Salt, Sugar, Football and Lady Gaga

How in the world could all of those things be related? Easy. 

This is an article about rewards. We all love them. Babies will do anything for a smile. Kids will do anything for a stamp or some type of sticker. Teenagers will do anything. Adults will do anything for a monetary raise or bonus. Elderly folk will do anything for an extra bowl of peaches and cottage cheese...you get the idea. 

There are different types of rewards: Extrinsic (which I've listed above) and Intrinsic (which are things like feeling good when you give up your peaches & cottage cheese bowl for your elderly neighbor).  

Enter Lady Gaga. According to her latest hit, Applause (which is another highly sought after reward), she lives for the applause-plause, lives for the applause-plause, lives for the way that you cheer and scream for me, the applause applause applause.

Applause and other rewards make us feel good. Psychologically, emotionally, and definitely physically.

Enter the Food Reward System which is defined by Paul Jaminet in his book The Perfect Health Diet as --

the evolutionary selected part of the brain that guides us toward healthful eating. It teaches us to like and want foods that are good for us.

According to Jaminet, the pleasure (or like) is the reward, and the want drives us to get the reward.

Enter football. I think if you ask any NFL player what his or her (no, definitely not 'her')  motivation is for destroying his body, and (other than bling and ka-ching) he will tell you it's the crowd going wild when he's part of scoring a touchdown or doing something amazing on the field.  

Here's how the NFL player to crowd relationship works: the offense takes the field and goes to battle against the defense. It's hard. The defense is big. Blood is spilled. Fingers are jammed and broken. Grown men make weird grunting noises. Then after a 13-play, 7.5 minute drive, they cross the plane of the endzone and the crowd goes absolutely ape crazy.

The player who then gets to jump into the stands and do a little dance worked hard for that applause/reward. Hold that thought... 

Others may have differing opinions, but I think most will agree that the two most popular cravings among humans are sweet and salty foods.

Why is that?  

Again, according to Jaminet (and many, many others), sodium and sweet, carbohydrates were pretty hard to come by back before civilization and domestication of plants, animals and humans -- back when humans were more likely to die from falling out of a tree trying to get some food than from a heart attack or stroke.

Sodium (salt) used to be a valuable resource -- think Spanish conquistadors -- in fact, many a person over the years has died because of the value of salt.

It was valuable because the body really, really needs it -- just less than half of the brain's energy is dedicated to dealing with sodium -- and it was hard to come by. Sodium deficiency is a major problem in mammals.  

Sugary, sweet carbohydrate was also not abundant for our pre-civilization brethren either, and the body needs some glucose for some brain function, mucus development and a few other things. Just a side note -- the body needs much FEWER carbs than what the mainstream "wisdom" of today believes, but it does need SOME.

Another reason the body wants us to like sweets is that, originally, sweet stuff was most sweet in late summer and early fall. So humans would eat the sweet stuff which would drive insulin secretion which would drive fat storage which would be needed in preparation for a scarce, cold winter -- something that not many are really in danger of anymore. 

Therefore, the brain developed to give wonderful, feel-good rewards for going to the effort of finding sugar/carbs and salt/sodium since it was harder to find. It's sort of like when girls play hard to get -- things you have to work harder for, generally give a better feeling of satisfaction and pleasure.

Or in my case, girls would play hard to get not to motivate me to work harder to "get" them, but to get me to please leave them the heck alone and stop writing me poems and I don't care if you play the guitar and sing, and why are you throwing rocks at my window and OK I'm going to get my dad.......deep breath. And moving on ...

The stuff that was easier to come by and more plentiful back then were green leafy veggies/grass, animal products (fats and proteins), and maybe some berries (all things that aren't necessarily described as being "sweet" or "salty").

Just go out into nature and look around. It's mostly green stuff and meat. There aren't just piles of genetically modified, sweet apples, pastas, breads, cookies, cakes, candy bars, bottles of syrup, packets of Sweet n' Low, rivers of orange juice and pineapples just laying around everywhere you look.

In other words, the brain had a need that required some work to fulfill so it developed a reward system to motivate its body to go out there and get it. There is no great reward for things that are easy to come by.

The reward system is complicated but, in a nutshell, it involves yummy tastes and make-you-feel-good chemicals being released into the brain -- mainly dopamine.  

Today -- those two things (salty and sweet) aren't so tough to get. In fact, they're the most abundant tastes in most modern cultures. But the food reward system is the same system it's been since we were fueling cars with the bottoms of our feet. 

OK...now let's combine our two thoughts. Back to the NFL players who score a touchdown after a long, hard drive and reap the reward of 90,000 crazy, idiots going crazy!

That's how it's SUPPOSED to work. It's necessary for the offense to score to win the game (aka the body to be healthy) but it's not supposed to happen very much -- which is why the reward system is there in the first place.

But let's take the defense away. Let's make it where it would be really easy to score a touchdown. Where all the offense would have to do is snap the ball and walk down the field and cross the goal line -- but the crowd still goes crazy and the players still get the pleasure or reward of the applause.

What would the offense do -- fall down and make it harder on itself? No -- it would score as many touchdowns as possible. It would score every play of the game. The score would be 7,000 to nothing! It would be. AWESOME!!!!!!

But what happens to the crowd (or source of the reward) in that scenario? Yeah, not a very entertaining game. Some of the crowd becomes disinterested. Some leave. 

It becomes harder and harder for the team to get the same level of applause. They start scoring more and more and doing front flips and juggling lawnmowers and players start dying and it turns into a pretty huge and ugly mess.  

So when the system (or ANY system) doesn't function in ways it is SUPPOSED to function -- we have a problem. 

People eat sweet or salty things all day every day and are rewarded by dopamine responses and being able to say "yum" (that's a line straight from Jason Seib and the Paleo Coach). Then as their crowd of 90,000 starts to get disinterested and falls asleep or goes and  does something else, they have to keep eating more and more sweet and salty stuff to get that same response. 

And today's sweet and salty stuff has been stripped of all nutritional value so your brain is never sated even though it THINKS it should be rewarding its body. And because its not sated it sends a signal to eat more. And the body eats more. And then insulin gets all jacked up and cells start trying to juggle lawnmowers and you can guess what happens next.  

Rewards are good. The food reward system is a great thing that got humans to where we are today. But the innovation and misguided advice we've all been given the last 60 years has only turned that system against itself and ultimately against us -- and we're paying a huge price.  

Messing with the food reward system is just another way that modern innovation and technology has moved humans away from being Simply Human.