion process it's possible that however harmless the by-product of de-cloaking, something will be different. You can't fool millions of years of evolution that easily.
If there is a safe way this can be achieved, it's likely to be by going straight to the brain. We are already close to commercially available computer game controllers that use brain signals; and Sony clearly thinks there might be a future in sending signals the other way so that senses like taste can be controlled externally because it has just patented a mechanism by which this might be achieved. This is another area into which billions of research dollars must be being poured. Might the two areas of well-funded research meet?
If we can fool the brain into thinking the food has the right taste and texture then all we have to do now is make it look like the food we like - much easier. In 10 years, when the Wii comes with a standard headset for controlling games with your mind and receiving feedback from the game, could there be a 'Wii Taste' game which has an accompanying range of Nintendo foods?
If this does happen in our lifetime, what does it mean for us? Should we be glad that we can now eat junk but still have a healthy diet? Would there be a hole in the life of those who gain satisfaction from sticking to a rigorously healthy diet? Perhaps they would find other outlets for this need.
And what about our palettes? These would still face ruination with the constant barrage of junk taste, regardless of the nutritional value behind it. Perhaps this would not matter if we are free to eat junk all the time anyway -we might no longer need a sensitive palette.
However, we might not have to worry about these questions any soon, as even the Wii Foods approach may present problems. It seems that when we chew and swallow food, the body does more than just tell us how it tastes. Recent research into artificial sweeteners has linked their consumption to obesity. The theory is that the sweet taste is a cue for the digestion system to prepare to receive calories. When these calories do not materialise, those changes end up making us even hungrier than we were before.
So although this is an area that will be inevitably be pushed hard by science, in the short to medium term it is unlikely to herald a new age in which the meddling of scientists with our food and taste does not have unintended consequences. Perhaps eventually they will become such skilled manipulators of the brain and food that we will be able to enjoy virtual junk food without any adverse affects on our bodies, but in the meantime we would do well to continue our quest for self-discipline.

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