Eat, love, pray. Live to eat, or love to eat? The quintessential paradox of life. We dare not turn into foodies out of fear that it might end up making us fat. However, a new study by Cornell University – published the in journal Obesity – claims that foodies who experiment and tangle with new flavors are less likely to get chubby and obese.
The Cornell team discovered that foodies are more likely to have friends over for dinner, be more physically active and interested in being healthy and exploring their culinary heritage, and are less concerned by how expensive a food is (more on which, later).
Among 502 American women, those who had tried foods such as kimchi, polenta and beef tongue were grouped as food neophiles (they had to tick at least nine on a list of unusual foods to quality). These women turned out to have lower BMIs than less adventurous eaters. This is significant in the obesity research field because, so far, increased food variety has been associated with weight gain. But what is a neophile? Neophile or Neophiliac, a term popularised by cult writer Robert Anton Wilson, is a personality type characterized by a strong affinity for novelty – with regards to food this refers to people willing to try new varieties of food.
Conservative eaters, meanwhile, are more influenced by celebrity endorsement of foods, nice packaging, cost and ease of preparation. This knowledge, the Cornell team suggests, can be used to encourage people to be more healthily adventurous, citing the example that kale reached more people after celebrities made it fashionable. So far, so good. I can’t help but feel, though, that the personality trait of food neophilia might not be necessarily what’s driving BMIs down. Money could be one factor. Surely anyone with an economic advantage will be more likely to be neophilic by the study’s criteria? (I think it’d be pretty hard to find many comfortably-off folks who haven’t tried nine of the foods on the list). If you’re better educated about health and culture, well traveled, can afford exotic foods and experimental restaurants, then you’ll be a neophile for this study’s purposes. It’s well established that obesity falls as income rises, although interestingly, this trend is more marked among women and children than it is among men.
First, know that very few food aversions are innate. A loathing of coriander is a rare example of a genetic aversion, but most are purely psychological, and can easily be undone by conditioning yourself with repeated exposure to the food. The veteran American food writer Jeffrey Steingarten did this when he was given his first food column, to rid himself of his shameful hatred of Greek food, anchovies and kimchi.
One of the many possible scientific explanations for this is that, if you eat something that your body can easily digest and extract nutrients from, your brain will make it will taste better next time. If you haven’t the nerve to eat something your perceive as gross, trying new foods on holiday – when you’re happy, relaxed and open-minded – rose tints the taste buds no end. Bring on the sauteed fish eyes.