I recently had an email exchange with someone who argued that food is supposed to be fuel — period — and that to view eating as a form of pleasure was a gateway to food addiction. I had to respectfully disagree.

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On Nutrition

How do you view food? Is it a source of fuel, pleasure, or a bit of both? I recently had an email exchange with someone who argued that food is supposed to be fuel — period — and that to view eating as a form of pleasure was a gateway to food addiction.

I had to respectfully disagree.

Obviously, food is fuel for your body, and filling your tank with the quantity and quality of food your body needs will help you operate at your best. “Running on fumes” or regularly filling up with foods that are low on nutrition will leave you feeling lackluster.

But food is also pleasure. If nothing else, this is true from a pure neurobiology standpoint: Our brains are wired to register pleasure when we have experiences that we need to repeat in order to survive. If food didn’t provide pleasure, our species would have died out, because our ancestors would have had little motivation to put in the effort required to hunt a woolly mammoth and sleuth out roots and berries that weren’t poisonous.

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Unfortunately, our brain’s reward circuitry doesn’t always mesh well with the abundance of highly palatable food in today’s modern food environment — especially if you find yourself stretched so thin by personal and professional responsibilities that the only pleasure you feel you have time for is food. After all, we all need to eat, and as one of my patients pointed out to me, you can eat chocolate while doing the laundry.

The key is balance. Consuming food as fuel and deriving no pleasure from it is joyless, but if food is your biggest pleasure, it’s easy to veer into overindulgence. Using food as a primary source of pleasure can be like a canary in a coal mine — a sign that deeper needs aren’t being met. But if food is just one of many things that bring you pleasure, enjoying it can lead to better-for-you choices, because we ultimately want our food to taste good and leave us feeling good. It’s not terribly pleasurable to end a meal feeling like you’re full-to-bursting and on your way to a food coma.

Pleasure can contribute to feelings of satisfaction after a meal. From a physical standpoint, satisfaction means eating enough to abate hunger. But if you get no sensory pleasure from your meal — either because you didn’t like it or because you were so distracted you barely noticed you ate it — you may be left unsatisfied and feeling that you need to find something else to eat, even though you aren’t hungry anymore.

A balanced, varied, nutritious diet allows for both pleasure and health; a rigid, restrictive diet does not. Most people find a variety of foods pleasurable, and some of those foods are more nutritious than others. What makes a food pleasurable? Taste, of course, but also temperature, texture and substance. It’s why you might prefer a cool, crisp salad in the summer, and a warm, filling vegetable soup in the winter.

Being able to appreciate the subtle pleasures of whole and less-processed foods — an appreciation that can be cultivated — will help you make choices that please your palate while providing the nutrition your body needs to thrive. Denying yourself favorite foods that you feel are lacking in nutrition can lead to reactionary overeating when you do allow yourself one of these “forbidden” foods. Odds are you’ll wolf it down with a side of guilt, erasing the very pleasure you hoped to find.