Richard G. Petty, MD

Do Healthy Foods Taste Bad?

There is a valuable study in the Journal of Marketing, which I must confess is not normally on my overloaded reading list. At least it wasn’t until I discovered an astonishing number of articles that are highly relevant to our basic themes of Health, Integrated Medicine, Meaning and Purpose.

We are all constantly puzzled by the way in which so many people seem to enjoy unhealthy foods. This is a matter of enormous importance: countries like China and India are now getting fattest the fastest, partly because of their peoples’ craving for Western junk food, coupled, in many cases, with a metabolic inability to process the food in the same way that most Europeans do.

Well, according to this study, foods that we think are healthy taste worse. This is the “unhealthy = tasty intuition.” In one of the experiments, test subjects were offered a mango lassi, an Indian yogurt drink that has the consistency of a thick milkshake. Those who were told that the lassi was “unhealthy” liked the drink significantly more than those who were told the drink was “healthy.”

When I was a young student one of my teachers told me that patients always believe that if something tastes foul then it must be doing them some good. A lesson that I had learned from my grandmother when still a small child. By the age of five I already knew that any rash or snivel would mean having to take some pungent and disgusting potion: some secret recipe that had been in the family for generations. Even then I wondered how it was that so many family members had lived to great ages. It didn’t seem possible.

This research fits in with the teachings of my grandmother and my professor. People assume an inverse relationship between tastiness and healthiness. In the study people believed that what they were consuming was unhealthy, they guessed that it would taste better, be more enjoyable to eat and that they would be more likely to choose it in a test.

This is important research and has a number of practical implications for helping people to adopt more healthy eating patterns.

This reminded me of a salutary lesson. Some years ago I spent a very happy year doing a part time course in wine tasting. Fascinating topic taught by Masters of Wine who said that they could tell incredible things about a wine after the smallest taste. A couple of years ago such claims were put to the test in Bordeaux in France, which is, of course, famous for its wines. In the first experiment 54 acknowledged wine experts were asked to give their impressions of two glasses of wine: one white and one red. The wines were actually the same white wine, one of which had been tinted red with an odorless food coloring. But here it gets interesting: the experts described the “red” wine in language typically used to describe red wines. For instance one said tat the colored wine had a “flavor of crushed red fruit.” Not a single one noticed it was actually a white wine.

In a second experiment an inexpensive wine was presented to the experts in two different bottles, one fancy and one plain. The experts gave the two bottles completely different evaluations. The experimenters described their results in terms of the interaction between vision of colors and odor determination. But we can also interpret the data in terms of expectation and perspective. If we expect something to taste good it tends to do so. Yes of course you can get a nasty surprise, but there is a powerful subjective component in how we interpret sensations.

I strongly suggest that you analyze your own reactions to food. Do you believe that healthy foods have to taste awful?

This may be an important key to changing your own eating patterns.

“Life expectancy would grow by leaps and bounds if green vegetables smelled as good as bacon.”
–“Doug Larson”

“As for food, half of my friends have dug their graves with their teeth.”
–Chauncey M. Depew (American Politician and, from 1899-1911, Senator from New York, 1834-1928)

“To lengthen thy life, lessen thy meals.”
–Benjamin Franklin (American Author, Inventor and Diplomat, 1706-1790)

“If you have formed the habit of checking on every new diet that comes along, you will find that, mercifully, they all blur together, leaving you with only one definite piece of information: french-fried potatoes are out.”
— Jean Collins Kerr

(American Author and Playwright, 1923-2003_

Cicero’s Six Mistakes of Man

Today is traditionally taken to be the birthday of the great Roman lawyer, political figure, orator and philosopher Cicero, whose full name was Marcus Tullius Cicero. Nobody really knows the exact date of his birth, but for several centuries, January the 3rd it has been.

His life was extraordinarily successful by the standards of the day, and generations of school children learned some basic history and philosophy from him.

We also learned that success is subjective.

Over two thousand years ago he wrote about the “Six Mistakes of Man:”

  1. The delusion that personal gain is made by crushing others
  2. The tendency to worry about things that cannot be changed or corrected
  3. Insisting that a thing is impossible because we cannot accomplish it
  4. Refusing to set aside trivial preferences
  5. Neglecting development and refinement of the mind, and not acquiring the habit of reading and studying
  6. Attempting to compel others to believe and live as we do

Even after all this time, how much has really changed?

I urge you to think about those six and whether any of them are operating in your life. I often use “The Six” as a jumping off point in therapy or workshops: they often help us to focus on some of our false beliefs and perceptions.

And to celebrate his birthday, here are a few choice Cicero quotations from my own collection.

Enjoy and, perhaps, learn something from them.

“A liar is not believed even though he tells the truth.”

“A man’s own manner and character is what most becomes him.”

“A room without books is like a body without a soul.

“A youth of sensuality and intemperance delivers over a worn out body to old age.”

“Advice in old age is foolish; for what can be more absurd than to increase our provisions for the road the nearer we approach to our journey’s end.”

“All things are full of God.”

“As fire when thrown into water is cooled down and put out, so also a false accusation when brought against a man of the purest and holiest character, boils over and is at once dissipated, and vanishes and threats of heaven and sea, himself standing unmoved.”

“As I approve of a youth that has something of the old man in him, so I am no less pleased with an old man that has something of the youth. He that follows this rule may be old in body, but can never be so in mind.”

“As I give thought to the matter, I find four causes for the apparent misery of old age; first, it withdraws us from active accomplishments; second, it renders the body less powerful; third, it deprives us of almost all forms of enjoyment; fourth, it stands not far from death.”

“Avarice in old age is foolish; for what can be more absurd than to increase our provisions for the road the nearer we approach to our journey’s end.”

“Before beginning, plan carefully.”

“Before you trust a man, eat a peck of salt with him.”

“Brevity is a great charm of eloquence.”

“Brevity is the best recommendation of speech, whether in a senator or an orator.”

“By doubting we come at truth.”

“Cultivation to the mind is as necessary as food to the body.”

“Diseases of the soul are more dangerous and more numerous than those of the body.”

“Freedom suppressed and again regained bites with keener fangs than freedom never endangered.”

“Generosity should never exceed ability.”

“Gratitude is not only the greatest of virtues, but the parent of all the others.”

“Great is the power of habit. It teaches us to bear fatigue and to despise wounds and pain.”

“He only employs his passion who can make no use of his reason.”

“He who suffers, remembers.”

“If you would abolish avarice, you must abolish its mother, luxury.”

“In a disturbed mind, as in a body in the same state, health can not exist.”

“In everything satiety closely follows the greatest pleasures.”

“In nothing do men more nearly approach the gods than in giving health to men.”

“Inability to tell good from evil is the greatest worry of man’s life.”

“It is a shameful thing to be weary of inquiry when what we search for is excellent.”

“It is exercise alone that supports the spirits, and keeps the mind in vigor.”

“Justice is the crowning glory of the virtues.”

“Many wish not so much to be virtuous, as to seem to be.”

“Natural ability without education has more often raised a man to glory and virtue than education without natural ability.”

“Nature has placed in our minds an insatiable longing to see the truth.”

“No man is so old as not to think he can live one year more.”

“One who sees the Supersoul accompanying the individual soul in all bodies and who understands that neither the soul nor the Supersoul will ever be destroyed”

“Our minds possess by nature an insatiable desire to know the truth.”

“Reason should direct and appetite obey.”

“Study carefully, the character of the one you recommend, lest their misconduct bring you shame.”

“Superstition is a senseless fear of God.”

“That last day does not bring extinction to us, but change of place.”

“The authority of those who teach is often an obstacle to those who want to learn.”

“The beauty of the world and the orderly arrangement of everything celestial makes us confess that there is an excellent and eternal nature, which ought to be worshiped and admired by all mankind.”

“The beginnings of all things are small.”

“The celestial order and the beauty of the universe compel me to admit that there is some excellent and eternal Being, who deserves the respect and homage of men.”

“The countenance is the portrait of the soul, and the eyes mark its intentions.”

“The cultivation of the mind is a kind of food supplied for the soul of man.”

“The diseases of the mind are more and more destructive than those of the body.”

“The foolishness of old age does not characterize all who are old, but only the foolish.”

“The forehead is the gate of the mind.”

“The function of wisdom is to discriminate between good and evil”

“The harvest of old age is the recollection and abundance of blessing previously secured.”

“The noblest spirit is most strongly attracted by the love of glory.”

“The pursuit, even of the best things, ought to be calm and tranquil.”

“There are gems of thought that are ageless and eternal.”

“There are more men ennobled by study than by nature.”

“There is no grief which time does not lessen and soften”

“There is nothing so absurd that some philosopher has not already said it.”

“Through doubt we arrive at the truth.”

“To be content with what we possess is the greatest and most secure of riches.”

“To the sick, while there is life there is hope.”

“True glory strikes root, and even extends itself; all false pretensions fall as do flowers, nor can any feigned thing be lasting.”

“Virtue is its own reward.”

“We are all motivated by a keen desire for praise, and the better a man is, the more he is inspired by glory

“Whatever that be which thinks, which understands, which wills, which acts, it is something celestial and divine and on that account must necessarily be eternal.”

“When you are aspiring to the highest place, it is honorable to reach the second or even the third rank.”

“Work makes a callus against grief.”

Beer Goggles


With Christmas coming, your humble reporter felt it important to share some critically important research from the cutting edge of science.

Beer goggles is a Britishism to describe the infamous phenomenon by which “ugly” people are magically transformed into “beauties” as more alcohol is consumed. An effect that normally only lasts until the following morning. A couple of years ago the BBC ran an article on this common observation with the catchy title, ‘Beauty is in the eye of the beer holder!’

Your humble reporter has – of course – never experienced the phenomenon for himself, but he was nonetheless impressed to hear that even beer goggles has now succumbed before the onslaught of the scientific method.

Researchers at Manchester University report that while beauty is indeed in the eye of the beholder (beer-holder?), the amount of alcohol consumed is not the only factor. They have identified some additional factors including the level of light in the bar, pub or club, the drinker’s own eyesight and the room’s smokiness. The physical distance between two people is also a factor.

Just to prove that this is real science, the researchers have generated a smart looking equation:


This is the key to the magic formula:
An = number of units of alcohol consumed
S = smokiness of the room (graded from 0-10, where 0 clear air; 10 extremely smoky)
L = luminance of ‘person of interest’ (candelas per square meter; typically 1 pitch black; 150 as seen in normal room lighting)
Vo = Snellen visual acuity (6/6 normal; 6/12 just meets driving standard)
d = distance from ‘person of interest’ (meters; 0.5 to 3 meters)

You can use the formula to calculate a final score, ranging from less than one – where there is no beer goggle effect – to more than 100. The higher the score, the higher the chance that the esthetically challenged will appear more attractive.

The leader of the research team, Nathan Efron, Professor of Clinical Optometry at the University of Manchester, had this to say: "The beer goggles effect isn’t solely dependent on how much alcohol a person consumes, there are other influencing factors at play too… For example, someone with normal vision, who has consumed five pints of beer and views a person 1.5 meters away in a fairly smoky and poorly lit room, will score 55, which means they would suffer from a moderate beer goggle effect."

But why, one wonders, would alcohol have the effect of making other people more attractive? After all the disinhibitory effects of alcohol can also make people aggressive, and the drinker will likely be less attractive to the people around him. Unless, of course, they are in a similar state. And why should less visual acuity make others more attractive? We could probably construct a model based on evolutionary psychology, but inquiring minds need to know.

Your reporter was left with a question: at a time when everyone in academia is fighting over a dwindling research budget, who on earth funded this research? Then he found the answer: the eye care company Bausch & Lomb PureVision.

But come to think of it, isn’t this the opposite of the result that the company would have wanted?

logo logo logo logo logo logo