Enjoying food more: a case study in third options

by MBlume2 min read16th Mar 201148 comments


Personal Blog

This was originally going to be a comment on Zvi's excellent "How I Lost 100 Pounds Using TDT", but it ran rather long, so I expanded it to a top-level post. Hope no one minds.

The issue I took with Zvi's post was that there seemed to be a general assumption being made -- not just in the post, but in comments -- about improvements in health outcomes coming from sacrifices in food-related hedonic outcomes. This would make sense if we were all on some efficient frontier between nutrition and enjoyment of food. I think for most of us1 this is blatantly false.

So then, here are three steps aimed simply towards enjoying food more.2 Eat better food. Eat food you actually like. Pay attention when you eat. These steps may themselves mildly improve your health outcomes, but they are intended primarily to help you enjoy food. You can of course combine them with efficient trades between hedons and nutrition, and wind up doing drastically better for both.

Step one: Eat better food.

If you have spare time, learn to cook. Consider reading, among other things, Alicorn's very fine food blog (which she should update more, nudge nudge). If you have spare money, eat at nicer restaurants from time to time. Explore what's available in your city, and try to learn what you like.3

Learn what flavors you like. Eat less bland cheeses. Eat less bland meats. Learn about herbs and spices.

Step two: Eat more of what you actually like and less of what you suddenly want.

Liking is different from wanting. Sometimes you'll find yourself desperately wanting -- say -- a bag of cheetos. So you'll go right ahead and scarf down that bag of cheetos, and -- gosh dangit -- it won't actually be that satisfying at all. Pay attention to these experiences. Say to your brain next time "I know you want me to grab the bag of cheetos, but the record suggests that you're not going to release that much of a pleasure response when I do. Try not to cry wolf next time." At the end of the week, eat some really good cheesecake, or a steak, or something else that you in particular will deeply enjoy.

Step three: Actually pay attention to the food you do eat.

This is by far the most important step. Actually paying attention to experiences is not something humans do naturally. You blink, and the food in front of you is half gone, and you can hardly remember how it tasted because you were absorbed in a conversation with your friends, or you were eating at your desk while clumsily trying to type with your other hand, or walking down the street. Think (not while you're eating, that would be distracting) of how many bites of calorie-laden food you have swallowed, and metabolized, and never actually carefully tasted.

Don't do this. Especially don't do this if you are going to choose to eat moderately unhealthy food because it's delicious. Be focused. Be mindful. Devote specific mental attention to each flavor and each sensation as you bite and chew and swallow4.


These, then, are the three steps. Eat good food. Eat food you actually like. Actually pay attention to what you put in your mouth.



1: Mycroft's comment made roughly the point I'm making here. Also I'm going to specifically exempt Alicorn from this generalization.

2: I'm pretty sure much of this generalizes beyond food, an exercise I leave to the reader/to the commenters.

3: If you have neither spare time nor spare money, and you are not saving umpteen zillions of expected lives through your sacrifices...you're probably making a bit of a hash out of structuring your life (don't feel too bad -- most do!), and should just move to Australia already.

4: If the things I'm asking you to do in this last step do not sound like levers that you know how to pull in your brain, consider getting very heavily stoned on cannabis and then eating something you already enjoy.


48 comments, sorted by Highlighting new comments since Today at 5:19 AM
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[-][anonymous]10y 20

I'm going to say that this advice doesn't work for everyone.

Some people are taste-motivated and some people are fullness-motivated.

My whole family is taste-motivated. They have specific foods that they love; fine food is very important to them; to them, "dieting" means eating smaller quantities, because giving up their favorite foods altogether is out of the question. I'm the one who horrifies my mother by eating beef jerky. It's fairly healthy, it satisfies my hunger, and it tastes good to me, the way all food does. Seriously, all food tastes good to me, with few exceptions. Sometimes I crave fat or protein or sugar, but I never crave a specific food. What's really important to me is feeling full -- I hate being hungry.

So I actually hate that "savoring" business. I'm starving! I want to be not-starving! That's the point of food! Savoring it is just prolonging the period when I'm starving. And the "want" vs. "like" confuses me -- I understand the notion, but I can't apply it to food in my case. I like (almost) everything! (Sure, I desire things I shouldn't eat, like desserts, but it's not a want/like thing -- I both want and like them.)

Where this logic actually makes sense to me is recreation. Intense fun -- going out with friends to have a new, exciting, transcendently wonderful experience -- is actually remarkably easy. It's just that most people spend their free time budget on mild fun -- TV, movies, internet. One of the things I'm trying to do is to focus more of my fun budget on intense fun.

I think this distinction is very important in determining the efficacy of weight loss advice.

I've read plenty of advice oriented toward people who are hungry all the time, and it made no sense to me until I realized I was not the intended audience. Being full is supposed to make me not want to eat that cookie? What planet are these people from?!

If someone wants to lose weight, and mainly eats due to hunger, but doesn't mind sacrificing taste, they should eat to maximize the satiety-to-calories ratio, with just-in-time fatty snacks like nuts, and high-water-content stuff like veggies.

On the other hand, if like me they're motivated mainly by the fun of tasting things, and have no problem being hungry as long as there aren't super-tasty things available, or they aren't bored, etc., then they should try to maximize the taste-to-calories ratio, with e.g. tea, itty-bitty chocolate truffles, to add lots of taste but not many calories.

[-][anonymous]10y 5

EXACTLY. I have the same reaction with "just eat a tiny bit of ice cream" advice. I don't want a tiny bit of ice cream. I want a whole bowl of Greek yogurt. One way or another, I'm going to have a whole bowl of something -- sooner or later -- because I'm hungry.

I know what you mean in terms of food. I am very non-picky, and while I prefer to eat a variety of different foods over a day to avoid boredom, I don't really mind what. (I do have favorite foods, like muffins, which I shouldn't really eat because I have a wheat sensitivity...)

However, I don't find it more fun necessarily to go out and do new things with friends... It can be fun, but I mainly find it exhausting. My 'transcendental fun' usually takes the form of engaging conversations with interesting people. This is probably an introverted trait.

Here is what works for me, it's a set of behaviors and strict and loose rules. Hopefully this helps somebody, and perhaps someone can use this as a data point or extrapolate this into useful patterns.

Strict Rules:

1) Never be hungry. If I am hungry, I may overeat or find it hard to resist unhealthful food. Therefore, I snack constantly. 2) Eat some protein many times a day. This maintains muscles, which burn calories 24/7.

Loose rules:

1) Avoid corn syrup as much as possible. 2) Don't drink calories. No soda, no coffee, only straight green tea, no milk, no sugar. There are two exceptions: 1% fat milk and low sodium vegetable (not fruit!) juice. I drink a ton of it. I cheat by drinking beer, which is why it is "loose". 3) Severely restrict simple carbohydrate and grain intake, especially processed. This is a loose rule because it is impossible to abstain from simple sugar and probably not desirable. My snack bars have only somewhat more sugar than protein, as does milk. 4) Drink water, tea or milk before eating. Sometimes thirst feels like hunger. I am not strict enough about this. 5) Restrict unfermented soy to moderation; soy is the quickest and easiest way to get cheap protein but it resembles estrogen to your body.


1) Be self confident. Other people gorge at mealtimes. If you spend all day snacking, you have "ruined you dinner" as my mother would put it. I don't eat just because everyone else is. On the other hand, if it's impolite to eat where you are, pull out a healthy snack bar and eat anyway. 2) Buy distinguished portions as self control. When I got a 32 oz. jug of real maple syrup, it lasted a couple days, likewise when I bought 5 pounds of honey. However, usually, for me, one package=one meal if it is a delicious food. One chocolate bar of any size=one serving. That's how I am. 3) Buy food easy to eat. If I buy whole carrots, I will not peel it. That's just reality. I spring for the more expensive "baby" carrots. If I buy regular spinach, I will probably eat it without washing it thoroughly enough, so I get pre-washed.


1) Microwaved yams. Me and my dog share one or more of these a day. 3-5 min. depending on size. I eat the skin, these are a good portable snack. $1/pound. No butter, etc. 2) Microwaved liver. I would eat this every day, but it has too much cholesterol and vitamin A. Don't get the store-prepared stuff, which has sugar in it. Covered, it cooks in its own juices in a few minutes. Share with dog. $2-3/pound. 3) Microwaved and raw tomatoes. Who decided that apples can be eaten whole as a snack, but not tomatoes? $1-3/pound depending on season and if from farmer's market. Tomatoes are bad for dogs-too acidic. 4) Sprouted whole multi grain bread, Much denser and cheaper than other bread. $3 for 1.5 pounds in NYC, $1 less than a one pound loaf of other bread. Put ground almonds on it, $6-7/pound. Add honey, $4/pound. Share with dog, but dog gets $2/pound mass produced peanut butter instead and no honey. 5) Tofu and tempeh. $2-3/pound. Share with dog. 6) Microwaved spinach can be easily compacted into a small space. Even if you don't like it, a pound well-cooked isn't many bites. $3/pound. Share with dog, but not too much. 7) These food bars, which make one really thirsty for milk and are cost effective for a soy free protein bar. Milk is cheap. Everyone knows chocolate is bad for dogs, right?


1) Get a dog, then you have to take him/her out. Once you are out, a major obstacle to running around the block is removed, and your dog will want to go. Also, dogs are wonderful. 2) Be self confident. Do pull-ups on the subway and on construction scaffolding during a lunch break. It does not matter what other people think. 3) Sprint up real stairs for exercise. This 1) builds muscle better than other running programs, and so will give you flesh that will eat calories 24/7, 2) burns calories faster than other running, 3) will not be subject to the weather, 4) works your arms. Rest from taking steps two at a time by taking them one at a time or using your arms more.


I cheat by drinking beer,

For those who are looking for a low-calorie alternative to beer, white wine spritzers can be a very satisfying substitute.

Also, pay attention to how you feel after eating. If you associate feeling tired, energized, dehydrated, clear-headed, whatever with the taste of your previous meal, you will naturally want healthy food, and unhealthy food will be unappetizing, with no will power required.

I heartily endorse eating better food, including making trade-offs with time and/or money to do so. There can be little doubt that there's a trade-off between long term health and hedonic value of food as well, but certainly most of us are not at the frontier.

I would recommend also:

Step four: Be willing to throw food away.

A lot of people attach strong negative emotions to throwing away food, even if the food is no longer worth eating. Some of it is pure sunk costs, but often it goes beyond that and many people look upon it as a moral issue, or that it means somehow taking food away from someone else who needs it. It isn't one, and you're not.

I think this quote is from Eliezer's grandma: "Better to throw it out than throw it in."

My mum, among others, doesn't like wasting food. I frame it thus, in the hope that it will nudge her wanting in the more useful direction: if you're not going to enjoy eating it, or if eating it is going to have effects you don't want, then eating it is more wasteful than throwing it away.

Still, isn't it better to plan so you won't have to throw food away? For example: if I cook a big pot of lentils to last me all week, and then end up eating at friends' houses several times and my lentils are smelling bad, I'll throw them out, but I'll make a mental note not to make such a big pot next time, or to put some in the freezer if I think I'll be away a lot.

These aren't contradictory. Throw away food that doesn't have value through needed nutrition or net pleasure. At the point you realize this, the waste has already occurred - you don't actually avoid the waste by eating it.

You should also plan as well as possible to avoid waste, but those decisions are made at a different point in time, with different levels of uncertainty about the future value of the food.

Yes, of course it's better to plan so you won't have to throw food away. But that's not what's being contested--A desire to plan efficient meals is as far from the fear of throwing food away as wanting to have accurate beliefs is from fearing having to change your beliefs.

A desire to plan efficient meals is as far from the fear of throwing food away as wanting to have accurate beliefs is from fearing having to change your beliefs.

I've reread that sentence several times, and I don't get the comparison. A strong negative emotion reaction to throwing food away can motivate you to plan efficient meals (as it does for me), but being afraid to change your beliefs won't motivate you to make them accurate–the two are working in opposite directions!

I think they're closer than you think. Not wanting to change beliefs can make you think things through properly in the first case IF you have a prior position of being susceptible to reason rather than just ignoring it. Similarly, not wanting to throw food away can increase your meal efficiency IF you have a drive to have good, enjoyable food.

Both of them can potentially reinforce a rational drive, even though in themselves they are irrational. But without enough rational purpose underlying them, they can become totally counterproductive. So if they suit you depends on a fairly empirical question of how you act with them and how you act without them.

It's worth noting that people who don't have any resistance to changing their beliefs aren't usually brilliant rational agents. They're people who just agree with whatever argument is presented to them at the time, because they don't think about things in depth, or really care about having accurate views, and therefore accord beliefs no weight at all.

I guess the Umesh principle applies. If you never have to throw food away, you're preparing too little.

If you never have to throw food away, you're preparing too little.

Or worse, eating things you otherwise wouldn't whenever that would be necessary to keep things from spoiling.

No question that wasting money and effort is bad, and you should make that note and that smaller pot. But often such things are not possible, especially if you are not cooking for yourself.

For a good pure example, I would prefer if the muffins they sell at my local bagel place were slightly smaller, even if they cost the same price.

Among the many things you have to put up with if you don't cook for yourself. (I have a pretty big appetite, so I have the opposite problem; I find that restaurant helpings leave me still hungry).

Still, I understand that some people live in conditions that make cooking for themselves hard (packed work schedule, inadequate kitchen facilities, etc). You should consider making a comment to the staff at the bakery that they sell different sizes of muffins, maybe the small ones for 15 cents less so they still make a higher profit margin. They wouldn't necessarily have to buy different muffin tins, just fill them with less dough, since bakery muffins are often all top anyway.

You could share them half/half with a friend - who also might appreciate a free half-muffin :)

Step four: Be willing to throw food away.

Excellent point -- I can't think of a way to move away from the hedons/health frontier faster than by feeling obligated to eat food you don't even want anymore.

I agree with Swimmer963 -- my quite strongly enforced rule not to throw food out nudges me to buy less and waste less. In fact I think it's quite similar to the way that your rules 2 and 3 nudge the brain to make better decisions.

having pets that can eat leftovers might help with this.

One crucial observation is that without conscious self-discipline, most people will end up consuming far more calories than their bodies actually spend; the surplus energy will likely be the equivalent of gaining several pounds a month. (The only exceptions are people with unusually low appetite and those who are extremely fit and athletic.) However, in most cases, not nearly all of these extra calories will be turned into extra weight. It's as if your body has a certain threshold weight, so that if you are below that, any extra calorie will be stored as fat, but if your weight is above that, it will remain stable or creep upward only very slowly.

The trouble is, it's still a total mystery what exactly determines this threshold, and what, if anything, one could do to push it downwards. I ate and drank liberally until my late twenties and nevertheless remained around my ideal weight, even though my total superfluous energy intake through the years was probably enough to double my weight if stored at full efficiency. But then at one point I suddenly realized that every extra calorie is starting to stick with frightening efficiency. (I have no desire to find out what my new threshold is, but based on the experiences from the time I realized it, it went up by at least ~15 pounds.) I wonder if this is an irreversible and unavoidable symptom of aging.

Re: footnote 4:

Perhaps you are thinking of the post Are wireheads happy?.

Just so, thanks!

ETA: Footnote deleted, and phrase linked directly.

As long as I'm contemplating updating my food blog again (having been so insistently nudged), is there anything specific people would like to see there?

Anything that involve Taleggio, Bandaged Cheddar, or Buffalo Mozzarella.

Also, Banana bread. Cake.

Personally, I would benefit most from an article about creative things to add to high-end Ramen beyond eggs.

reative things to add to high-end Ramen

The koreans do some wonderful stuff with ramen. kimchi works really well.

So do typical asian stir-fry vegies - bok choi, bamboo shoots, stripped spring onions with a splash of oyster sauce or that sweet, thick indonesian soy sauce (ketjap manis).

Still working your way through that list of cheeses, huh? Banana bread I can do. *starts a list*

Why were these downvoted?


(Edit: This post makes less sense now - it was made when the parent post (about unexplained downvotes) received an unexplained downvote.)

When I'm cooking Ramen I add a sliced carrot and celery stick, boil them a few minutes, then add the noodles and eggs, and little milk.

As long as I'm contemplating updating my food blog again (having been so insistently nudged), is there anything specific people would like to see there?

Not a specific recipe but I'd be interested in a post about how to improvise in general. When you decide you want to make something and you see that you have a weird set of ingredients, how do you decide what to do? Similarly, how can you tell when it is ok to swap one spice with another? I for example have found empirically that recipes that use curry can work well with cumin and but the reverse doesn't seem to go as well. Are there any general guidelines for that sort of thing?

I wrote a little about this onsite, actually: Saturation, Distillation, Improvisation: A Story About Procedural Knowledge And Cookies

(Regarding "curry" and cumin, curry powder isn't actually a spice. It's a spice blend, which usually contains cumin - so things that call for curry powder will taste fine if you put in cumin, since you were already going to put in cumin, but putting curry powder into something that calls for cumin entails putting in a bunch of extra stuff like turmeric that may not work.)

I experienced that enjoying food for me also has to do with how much time I spent actually making the food, not only how long it takes me to consume it. Cooking meals myself makes me value them much more than only eating them, because I exactly know cooking that food was work.

It is, to a certain degree, similar to the joy caused by problem solving: I am happy about having found a solution myself, in long, hard work. If someone else hands me the solution or if the problem is too easy, I won't be happy looking at that solution, I just say, "well, umm, fine. Let's continue with our original task" without any emotion arising.

This seems to be very closely related to Not for the Sake of Happiness (Alone), the process is part of the goal. This insight, that going the way is part of its destination (if I may say it that way), might also be a key step to enjoying food more.

I wonder if avoiding the food that you merely "want" and eating something you'll "like" will always be sufficient for ridding yourself of the original desire. Suppose I finish that slice of cheesecake, but my cheeto craving remains unfulfilled? Perhaps it would be helpful to give into our desires in very small amounts, like eating 4 cheetos instead of the bag, so as to not carry around a bunch of unrealized desires all the time.

This can work, but the "4 cheetos and not the bag" is tricky. Eat four cheetos - then close the bag, put it away, walk into another room, and get comfy, so you don't want to get up and get more cheetos when the aftertaste dies down and your mouth says "hey... wait... I was tasting that!"

Yep, that can work too - portion control.

For cheetos - you can buy those big packs full of little tiny packs... and just eat one of those.

Tying to eat only a small number seems like a bad idea; you'll give your ape-mind the idea that cheetos are a constrained resource, and also keep the memory of what they taste like fresh, which will just make you want more of them.

Hm. Maybe our brains just work differently. I've had great success using this strategy to conserve ice cream :-)

This is only moderately relevant, but I suspect that most people who find this post interesting will also like it.

Hmm, I have some tips along these lines as well, although mine are[s] more numerous and[/s] less insight/reliable/long. Actually, lets make each a different comment to give some ranking to them by the karma system, like a poll.

Edit; err, or not. that was an embarrassing failure of introspection.

Rewarding yourself with a single snack after a minor task, while probably not as effective as a motivator as some people seem to think, usually DOES make you spend longer looking forward to each one and pay more attention to it.

For somehting highly hedon dense, you're motivation to eat increases near-linery with the amount but enjoyment seems mostly to be per event. Eat a smaller total amount but split up over more meals.

[-][anonymous]10y 0

Hmm, I have some tips along these lines as well, although mine are more numerous and less insight/reliable/long. Actually, lets make each a different comment to give some ranking to them by the karma system, like a poll.

Eat better food includes buying better ingredients if you cook.

Hooray! An economist who uses the budget function to think, instead of to deny reality. Upvoted.