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In March I did a quick video introducing Seth Roberts, a Berkeley psychologist, and his interesting theory known as the flavor-calorie association theory of body weight set point regulation. I also mentioned Roberts’s pioneering work in 180 Degree Metabolism ? in the lengthy discussion about the going theories on what causes leptin resistance and a rise in set point.

I am still incredibly captivated by this theory, and really struggle to find loopholes and flaws in it. It’s come to the forefront recently as I have experienced a tremendous anorectic (hunger-suppressing) effect from eating a high-starch/low-fat diet, which contains much lower flavor intensity (it’s bland as hell) and much lower calorie density (8 pounds of potatoes contain the same amount of calories as 1 pound of butter, for example) ? both prominent factors in the creation of flavor-calorie associations that increase hunger and lower metabolism. These, of course, are telltale signs of an increase in bodyweight set point. I, on the other hand, have experienced a big decrease in appetite and a rise in metabolism ? down 5 pounds in the first 27 days of July.

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Here are the prime factors in the flavor-calorie theory, which explains numerous diets all under one umbrella?

1.) Calorie density ? the more calorie-dense a food is, the more it triggers an activation of reward centers in the brain and a mysterious rise in weight set point.

2.) Absorption rate ? the faster a food is absorbed, the stronger the flavor-calorie association and the larger the rise in the activation of reward centers in the brain and a rise in set point that occurs when these pleasure centers are tickled.

3.) Flavor-intensity ? the more highly-flavored the food is, the more it raises set point

4.) Food familiarity ? the more you eat ditto foods with a strong flavor-calorie association (like, say, Cool Ranch Doritos), the more you start to prefer those foods, the stronger the flavor-calorie association becomes, and the more fattening those foods become.

5.) Liquid vs. Solid ? Liquids, in general, promote stronger flavor-calorie associations and are more fattening than solid foods ? raising the set point.

There is ample evidence supporting all of these arms of the flavor-calorie association hypothesis. Of course, what I just described is the food produced by food companies ? packaged/processed foods, fast food, and other restaurant food. This is something that anyone with personal experience and the eyes to see can observe. Most don’t develop severe weight problems eating homemade, solid, unsweetened, unrefined food with a low calorie density and no added flavor enhancers. Most who do develop weight problems do so by repeatedly eating specific foods that are scientifically-designed to outcompete other foods in activating reward centers in your brain and creating strong flavor-calorie associations that make plain food increasingly unpalatable and undesirable.

Food companies have this down to a science ? serving up food that is designed to be masticated and absorbed more quickly, enhanced with MSG and other flavor enhancers, and washed down with a highly-sweetened beverage in liquid form, sometimes sweetened with Aspartame or other highly-sweetened substance that causes a stronger flavor-calorie association and an increase in bodyweight set point.

The reasons why I find this theory to be so compelling:

1) Humans are the only creatures that have the intelligence to specifically manipulate their food in such a way (combining certain ingredients, cooking, adding spices, chemical flavor enhancers). The only creatures that eat food that comes in such a package are humans and their pets, the only creatures on earth that suffer from obesity (and giant squirrels and chipmunks that are fed this food by humans).

2) In simple laboratory studies, feeding a highly-sweetened substance like Saccharin, an artificial sweetener with no calories, increases food consumption and body weight. According to Roberts’s theory, you would also see artificially-sweetened beverages consumed by themselves as opposed to with a big calorie?load in a mixed meal NOT be fattening or induce greater calorie consumption, which may indeed be true.

3) In simple laboratory studies, feeding more liquid calories and fewer solid food calories increases calorie consumption and body weight. For example, feeding sucrose in granulated form is not fattening. Feeding sucrose as part of a liquid solution is very fattening.

4) High-fructose corn syrup, which is a liquid and is also sweeter than sucrose due to its higher concentration of fructose, is markedly more fattening than white sugar.

5) The strongest association between obesity and food is the association between obesity and soft drinks, highly-sweetened, rapidly-absorbed, liquid food that tastes exactly the same every time you drink it.

6) Lab animals that are fed ?chow,? which, because it is more palatable than fat, carbohydrate, and protein separated into different bowls, causes the lab animals to become fatter and maintain a higher weight set point than controls. When the controls are switched to chow, they do not gain weight, suggesting that flavor-calorie associations that affect bodyweight set point occur in youth to a greater degree than adulthood (perhaps a reason why Granny can eat all kinds of things without getting fat that make YOU blow up like a balloon).

7) Feeding humans less calorie-dense foods, such as a diet high in fiber and water content from fruit, vegetables, and unrefined starches causes a massive decrease in calorie consumption ? up to an instant 40% decrease with no decrease in satiation reported (from Burkitt et. al.’s Western Disease).

8) Diets that are sweetened vs. diets that are unsweetened are much more fattening and promote greater calorie intake.

9) Refined carbohydrates, which are more calorie-dense and more rapidly absorbed tend to increase calorie intake and body fat, whereas unrefined carbohydrate diets have the opposite effect.

10) Low-carbohydrate diets are comprised of foods that are not particularly palatable, and typically decrease appetite and body weight.

11) Low-carb diets that contain artificial sweeteners often negate the hunger-suppression and weight loss effect of a low-carb diet. Even Atkins reported this, and advised those who weren’t losing weight to make sure they excluded aspartame from their diets.

12) Displacing more homecooked food, which generally has low flavor-intensity, natural flavor variability, slow absorption, and less calorie-density with packaged, processed, refined, rapidly-absorbed, chemical flavor-enhanced ditto foods and restaurant foods parallels a huge rise in obesity. It’s reported that calorie intake per capita has increased 20% in the United States since the early 70’s.

13) Obesity was unheard of in all places in which unrefined carbohydrates were ingested as opposed to refined carbohydrates.

14) There are strong associations between obesity and the flavor enhancer MSG.

I could go on for a while here, but that is a good starting point. Ideally we would all be able to raise body temperature without any increase in body weight. Instead, this could be achieved by lowering body weight set point. Of course, lowering the weight set point is easier said than done, and is, as I discussed in my conversation with Sean Croxton last night, perhaps the most important secret yet to be revealed.

But I do find this theory to be solid and applicable. Those attempting to lose weight may find much better success?

– eating almost exclusively homecooked whole foods

-cooking differently each time or with the addition of different spice combinations to reduce flavor-calorie associations

-eating lots of food that is not calorie dense ? like root vegetables and vegetables

-avoiding all liquid calories

-eating foods that require lots of chewing

-keeping fat intake reasonable (which decreases flavor-calorie associations), and being wary about foods with strong flavor-calorie associations where fat and carbohydrate are conjoined and in ditto form ? pizza, ice cream, fast food, chips, cookies, etc.

-keeping sweets to a minimum, especially when combined with a calorie-dense meal. Fruit, which has a very low-calorie density, eaten by itself, does NOT form strong flavor-calorie associations. When consumed with a high-calorie load after a mixed meal, I find fruit to be very fattening, and juices even more so, which would be expected if Roberts’s theory is accurate.

-not seasoning foods too heavily

For more on Seth’s theory, read the Shangri-La Diet or Seth’s free report here:

http://sethroberts.net/about/whatmakesfoodfattening.pdf