Sharon's new book California Vegan is available for pre-order now!

Plant Chat: Eating Scientist, Rachel Herz

Sharon Palmer

I’m so glad to have Rachel Herz, PhD on my Plant Chat this month! Rachel is a neuroscientist specializing in perception, emotion, and eating. She teaches at Brown University and Boston College, and is a professional consultant. Throughout her career, Rachel has been valued for her expertise in olfactory psychology, emotional cognition, and experimental design. She is regularly approached to provide education, research, analysis and recommendations to organizations on how people rely on their human senses, especially smell, taste and flavor. The author of The Scent of Desire, That’s Disgusting and Why You Eat What You Eat, she lives in Rhode Island. Continue reading to learn more about Rachel’s work and fascination with the science of eating.

Tell us a little bit about your journey to becoming a scientist specializing in eating. 

Since 1990 I’ve been researching the psychological science of smell. I’ve also worked on how taste perception influences our emotions, and how emotional states influence food cravings.  I love food and eating—if you ask me what I’m thinking about at any given time, it’s most likely that my answer will be food!  I realized that since I have an expertise in the senses that are most involved in our experience of eating as well as in psychology and neuroscience, that delving into all the sensory and psychological influences that go into our experience of food and eating was a natural progression.

What was the inspiration behind your book, Why You Eat What You Eat?

First, is my never-ending passion for food and eating.  Second, is my fundamental quest to figure out how the biological and psychological influences around us make us tick.  Third, was wanting to write something that could help people with their relationship with food– to give people the power to enable them to approach food as something they can truly enjoy and not be conflicted with.

Why do you think we have such a strong connection to food, and how does this impact our choices and overall health? 

Besides oxygen and water we need food in order to survive. There is no way we can live without food, and for most of human history and still unfortunately for many people today, getting enough food is the main goal of existence.  What we consume is inextricably linked to our health because the chemistry of the food we eat goes directly into the chemistry of our body.  When we have the luxury to choose what we consume it is important to make those choices wisely so that we can maximize our health, or at least try to avoid the negative effects that eating heavily processed foods and artificial sugars can have.

What are some of the most surprising discoveries you’ve made regarding why people eat certain foods? 

It surprised me to discover that people think that organic and ethically produced foods have fewer calories than conventional versions of the same foods, and that as a result that they may eat more and exercise less when they consume foods with this type of labeling.  Choosing organic food is usually healthier, especially from the point of view of avoiding pesticides, but it typically contains just as many calories, and when it comes to treats like organic cookies, often just as much sugar and fat as conventional cookies.  It also really surprised me to discover that the placebo effect extends to how our body metabolizes food—that when we eat foods that are labeled as high calorie and indulgent our bodies burn more calories while eating them than if the exact same food was labeled as low calorie and sensible—and that this is irrespective of how many calories are actually in the food! I love discovering how our mind controls our bodies in so many ways. I was also charmed to learn that we treat ourselves to goodies when we bring our reusable bags to the grocery store (so long as the store doesn’t penalize if we don’t). I like that we treat ourselves when we treat Mother Nature well.

What is your personal nutrition and wellness philosophy?

Besides trying to exercise and eat healthy foods, my key food philosophy is thoughtful enjoyment and enjoyment in moderation—eat any treat you want but be present while you do, so that you can get the maximum pleasure and satiation from it.  When you’re not paying attention while you eat, it takes a lot more to make you feel full and you don’t get near the bliss from it as when you’re focused on what you’re tasting.  As a tactic for moderation, I like to practice portion control—I put my favorite treats in small bowls– if you have red bowls, use them for what you love to nosh on the most since red is a “stop” cue. Most importantly, pay attention and be engaged with your food so that you can truly enjoy what you are eating.

What are some of your best practical tips for people who want to make better food choices for overall health? 

Keep your favorite tempting treats further away from you— at a distance in your home so that you have to expend some effort to get them. Keep healthy snacks like fruits and vegetables close to you– by your desk, computer or TV– so that you can easily reach for them.  Use smaller versions of round plates since it looks like there is more on them with the same amount of food than on larger plates or square plates.  If you know someone who is struggling with getting enough food to eat, don’t present food to them on red plates or trays.  But if you are trying to eat less, putting food on red plates is a good idea.  Try not to eat with loud and fast music in the background— loud sounds decrease the taste of food and fast music makes you eat faster.  Pay attention when you’re eating with a group that you don’t eat beyond the point where you’re full.   Take stock of the mood you’re in while you’re eating and assess if it is influencing your food choices in ways you may not want it to.  Realize that willpower takes a lot of mental energy, so if you’re doing something else that is cognitively taxing you may have to give your willpower a pass, or at least understand why keeping it on track is so hard. Don’t hang out in the kitchen while the cupcakes or casseroles are baking since those heavenly aromas can make you eat more when the food comes out. Counterintuitively, you would be wise to avoid treats that are branded with “organic”, “low fat” or “low calories” .  These labels can make us eat more and our bodies actually burn less while we’re eating them.  Don’t consume artificial sweeteners—real sugar though also linked to health problems– is much better for you than fake sugars. Fake sugars trick the body into thinking its getting real sugar and can mess up your metabolism and your microbiome.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *