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Column: Humans get more nutrition from tastier food

’Tis the season. Those who are dear to us gather near to us to feast, share and converse. We assemble around the groaning board, and retire from it, groaning, “I couldn’t eat another thing.


’Tis the season. Those who are dear to us gather near to us to feast, share and converse. We assemble around the groaning board, and retire from it, groaning, “I couldn’t eat another thing.”

But when they pass around the coffee and the pumpkin pie, we gather our resources, loosen our belts one more notch and manage one more bite.

The sharing of food and drink, and the celebration of plenty, are integral to our social and cultural life. At this time of the year, in this part of the world, turkey and some mistletoe truly bind us together.

Sharing food and eating together creates and reinforces kinship connections. It represents common culture. It is a cornerstone of hospitality. In other cultures and other times, hospitality is a sacred covenant: Denying or betraying a guest or host invites the wrath of gods.

Here and now, the stakes are lower. Instead of being struck by lightning or turned into a toad for being inhospitable, you risk being struck from someone’s A-list and having to make your own arrangements for subsequent celebrations.

“Party of one, Miss Piggy?”

Enjoyment of food appears to affect how well a body absorbs food nutrients. When Scandinavian scientists served curried rice and vegetables to Thai and Swedish women, the researchers found that the Thai subjects absorbed more iron from the food than did the Swedish women, who reported finding the dish overly spicy. Yet when the researchers fed meals of hamburger, green beans and mashed potatoes to the two groups, the Swedes absorbed more iron.

Things got particularly interesting when the two groups were fed meals identical to each of the dishes above except for one key element. After each meal was prepared, it was puréed into mash, then served. Both groups absorbed fewer nutrients from the pablum than from either of the previous meals.

Attractively prepared and presented food causes the brain to trigger the release of gastric juices, announced the scientists.

And those of us who slaver after visions of sugarplums rolled our eyes.

Delicious-looking food whets our appetite, wets our mouths and makes our stomachs growl? Chefs, cooks and food stylists have known that forever. Tell us something we don’t know.

But the researchers connected the Pavlovian response to nutrition. Those gastric juices in mouth and stomach that start flowing at the sight, taste, even thought of yummy goodness aid digestion and nutrient absorption.

And now, with the help of functional magnetic-resonance imaging, we can trace what happens inside Homer Simpson’s head when he confronts doughnuts. He sees them. The visual signal goes from the eyes to the visual cortex. The brain matches the mind-image of doughnuts to images and emotions stored in his brain’s memory regions: “Mmmm … doughnuts.” Then — bingo! — his brain’s dopamine-producing reward centres light up and have a rip-roaring hootenanny. This signals glands in the mouth and stomach to anticipate the feast to come. They secrete digestive acids and enzymes.

At which point, Homer reaches out and stuffs a doughnut or six into his fried-dough hole. At least, that’s roughly how it would work if Homer’s brain resembled ours.

But it makes sense. If you have to force yourself to choke down a morsel over a gag reflex, your mouth is decidedly not watering and the mouthful isn’t going down easily. You’re also going to eat less and more slowly.

It also explains the regrettable relationship between chocolate and my waistline. My body absorbs every last nutrient nano-particle out of each rich, dark, delectable bonbon I nibble.

So I load up on wholesome fruit and veg and fibre. Except at this time of year. This week, I am bound by the sacred rules of hospitality to fit in turkey and trimmings, to provide witty and thoughtful repartee over eggnog and figgy pudding, to gamely go a-wassailling, and to bolster and reciprocate kinship ties with friends and family.

Or risk being struck by lightning.

It is indeed a wonderful life.

Happy, appetizing season’s feasting to you.