14

votes

Are umami foods beckoning to our tastebuds while hijacking our reward systems? To manage food reward pathways must we eat more bland foods?

Answered on September 12, 2014
Created May 26, 2011 at 7:18 PM

I am a huge fan of umami foods: sauteed mushrooms and onions, a particularly well cooked piece of steak or bacon, a delightful broth, certain pickled veggies, and yes: cheese!

Lately I've been catching up on the latest Chris Kresser podcast with Stephan Guyenet, and also Stephan Guyenet's posts on food reward pathways getting deranged.

The latest podcast: http://thehealthyskeptic.org/the-healthy-skeptic-podcast-episode-10

Stephan Guyenet's series on food reward mechanisms: http://wholehealthsource.blogspot.com/search/label/Food%20reward

  • Do you think it's possible that inasmuch as the taste of fruit/fructose appeals to our reward brain ("on purpose" so that fruit can propagate the species), the umami flavor in intensely savory foods also appeals to our reward brain?

  • Could types or excess of umami foods (even though vastly preferable nutritionally to fructose-heavy foods) pose a threat to our bodies maintaining an ideal set point?

  • If so, what cautionary measures/awareness are necessary in terms of diet if you're trying to manage your food reward mechanism? (For example, less [gasp!] salt/seasoning?)

A15af22bd729ec030e8f47d1189b6eaf

(774)

on December 25, 2011
at 03:37 AM

in this case it's probably an issue with the fat. you can still enjoy your umami foods, just get leaner cuts or trim it yourself.

Cc69a51b427eaad36251cce9dcca4d3a

(1074)

on November 26, 2011
at 07:28 AM

so would bacon count as high reward? I guess most certainly so...:(

Cc69a51b427eaad36251cce9dcca4d3a

(1074)

on November 26, 2011
at 07:28 AM

NOOO...there goes my bacon. my pride, my joy of a Paleo Diet :(

Be1dbd31e4a3fccd4394494aa5db256d

(17969)

on June 01, 2011
at 09:49 PM

Timely, Dr. Briffa released a post about just that http://www.drbriffa.com/2011/06/01/more-evidence-links-msg-with-obesity/ So even though Asians as a whole don't seem to have problems, that ones who are in fact eating more MSG do exhibit some problems.

Be1dbd31e4a3fccd4394494aa5db256d

(17969)

on June 01, 2011
at 09:35 PM

Interesting. Yeah I always wondered what excitotoxicty would end up doing, MSG certainly seems to be an exception to the feedback loop for whatever reason, at least in my past experience. Also very powerful stimuli could certainly affect the food reward response. My post seems a bit dismissive like "nope, feedback loop, ain't happing" but strong Umami tastes could still influence food reward, I just have a bias towards the health of the feedback receptors being most important due to the examples of delicious umami not producing the kind of thing you'll see at a buffet in Miami

Be1dbd31e4a3fccd4394494aa5db256d

(17969)

on June 01, 2011
at 09:34 PM

Interesting. Yeah I always wondered what excitotoxicty would end up doing, MSG certainly seems to be an exception to the feedback loop for whatever reason, at least in my past experience. Also simply a very powerful stimuli could certainly affect the food reward response. My post seems a bit dismissive like "nope, feedback loop, ain't happing" but strong Umami tastes could still influence food reward, I just have a bias towards the health of the feedback receptors being most important due to the examples of delicious umami not producing the kind of thing you'll see at a buffet in Miami

Be1dbd31e4a3fccd4394494aa5db256d

(17969)

on June 01, 2011
at 09:34 PM

Interesting. Yeah I always wondered what excitotoxicty would end up doing, MSG certainly seems to be an exception to the feedback loop for whatever reason. Also simply a very powerful stimuli could certainly affect the food reward response. My post seems a bit dismissive like "nope, feedback loop, ain't happing" but strong Umami tastes could still influence food reward, I just have a bias towards the health of the feedback receptors being most important due to the examples of delicious umami not producing the kind of thing you'll see at a buffet in Miami.

Ed71ab1c75c6a9bd217a599db0a3e117

(25472)

on June 01, 2011
at 08:20 PM

sounds good....

Ed71ab1c75c6a9bd217a599db0a3e117

(25472)

on June 01, 2011
at 08:18 PM

this. But it points out why the ionized salts of glutamate (MSG) can be so damaging. They directly can cause excitotoxic damage to those circuits. We know this occurs in the hypothalamus as well. I think MSG is a real risk for young people but I have always been intrigued why Asians dont seem to be epidemically effected by MSG because its in tons of their foods. They must be doing something else to support neurogensis to replace the neurons they are killing.

Ed71ab1c75c6a9bd217a599db0a3e117

(25472)

on June 01, 2011
at 08:15 PM

This indicates that the taste of umami would be sensed by cranial nerve 5 7 and 10 and the message directly transported to the brain in those areas. It is more a sensing taste bud and not coupled to energy usage because leptin at this point does not seem to be involved. It will effect behavior.....maybe make the animal behave to eat more by increasing feeding behavior. This is why foods that are savory drive us to eat more. In my opinion there must be an off switch. And I bet cortical leptin receptor are that switch. That is an untapped area right now. I know of no research looking at

Ed71ab1c75c6a9bd217a599db0a3e117

(25472)

on June 01, 2011
at 08:11 PM

One more point Stabby.....we now know that glutamate and asparate transport systems exist and are phylogentically much older (dates to insect lineage break off in in situ hybridization studies) and use G proteins to open Calcium channels to cause depolarization. The real interesting part is this transporter system in humans does not synpase where we would expect it to. IE the hypothalamus. therefore it appears that leptin does not mediate its receptor which makes it very unusual. It appears these cells end in the dentate gyrus, the amygdala, and the striatum and parts of the thalamus.

Ed71ab1c75c6a9bd217a599db0a3e117

(25472)

on June 01, 2011
at 07:38 PM

Stabby beautiful work here. No need for me to throw two cents in. There is no set point and it is all about leptin sensitivity. The reward theory is nice but understanding how a neural network is wired and what makes it go wrong ie a positive feedback loop that is reenforced........is why this occurs. I do think people need to be aware that carbs and not fat or protein have specific neuropeptides in the ventral tegmentum that specifically cause this loop. And these neurons are phylogenetically newer. That means evolution naturally selected protection from this source of calories!!!

Be1dbd31e4a3fccd4394494aa5db256d

(17969)

on May 30, 2011
at 04:13 AM

So far Stephan has argued very well that certain conditions produce a "hijacking", of the regulatory mechanisms for appetite and food reward and it can be amended by eating bland goo. He has shown very palatable food produces preferences for the yummiest food. But that very palatable food is behind the obesity in the first place irrespective of leptin's role as a regulator has not been demonstrated yet. In my own experience bland food will have me eating well below what I really should be eating, so I almost need very yummy food to get enough calories to maintain muscle

Be1dbd31e4a3fccd4394494aa5db256d

(17969)

on May 30, 2011
at 04:11 AM

So far Stephan has argued very well that certain conditions produce a "hijacking", of the regulatory mechanisms for appetite and food reward and it can be amended by eating bland goo. He has shown very palatable food produces preferences for the yummiest food. But that very palatable food is behind the obesity in the first place irrespective of leptin's role as a regulator has not been demonstrated yet. In my own experience bland food will have me eating well below what I really should be eating, so I almost need very yummy food to get enough calories to maintain muscle. It's probably differen

Be1dbd31e4a3fccd4394494aa5db256d

(17969)

on May 29, 2011
at 09:51 PM

And I'm not sure whether or not to differentiate between traditional French food which is not the least bit bland but never really produced the desire to eat tons of food and frankenfoods. Frankenfoods invariably cause leptin resistance through inflammation so the two hypotheses are inextricable from each other except in carefully controlled lab settings where someone would eat artifical sweeteners on an anti-inflammatory, nutrient-rich diet. I don't think that Stephan's ensure rats had a very healthy diet, and his tube-fed dudes might have had a very healthy goo diet.

Be1dbd31e4a3fccd4394494aa5db256d

(17969)

on May 29, 2011
at 09:45 PM

But do I think that like ridiculously, freakishly delicious food combined with a social situation where eating more in encouraged probably produces more intake than otherwise? Yes, but I just don't know how much it will be and whether it will be a problem. The notion that it's all ultra-yumminess and culture is unfalsifiable since those situations are inextricable from the same ones that produce inflammation and leptin resistance to begin with. And not everyone eats a good-quality paleo diet that keeps them healthy. I have never had weight issues and am in good shape, my situation is different

93f44e8673d3ea2294cce085ebc96e13

(10502)

on May 26, 2011
at 09:53 PM

Great question --- was wondering this exact thing.

Aead76beb5fc7b762a6b4ddc234f6051

(15239)

on May 26, 2011
at 07:26 PM

i just have to say that you have the most interesting and well thought out questions. ill be following this one for sure.

Frontpage book

Get FREE instant access to our Paleo For Beginners Guide & 15 FREE Recipes!

8 Answers

best answer

10
Be1dbd31e4a3fccd4394494aa5db256d

(17969)

on May 29, 2011
at 09:30 PM

I don't really think that real food is necessarily hijacking anything. It all appears to depend upon leptin sensivity, which likely predisposes us to becoming slaves to food addiction in the first place.

http://ajpregu.physiology.org/content/296/3/R493.long

Leptin resistance: a prediposing factor for diet-induced obesity

This review examined several models of leptin resistance and the role of leptin resistance in the susceptibility to dietary obesity. Only some of the leptin-resistance models (leptin antagonist blockade and aged obese rats) exhibit heightened weight and adiposity gain on a chow diet, while all models discussed demonstrate obesity in the presence of an HF diet. Thus, the leptin resistance appears to be reinforcing ???reward eating??? beyond caloric energy requirements. Overconsumption of palatable food could be mediated by activation of reward circuitry involving opioids and dopamine or an impairment in a pathway (or pathways) mediating satiation of the palatable diet (16).

Whereas the hypothalamus, in particular, the arcuate nucleus, has been identified as important in regulating the caloric requirements, other regions in the hypothalamus, such as lateral hypothalamus and extrahypothalamus areas including the amygdale, prefrontal cortex, nuclear accumbens, and ventral tegmental area (VTA), are implicated in the reward properties of food (12, 43). Leptin receptors are identified on dopamine-containing neurons within the VTA and were found to suppress dopaminergic neuron firing rate (24). They act through the JAK-STAT signaling pathway and decrease food consumption upon leptin action. The fact that a chronic reduction in leptin receptor activity in the VTA by siRNA knockdown enhances sensitivity to highly palatable food underscores an important role of leptin receptor function in the regulation of reward feeding behavior (24). Our own data also support a counterregulatory mechanism by which leptin modulates HF feeding: leptin receptor blockade prolonged the caloric hyperphagia induced by an HF diet (67). Although, the inputs from multiple brain regions are integrated to determine food ingestion, hedonic feeding driven by the VTA has been suggested to be able to overcome the caloric requirements of homeostatic regulatory properties of the hypothalamus (12).

And that is my best guess as to why I don't overeat even when the real food is ridiculously yummy, because I'm full and satisfied since the real food hasn't pwnt my lectin receptor sensitivity. Food reward is there to make us eat in the first place, and it isn't the body's design to harm itself needlessly, unless it is already harmed.

Be1dbd31e4a3fccd4394494aa5db256d

(17969)

on May 29, 2011
at 09:45 PM

But do I think that like ridiculously, freakishly delicious food combined with a social situation where eating more in encouraged probably produces more intake than otherwise? Yes, but I just don't know how much it will be and whether it will be a problem. The notion that it's all ultra-yumminess and culture is unfalsifiable since those situations are inextricable from the same ones that produce inflammation and leptin resistance to begin with. And not everyone eats a good-quality paleo diet that keeps them healthy. I have never had weight issues and am in good shape, my situation is different

Be1dbd31e4a3fccd4394494aa5db256d

(17969)

on May 30, 2011
at 04:13 AM

So far Stephan has argued very well that certain conditions produce a "hijacking", of the regulatory mechanisms for appetite and food reward and it can be amended by eating bland goo. He has shown very palatable food produces preferences for the yummiest food. But that very palatable food is behind the obesity in the first place irrespective of leptin's role as a regulator has not been demonstrated yet. In my own experience bland food will have me eating well below what I really should be eating, so I almost need very yummy food to get enough calories to maintain muscle

Be1dbd31e4a3fccd4394494aa5db256d

(17969)

on May 30, 2011
at 04:11 AM

So far Stephan has argued very well that certain conditions produce a "hijacking", of the regulatory mechanisms for appetite and food reward and it can be amended by eating bland goo. He has shown very palatable food produces preferences for the yummiest food. But that very palatable food is behind the obesity in the first place irrespective of leptin's role as a regulator has not been demonstrated yet. In my own experience bland food will have me eating well below what I really should be eating, so I almost need very yummy food to get enough calories to maintain muscle. It's probably differen

Be1dbd31e4a3fccd4394494aa5db256d

(17969)

on May 29, 2011
at 09:51 PM

And I'm not sure whether or not to differentiate between traditional French food which is not the least bit bland but never really produced the desire to eat tons of food and frankenfoods. Frankenfoods invariably cause leptin resistance through inflammation so the two hypotheses are inextricable from each other except in carefully controlled lab settings where someone would eat artifical sweeteners on an anti-inflammatory, nutrient-rich diet. I don't think that Stephan's ensure rats had a very healthy diet, and his tube-fed dudes might have had a very healthy goo diet.

Be1dbd31e4a3fccd4394494aa5db256d

(17969)

on June 01, 2011
at 09:34 PM

Interesting. Yeah I always wondered what excitotoxicty would end up doing, MSG certainly seems to be an exception to the feedback loop for whatever reason, at least in my past experience. Also simply a very powerful stimuli could certainly affect the food reward response. My post seems a bit dismissive like "nope, feedback loop, ain't happing" but strong Umami tastes could still influence food reward, I just have a bias towards the health of the feedback receptors being most important due to the examples of delicious umami not producing the kind of thing you'll see at a buffet in Miami

Ed71ab1c75c6a9bd217a599db0a3e117

(25472)

on June 01, 2011
at 08:11 PM

One more point Stabby.....we now know that glutamate and asparate transport systems exist and are phylogentically much older (dates to insect lineage break off in in situ hybridization studies) and use G proteins to open Calcium channels to cause depolarization. The real interesting part is this transporter system in humans does not synpase where we would expect it to. IE the hypothalamus. therefore it appears that leptin does not mediate its receptor which makes it very unusual. It appears these cells end in the dentate gyrus, the amygdala, and the striatum and parts of the thalamus.

Be1dbd31e4a3fccd4394494aa5db256d

(17969)

on June 01, 2011
at 09:34 PM

Interesting. Yeah I always wondered what excitotoxicty would end up doing, MSG certainly seems to be an exception to the feedback loop for whatever reason. Also simply a very powerful stimuli could certainly affect the food reward response. My post seems a bit dismissive like "nope, feedback loop, ain't happing" but strong Umami tastes could still influence food reward, I just have a bias towards the health of the feedback receptors being most important due to the examples of delicious umami not producing the kind of thing you'll see at a buffet in Miami.

Be1dbd31e4a3fccd4394494aa5db256d

(17969)

on June 01, 2011
at 09:49 PM

Timely, Dr. Briffa released a post about just that http://www.drbriffa.com/2011/06/01/more-evidence-links-msg-with-obesity/ So even though Asians as a whole don't seem to have problems, that ones who are in fact eating more MSG do exhibit some problems.

Be1dbd31e4a3fccd4394494aa5db256d

(17969)

on June 01, 2011
at 09:35 PM

Interesting. Yeah I always wondered what excitotoxicty would end up doing, MSG certainly seems to be an exception to the feedback loop for whatever reason, at least in my past experience. Also very powerful stimuli could certainly affect the food reward response. My post seems a bit dismissive like "nope, feedback loop, ain't happing" but strong Umami tastes could still influence food reward, I just have a bias towards the health of the feedback receptors being most important due to the examples of delicious umami not producing the kind of thing you'll see at a buffet in Miami

Ed71ab1c75c6a9bd217a599db0a3e117

(25472)

on June 01, 2011
at 08:15 PM

This indicates that the taste of umami would be sensed by cranial nerve 5 7 and 10 and the message directly transported to the brain in those areas. It is more a sensing taste bud and not coupled to energy usage because leptin at this point does not seem to be involved. It will effect behavior.....maybe make the animal behave to eat more by increasing feeding behavior. This is why foods that are savory drive us to eat more. In my opinion there must be an off switch. And I bet cortical leptin receptor are that switch. That is an untapped area right now. I know of no research looking at

Ed71ab1c75c6a9bd217a599db0a3e117

(25472)

on June 01, 2011
at 07:38 PM

Stabby beautiful work here. No need for me to throw two cents in. There is no set point and it is all about leptin sensitivity. The reward theory is nice but understanding how a neural network is wired and what makes it go wrong ie a positive feedback loop that is reenforced........is why this occurs. I do think people need to be aware that carbs and not fat or protein have specific neuropeptides in the ventral tegmentum that specifically cause this loop. And these neurons are phylogenetically newer. That means evolution naturally selected protection from this source of calories!!!

Ed71ab1c75c6a9bd217a599db0a3e117

(25472)

on June 01, 2011
at 08:18 PM

this. But it points out why the ionized salts of glutamate (MSG) can be so damaging. They directly can cause excitotoxic damage to those circuits. We know this occurs in the hypothalamus as well. I think MSG is a real risk for young people but I have always been intrigued why Asians dont seem to be epidemically effected by MSG because its in tons of their foods. They must be doing something else to support neurogensis to replace the neurons they are killing.

Cc69a51b427eaad36251cce9dcca4d3a

(1074)

on November 26, 2011
at 07:28 AM

NOOO...there goes my bacon. my pride, my joy of a Paleo Diet :(

3
Ffc7e0ecad8e8831b528c5d4921377cc

(942)

on May 30, 2011
at 04:14 AM

I often have an umami breakfast - onions, garlic, mushrooms, potatoes, bacon or sardines, stinky cheese, turmeric, plus usually some greens. Really keeps me satisfied a long time.

Ed71ab1c75c6a9bd217a599db0a3e117

(25472)

on June 01, 2011
at 08:20 PM

sounds good....

2
77ecc37f89dbe8f783179323916bd8e6

(5002)

on May 31, 2011
at 07:15 AM

Not to be a downer, but I don't think that this question is as interesting as it first appears. Let's see if I'm missing something - as I'm sure someone will politely tell me :)

Guyenet and Kresser differentiate between sugar as it naturally occurs in a whole food like sweet potato, and sugar as it occurs in its modern hyper-form, such as HFCS. The former utilizes the reward system; the latter hijacks it. The situation with umami ought to be directly analogous: all of those whole foods you mentioned utilize the reward system, whereas food prepared with lots of MSG - like American-style Chinese food - hijack it.

Now, if you are at a weight-loss plateau, it might make sense to eliminate foods with umami and see if that gets you past it. However, you'd have to believe that your plateau is the result of caloric surplus, because the most you could hope for is a decrease in appetite.

2
1ccc0b0b7a756cd42466cef8f450d0cb

(1801)

on May 26, 2011
at 07:24 PM

I think this is a really interesting and insightful topic but from my own experience though, I'm not seeing this. I actually wouldn't mind putting on a few lbs. I'm currently on a VLC diet for health reasons. I find myself craving fatty cuts of meat, especially with salt and spice but find my set point goes down when I eat this way and regardless of how much I'm tossing back.

1
05055dcbf12c81f1cce777ec365870af

(1791)

on June 03, 2011
at 03:34 AM

1- it is not certain that fructose foods are worse than umami foods for everyone at all times, or even as a general rule. 1b- honey is filled with fructose but does not want to propogate... so fructose isnt dependant on having seeds.

2- i dont think caramelizing everything is the healthiest thing, it is glutamic acid.

3- i think almost everyone is a huge fan of most of the foods you mentioned, the question is more is the food a fan of you? damn i love cheese, and it messes me up bad.

individual mileage may vary. if youre trying to mange your 'food reward system" arent you really just trying to manage your emotional/reactive/addictive self through food? this is like a buddhist thing, which is good, in that you want to be able to eat for plain sustenance, and to be less controlled by emotional associations with food.

heres an experiment: get really really f'n hungry, wait for it, wait for it, eat a plain steak, lightly cooked or raw. only eat until satiated. repulsed? lose your appetite? how long will it take for your survival mechanism to override your holy food-reward program? how long until your body learns to enjoy what culture has made un-enjoyable? are you liberated yet?

0
Cc69a51b427eaad36251cce9dcca4d3a

(1074)

on November 26, 2011
at 07:29 AM

So would bacon count as high reward? I guess most certainly so...:(

I would hate to say goodbye to bacon and sausage to lose the last 10lbs...sniffle

A15af22bd729ec030e8f47d1189b6eaf

(774)

on December 25, 2011
at 03:37 AM

in this case it's probably an issue with the fat. you can still enjoy your umami foods, just get leaner cuts or trim it yourself.

0
77877f762c40637911396daa19b53094

(78467)

on June 02, 2011
at 05:14 PM

Umami foods do not make me want to overeat. They do mostly make me satisfied. Because food reward is not necessarily the only factor regarding leptin, set points, weight loss and appetite, I wouldn't throw away my salt shaker yet. Imo, Foods like these can be so strong tasting that they can even control appetite. Try and eat a whole wedge of Parmesean or bleu cheese. I can't. Eating fat alone or with protein or caffeine is also completely satisfying for me. It can actually makes me lose my appetite. Some of those tastes are umami so again it must be about individual tastes, needs and chemical make up.

I will tend to overeat sweet tastes and sweet + acid taste combinations. I'm assuming bland foods would help with taste/addiction problems, but I personally would not give up salty or spicy, sour or bitter because they seem to make me satisfied. Even a few bland foods can cause binging for me. Rice especially. I love it's unadorned almost sweet taste.

But if you have leptin sensitivity issues like low leptin from losing a lot of weight and not having managed to reset your set point anything that tastes good could make you overeat. If that is a calorie dense food then you might have to ban it from your repetoire.

Apparently though and this makes some sense, women have more leptin problems because of Estrogen. While mens testosterone helps them shed weight more easily. Need more evidence that leptin sensitivity and set point can be changed with diet.

Did you read the comments on The Whole health blog regarding the food reward hypothesis posts/podcast? I'm still in the middle of them and they're fascinating:) Thanks for the question.

0
1a98a40ba8ffdc5aa28d1324d01c6c9f

(20378)

on May 30, 2011
at 05:03 AM

I believe that umami flavor in intensely savory foods does appeal to our reward brain.

For sure eating excessive umami food could pose a threat to our ideal set point.

I limit the numer of times per week I eat a given food. If a dish is calorie dense, and something I love, I may remove it all together from my diet if it is too much of a temptation.

Answer Question


Get FREE instant access to our
Paleo For Beginners Guide & 15 FREE Recipes!