Is Mary Beth Albright Food’s Best Hope?

Food and emotional eating panel packed to the omega-3 soaked gills

Mary Beth Albright – culture, food, and mental health writer for the Washington Post and public health lawyer – sparkled as she discussed the subject of her latest book to an absolutely packed room at SXSW on March 11.

Eat & Flourish: How Food Supports Emotional Well-Being (Countryman Press) combines her engaging voice with science and research, some from the emerging field of nutritional psychiatry, which suggests diet may be associated with disorders like schizophrenia, psychosis, and dementia. Albright seeks to redefine emotional eating, emphasizes getting pleasure from food, and wants to subvert “diet” “culture.”

Albright spoke of the emotional eating cycle we all have the potential to fall into, and how we may make the cycle vicious, or virtuous. Regarding getting more pleasure from food, Albright said that science shows that when people eat communally, they may eat a larger portion than when dining alone, but people who eat communally often have better health outcomes than those who don’t. But in diet culture, eating more is always seen as worse. Not so in science. Albright calls this phenomenon “the feast paradox.”

Albright discussed how the senses help us enjoy food, and how we should employ ours as often as possible. She cited studies showing that human testers, when given stale potato chips versus given stale potato chips with loud, crunchy sound effects piped in, gave the sound effect-enhanced chips better and higher ratings. And in a scotch tasting study, people described flavors as “grassy” when sounds of birds chirping were piped in, or “smoky” when sounds of a crackling fire played as they sipped. Rats who lack a sense of smell exhibited signs of depression, Albright said.

Mary Beth Albright interacts with SXSW attendees (photo by A. Richmond)

She mentioned “mouth geometry,” which is a study of how rounder foods are perceived as being sweeter than square shapes. She cited complaints from consumers who felt the Cadbury Dairy Milk chocolate from the UK was “sweeter,” when the only thing that changed was the shape from square to round. This gets Albright super jazzed, because theoretically, makers could change the shape of products from square to round, add less sugar, and get the same response from consumers, potentially leading to better health outcomes. Everyone experiences food in different ways. But, everyone loves eating food with heavy, high-quality cutlery, studies show, and chefs and restaurateurs know it.

It is hard science that when we eat plants, they become part of us. But this fact is not a part of health public policy, yet. And mental health, or health in general, is not a dichotomy. Albright said, “You are not ‘sick’ or ‘well.’ I’m not saying, ‘eat three walnuts and call me in the morning.’ Don’t toss your Lexapro or pause talk therapy. But food is a tool. And we have a moral imperative to feed the 8 million people on this planet.” Plus we have to eat, daily, around three times. So why not enjoy it? Albright says one trick she uses is to go to a salad bar and eat veggies she hasn’t had in a while (“hello, beets!”).

With swiftness and kindness, Albright batted away questions from parents seeking to divert their kids’ interest in candy with fruit, and rejected a claim that Gen Z is turning to junk food more than Gen X or others. With tenacity, Albright stuck to her message: plants over pills (some supplements may make sense for you); don’t blame people for their symptoms; don’t demonize nor give “health halos” to foods; and seek to enjoy eating, and with others when possible. And, look to science.

Eat, You'll Feel Better: Food & Emotional Well-Being

Food Track

Sat 11, 10am, Austin Marriott Downtown

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