If You Were Stranded on a Desert Island, Which 10 Foods Would You Bring Along?

October 7, 2011

in Science

Note: We’re excited to include an original illustration by Nicolas Micciola with this post.

By Rob Schick, PhD

Could you live on just 10 foods? If so, what would they be?

I got to thinking about this after some recent reading. The first thing that caught my eye was a recent discussion thread on PaleoHacks.com that asked people what their 10 essential foods were. The jist of the question was: can you survive and be maximally nourished with only 10 foods? I thought it would be interesting to visualize these lists, and made the word cloud below.

Desert Island Foods Word Cloud

The one thing that jumped out of this list was the prevalence of broccoli and cauliflower. Besides kale, we don’t eat a ton of brassicas, though Riki made a nice version of broccoli and bacon inspired by a recipe on Nom Nom Paleo recently. Besides those two, the other big players, namely eggs, ground beef and green leafy vegetables, are in heavy rotation at our house.

To be fair, the number of respondents on Paleo Hacks was fairly small, but over dinner the other night we went around the table and each came up with a list of 10 items. It’s harder than you think; try it for yourself. (If you complete the linked survey, I’ll summarize the results and plot them here next week.)

Stella’s list started with cotton candy (insert appropriate parenting comment here), which she later removed in favor of edamame. She rounded it off with nectarine, sparkling water, cole slaw, hamburger, bacon, toast (Udi’s Gluten Free Whole Grain), eggs, oranges, and grapefruit. That’s not a bad list; maybe we aren’t doing too bad after all!

My list included many of the above: eggs, salmon, sweet potatoes, chard (probably my favorite vegetable at the moment), red wine, beef, raspberries, charcuterie (OK, this isn’t a single item I know, but what can a guy do?), cheese, and sardines packed in olive-oil. Riki’s was similar, but she opted for dark chocolate and espresso in lieu of red wine. We figured we’d manage and complement each other in our hypothetical food limits.

How Am I Going to Choose 10 Foods?

How can I survive on only ten foods??!?

The second thing that caught my eye comes from a series of posts that Stephan Guyenet has been writing recently on the subject of food reward. The series started in April, and spread over 8 posts. It’s fascinating reading, and I encourage you to take the time to get through them all. In one summary paragraph, Stephan notes:

“I believe the evidence as a whole shows that chronic consumption of foods with an excessive reward value causes abnormalities in parts of the brain that regulate body fatness, metabolism and reward/motivation.”

What is reward? You know how you felt in 12th grade when your girlfriend or boyfriend dumped you? First, if you were like me, you probably felt pretty lousy, and then, because you felt crummy, you might have decided to reward yourself with a pint of Ben & Jerry’s. Right?

Neuroendocrine signals from food hits our brain in really complicated, but interesting ways. One thing Robert Lustig has pointed out, as have many additional researchers, is that in a hyperinsulinemic state, your brain prevents dopamine reuptake. More dopamine in your system stimulates the reward pathway that is linked to these foods. So despite the fact that these foods are bad for you, you feel good eating Ben & Jerry’s, your brain gets this association, and you want more of the very same unhealthy substance. This cycle is almost exactly the same as with addictive drugs like cocaine.

In post #7 Stephan outlines a way to reverse the effects of eating too many of these rewarding foods. It’s a 5-step plan, ordered in terms of decreasing the amount of reward in your food. What do the steps entail? Obvious things like cutting out industrialized foods – no more Ben & Jerry’s, no soda, no candy, no chips, no pizza, etc.

But from there it gets stricter: no industrial seed oils (check ingredients labels – these are everywhere), no added sweeteners (even artificial sweeteners with no calories), no added fats, no liquid calories.

Finally at the strictest level, for a short-term extreme fat loss plan, he proposes choosing and eating only 3 foods. Three foods? Crikey! To boot, he suggests cooking them gently, and adding no fat or seasonings whatsoever.

At our dinner the other night, we each came up with our list of three. Stella’s: bacon, sparkling water (San Pellegrino, preferably), and toast. (Maybe I need to revisit our parenting after all!). Riki’s: butternut squash, salmon, and spinach. Mine was chard, sweet potatoes, and salmon. Such a diet is extremely unrewarding, Stephan argues. No added sweeteners, no added salts or spices, no added fats, and interestingly, no variety.

What are your three items? Can you imagine eating only three for a month? Take the survey, and we’ll post the results.

I realize I’m extremely fortunate that Riki is a great cook, and more importantly, she really cares that the three of us eat well. She takes the time to shop, cook, and prepare our foods essentially from scratch. Not everyone has this luxury, but as Mark Bittman pointed out in the New York Times recently, the limitation is cultural, not temporal, as the average American still watches an hour and a half of TV a day. The time is there, but the will isn’t.

Our food industry spends a lot of money on advertising. In his column, Bittman cites the fast food industry spending $4.2 billion per year, and one estimate of advertising in the cereal industry suggests pre-schoolers are exposed to almost 650 ads for breakfast cereal a year. How many ads do you think these kids see for simple home-cooked meals? Not many.

We have a culture to change. It’s taken us decades to get this far into the obesity and food-related disease culture, and it will likely take a long while to get out. But while it takes a while to change a culture, it doesn’t take as long to make changes in your own house.

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