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Have your cake and eat it too. Pleasure is good for you

I don’t know about you, but at this time of year, I get a bit bored with all the advice about how to stop ourselves from overindulging over Christmas. As if calorie-consciousness, discipline and restraint were the only way to save ourselves from our voracious appetites.

Today I have a different proposition for you: That pleasure is good for you. And that by focusing on getting more pleasure, you can naturally find yourself making better food choices, and less likely to end up feeling like the proverbial stuffed Christmas turkey. Sound too good to be true? Well, trust me, I’m a dietitian, it’s not. As long as you understand what a truly pleasurable experience is.

Many studies show links between pleasure and health, and stress and ill-health. Books have been written about the power of pleasure and science groups have formed around the topic, such as the Associates for Research Into the Science of Enjoyment (ARISE). While it existed, this group conducted some interesting studies showing the health-enhancing effects of pleasure.
In one study they asked people to recall pleasant memories, and found that this boosted people’s immune systems within 20 minutes of recalling the memory, and it remained elevated three hours later. In contrast, remembering unpleasant memories inhibited their immunity.
In a variation of this experiment, people were asked to list their 30 favourite pastimes, and to rate each according to how much pleasure or guilt they experienced in relation to these past times. People who experienced high pleasure + low guilt showed enhanced immunity, whereas low-pleasure + high-guilt people showed poorer immunity.

So pleasure, or simply remembering pleasurable experiences, gives your health a boost, while guilt – not being able to give yourself permission to enjoy your favourite pleasures (probably because you think it might be immoral, illegal or fattening) undermines your health, weakening your immune system.

The implications of this for the way we engage in doing “healthy” or “unhealthy” things like eating healthy food and exercising is quite profound.

It means that when you do something healthy, like exercise or eat healthy food, but you really don’t enjoy it, you are likely to be depriving yourself of all the health benefits that would be available if you actually liked what you were doing.

It also means that if you eat ‘unhealthy’ food you truly love over Christmas, but feel guilty straight afterwards and therefore experience only fleeting pleasure, then you are probably increasing any negative health effects.

So how can you derive more pleasure, and therefore greater wellbeing, from your holiday ‘treats?

Firstly recognise that a truly pleasurable experience is one that leaves you feeling good over a period of time as distinct from immediate gratification which delivers only short-lived enjoyment. So food that leaves you feeling good for several hours, for example, rather than for several seconds on your tongue.

Stay connected to your body, aim to maximise body pleasure and bring all of your five senses of sight, smell, touch, taste and sound, to the experience. Eat slowly and no matter what food you end up choosing, pause before eating and ask yourself: What does it look like? The more visually appealing it is with a variety of natural colours, the healthier it will be; How does it really taste – not only when it hits my taste buds, but also a few minutes later?; What is the texture of the food? Smooth, creamy, crunchy? And how does it feel in my stomach, immediately after eating and an hour or so later?

Focusing on enjoying the sensory aspects of eating, or exercising really does add up to better health. Research shows that teaching people to eat with enhanced awareness of the sensory aspects of food, reduces binge eating. People who focus on the inherent pleasure of exercise, on the feeling of their muscles moving, or on the rhythm of their breath, for example, are more likely to become regular exercisers than those who are focus on the calories burnt, the kilos lost or the trophy won.