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Encinitas resident Dr. Kerri Boutelle is director at the Center for Healthy Eating and Activity Research at UCSD. Photo courtesy UCSD
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Lick the Plate: The science of being a foodie

I’ve written in the past about finding a balance between being immersed in the food scene, loving to eat, staying healthy and attempting to maintain my athletic endeavors.

My very unscientific, or should I say, caveman approach had me simplifying it down to calories in versus calories out and lots of exercise.

Maybe throw in some moderation for good measure. Well, as it turns out, it’s a bit more complex than that so I tapped an Encinitas expert on the topic, Kerri Boutelle, Ph.D.

Boutelle is a professor of pediatrics and psychiatry at UCSD and director at the Center for Healthy Eating and Activity Research. She is also a senior psychologist at the UCSD Eating Disorders Program. So yeah, she is an authority on the topic — and then some — so I had a conversation with her recently to become more enlightened on this fascinating topic.

First off, tell me a bit about your background and how it led to the very interesting work you do.

I’ve always been interested in working with food.  I have a degree in food science and nutrition, and worked in the food industry for a number of years before going to graduate school for clinical psychology.  My background and interests were a natural fit for specializing in the treatment of obesity and eating disorders.

Let’s get right into the good stuff. Your scientific research has revealed some techniques that could help people eat less of the delicious foods they crave. Do tell!

We know that “craving” comes from specific systems in the brain, called reward centers.  For some people, food cues (i.e. McDonald’s golden arches, smelling Cinnabon in the mall) are more likely to drive them to eat than others.  One way to eat less is to eat in response to hunger. Biological hunger is different than cravings. Biological hunger (stomach rumbling, lightheadedness) is what we call true hunger; cravings are head hunger. Cravings are driven by wanting the food, not actual physical hunger. Additionally, we have developed ways of training people to resist these cravings, and just have a bite of dessert rather than eat the whole thing.

Foodie culture is very prevalent and growing more so daily. You mentioned that there are actually foodie eating habits that help folks not eat as much. I really need to know what this is all about. 

There are a few good tricks to eat less.  1) Do not have the food in front of you, which is difficult in today’s American lifestyle.  2) Eat high fiber, low calorie foods before a meal.  This allows you to feel more full going into the meal. Drinking water before a meal can also result in eating less.  3) Rate your hunger on a scale of one to five, with five being “Thanksgiving full” and one being “haven’t eaten for five-plus hours.” Eat when you are a two or three, and stop when they are a four because it takes 20 minutes for the brain to register how full it is.  4) Eat slower.  Slow eating is a good strategy for eating less, so the fullness registers with your brain.

Why is it that calorie dense foods like most fast food, have cut off our natural regulatory mechanisms for food leading us to crave them so much? 

There is animal data that high carbohydrate, high saturated fat (think donuts) foods impact the functioning of a part of the brain called the hippocampus, which plays a role in hunger and satiety.  If the hippocampus is damaged, then it will be difficult for someone to feel full, and not crave foods.  Food becomes harder to resist.

You told me about something called mindful eating and how it is a good way to lead healthier lives. What exactly is mindful eating?

Mindful eating refers to slowing down, and paying attention to what you eat.  Research shows that distraction (i.e. watching TV, eating quickly) can lead to increased caloric intake.  Paying attention to each bite, how it tastes, what the mouth feels, and how full you feel after each bite, will allow your brain to feel more full. Turning off screens (TV, phone etc.) is important for mindful eating.

OK, here is the money question, is it possible to be a healthy foodie?

Totally.  Moderation is truly the key.  Having foods that are yummy, but less healthy, is totally fine.  But taking it to a level where you gain weight and eat too much is not healthy.

With all this focus on healthy living, I’m hoping you give yourself a bit of room for indulgence. What are your guilty pleasures?

Chocolate.  I absolutely love chocolate, any time of the day especially dark chocolate covered almonds.

Favorite places to eat in North County?

I love Jorge’s tortilla soup, and the Roxie’s salads.  I also love Georges at the Cove.

How can people find out more about your work?

They can go to our website at the UCSD Center for Healthy Eating and Activity Research:

David Boylan is the founder of Artichoke Creative an Encinitas based integrated marketing firm. He also hosts Lick the Plate Radio that airs Monday through Friday at 7 p.m. on FM94/9, Easy 98.1, and KSON. Reach him at [email protected] or (858) 395-6905.