Thursday, 4 August 2011


“The reason fat people are happy is that their nerves are well protected.” - Luciano Pavarotti

Well, that was the end of our unseasonal Spring weather! This evening after a spectacular sunset through curtains of rain and shifting clouds we welcomed back Winter, which is here to give us a cold and wet weekend. All the more timely then is some research that seems to point out that comfort food seems to improve our mood. Apparently, we get an emotional high when we consume fatty foods…

Belgian researchers in the University of Leuven, led by Dr. Lukas Van Oudenhove have recently shown that fatty foods help eaters to cope with unpleasant and depressing events in their lives by decreasing the degree of sadness that the consumers of these foods felt. The results of this study were published online in The Journal of Clinical Investigation.  In this series of experiments, the researchers recruited 12 healthy non-obese people and performed functional magnetic resonance imaging of the brain, before and during the infusion of a fat preparation or alternatively a weakly salty solution into their stomachs (without telling the subjects which solution they were receiving). In addition, the participants were asked to listen to sad or neutral music or view pictures of sad or neutral faces.

Hearing sad music or looking at people with glum faces lowers the mood across the board. Before and during the imaging of the brain, the participants were asked to rate their hunger and mood. The researchers found that the participants that had received the fat were less than half as sad as the participants that received the saline infusion. The authors stated:

“We demonstrated, for what we believe to be the first time in humans, that a purely interoceptive, subliminal appetitive stimulus (intragastric fatty acid infusion in the fasted state) interacts with an exteroceptively generated negative emotional state, at both the behavioral and neural level. More specifically, fatty acid infusion attenuated both the behavioral and neural responses to sad emotion induction”.

That is, eating fat seems to make us less vulnerable to sad emotions, even if we don’t know that we are eating fatty foods. This is quite amazing, because it is not the actual pleasant taste and texture of the fatty food that seems to have this beneficial effect on our brain and emotions, but rather the chemical effect of the fat molecules themselves when they enter the stomach (and then via the blood, into the brain). The gut “talks” to the brain, or so it seems!

The exact mechanism of these results is not known but they do suggest that there is a normal, physiological response that regulates food intake, hunger, and our emotional state.  Future studies are planned, which will focus on working out the exact mechanism and may help in the treatment of obesity, eating disorders and even depression.

Now, some other research conducted at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine at Yeshiva University in New York has been looking at the brains of dieters. Apparently, if you starve yourself the brain cells are forced to atrophy away and be cannibalised by surviving brain cells. This is a last ditch effort to survive and use body parts as a source of energy to ward off the effects of starvation.

Results published in the journal “Cell Metabolism”, show that the body responds to starvation by producing fatty acids, which, in turn, ramp up the hunger response in the brain increasing our impulse to eat. Experiments conducted on mice found that by blocking this mechanism of autophagy or self-cannibalisation, it was possible to prevent the feelings of hunger. Dr Rajat Singh, the lead researcher, said that:

“A pathway that is really important for every cell to turn over components in a kind of housekeeping process is also required to regulate appetite. Treatments aimed at the pathway might make you less hungry and burn more fat, a good way to maintain energy balance in a world where calories are cheap and plentiful.”

The moral of the story is eat what you enjoy and eat a balanced diet, but do not overeat. There is a place for fat in our diet, as there is a place for sugar and dairy, for fruits, vegetables, pulses, and cereals, for seafood and meat. However, quantity is the key to success. As my grandfather used to say:

“When you are sitting down at table to eat your meal, you should feel hungry. Then, eat only as much as will only just satisfy your hunger, no more. If you left the table and you were invited to eat again, there should be space enough in your stomach to eat again, but of course you should not do that, because you’re no longer hungry!”

(photo courtesy of @drummeler)


  1. "Fatty foods help eaters to cope with unpleasant and depressing events in their lives by decreasing the degree of sadness that the consumers of these foods felt".

    That makes sense at a physiological level, as you described - the chemical effect of the fat molecules themselves when they enter the stomach.

    But I always feel there is a psychological level as well. Eating comfort or nursery food seems to take us back to primary school days when life was trouble-free. Mum could be relied on to serve up delicious fish and chips :)

  2. I like the Greek approach: Moderation in all things -- including moderation.

    And it is wise to remember that a balanced diet is not achieved in every meal but over a period of time. You don't need to eat it all at once.

    I frankly feel most of the overeating today is because of all the artificial stuff we take in so we won't have high blood sugar or high cholesterol. If you want sugar and get only artificial stuff your body still wants the sugar.

    Pay attention to what your body wants and you will eat less.

  3. Well now I have an excuse and I am sticking to it! It's all scientifically proven!