The mission of this column, which I have chosen to accept, is to write about deliciousness. My words should tell you where to find it and how to create it. This season of good cheer is my bonanza – the time to fill your mind with thoughts of cookie swaps and mail-order candy, of ginormous roast beasts, of holiday dining with five-course meals and free-flowing champagne.
I’m not here to scold you by pointing out you really shouldn’t have that second piece of cake, or that restaurants screw up your sense of a true portion, or if you knocked off the sauce a little, you might lose that spare tire. If you want to read about diet and nutrition, look elsewhere.
I do think about diet, particularly because my own seesaws quite a bit. When I’m not out stuffing my face with barbecue and fried chicken in the name of research, I tend to eat at home like an unreconstructed 1970s Moosewood Cookbook-toting hippie. Tempeh, kale and brown rice are specialties of the house.
Yet, occasionally, sybaritic pleasures and health concerns do hum the same tune. There is one word that can apply to both, and I’ve thinking about it a lot lately. That word is “satiety.”
In the most basic sense, satiety is the absence of hunger – the feeling of being sated, of not needing anything more.
On an emotional level, satiety conjures the special warm feeling you get from eating brilliantly. You know it, right? That meal that leaves you with a happy glow, that leaves you content and perfectly satisfied, but not stuffed.
But in scientific health literature, satiety has become something of a buzzword, thanks to a 1996 study by a University of Sydney research team and published in the “European Journal of Clinical Nutrition.” Study participants were given 240-calorie portions of 38 different foods and then nothing else for two hours. After that two hours, they were fed from a buffet, monitored and questioned about their levels of satisfaction.
Based on the subjects’ responses, lead researcher Susanna Holt, Ph.D., assigned a “satiety index rating” to each of the foods. Some foods, such as fat-free popcorn, oranges and other fruits, had high index ratings because of the large, stomach-filling amounts the subjects ingested to reach 240 calories.
High-fiber foods – such as beans, lentils and oatmeal – scored high because they take longer to digest.
The study found french fries were less satisfying than boiled potatoes, and croissants less satisfying than white bread.
When taste meets appetite
Nutritionists often cite this study because dieters can relate to its underlying assumption that some foods satisfy both taste buds and appetite in a way that others don’t. I was thinking about this the other day when my family and I went out for a meal of gourmet hot dogs and fries. We liked the flavors and had a lot of fun, but as soon as we walked away we all commented that we needed something else. I felt kind of bulgey and full from the dinner, but my mind was racing to think about what would satisfy. Frozen yogurt?
Not only do different foods engender different levels of satiety, but I think different eating rhythms and styles of dining do as well. Some places excel at a small-plates format. You pass, you share, you realize when your stomach is happy. This kind of dining works well when the plates comprise a variety of cooking methods, ingredients, textures and even colors. Raw, fried, crunchy, silky, green, red: satiety.
It works less well when many of the dishes consist mostly of rich proteins with sauces. You take bites, but the meal turns messy and dissatisfying. So you overeat to feel full.
Other restaurants have the knack for tasting menus that extend into five or six courses. As chef Thomas Keller once said, if each course leaves you wanting one more bite, then the food stays in your mind. You anticipate each item that follows. If the chef doesn’t overload you with too much fat or salt during the meal, then you experience that rare magic of orchestrated satiety, of a maestro at work. Alas, other tasting menus stretch over too many hours and you drink too much wine waiting for the next overrich plate. The result? You overeat but never feel taken care of.
As I head into the New Year, I will be thinking about this notion of satiety and, with any luck, bringing it into the restaurant reviews I write. Maybe it’s a utopian fantasy on my part, but I really do believe that by letting your sense of emotional and physical well-being guide your food choices, you’ll find a kind of deliciousness you never knew existed.
- by John Kessler for the Food & More blog