Many years ago, I embarked upon epic solo journey across the Balkans. I saw some of the most beautiful cities and met some of the most generous and amazing people in the world. As I wrote in Old Town Korcula, or Why I ALWAYS Celebrate Half New Years,
When we were too hot to dance anymore, Antonio said he knew a way to cool off. He led me away from the festival, toward the sea. I found myself standing on the city wall.
Indeed, I spent many days and nights swimming in the Adriatic. Every day, I saw some nooby-looking tourist come out of the water with sea urchin spines stuck in their hands and feet, and I knew that would never be me.
But then it was!
See those blurry black dots on my right foot? Urchin spines.
The spines were brittle, so I couldn't remove them with tweezers -- they'd just crumble where I tried to grip them and stay buried in my skin. Luckily, a Croatian man I'd met told me, "Put olive oil in it, and they'll come out on their own."
It literally worked like magic.
For years, I had no idea how or why it worked. I even asked on Quora, to no avail. Then, by chance, I happened to read the hottest book of the summer: The Dorito Effect: The Surprising New Truth About Food and Flavor. And all of my questions were answered.
It turns out that olive oil contains a natural anti-inflammatory -- a defensive plant secondary compound called oleocanthal, which activates similar inflammation pathways to ibuprofen. In a paper published in Nature, Gary Beauchamp and colleagues suggested that constant low-level doses of oleocanthal may explain why people who eat a Mediterranean Diet experience a reduced risk of cancer, heart disease and Alzheimer's.
It may also explain why the urchin spines slid so easily from my flesh a few hours after I applied the olive oil.
But you know what's crazy about oleocanthal? Novice olive oil tasters hate it! It causes itching and burning in the backs of their throats. Think about the first time you sampled olive oil -- there's a decent chance it made you cough.
Yet to connoisseurs, according to The Dorito Effect, "throat burning is a mark of quality." Olive oil can be rated on a one-, two-, of three-cough scale, where more coughs = better. Why?
Because fine olive oil contains more oleocanthal, and more oleocanthal produces more coughs. Even though, upon first exposure, we find the sensation unpleasant, we develop a learned flavor preference -- our body perceives a health benefit, and suddenly, coughing tastes delicious!
This isn't just a hypothesis. Research in both animals and humans proves that we are very good at learning flavor preferences based on health needs. For example, in 1976, a Ph.D. student at the University of Utah named Frederick Provenza intentionally fed sheep a diet that was low in phosphorus, a vital nutrient. Once they developed a deficiency, he began giving them feed that was flavored like maple (a flavor they had not encountered before) -- and, immediately afterwards, he would pump phosphorus directly into their stomach. In other words, the sheep never "tasted" the phosphorus. Just maple.
From that point on, the sheep would show a major preference for maple-flavored food over their regular food -- but only when they were phosphorus deficient. But when the deficiency went away, so did the flavor preference.
But you know what's even crazier?
In 1926, a pediatrician named Clara Davis somehow convinced teenage moms and widows to place their babies in her care for six years. These babies, who had "never been exposed to the ordinary foods of adult life," were put on an experimental diet, in which they could eat whatever and however much they wanted -- so long as it appeared on a list of 34 foods that included:
There was no sugar, butter, cream or other flavorings. Just salt, for sprinkling.
Conventional wisdom at the time argued that children were nutritional idiots. If your child wouldn't eat her vegetables, doctors recommended that you starve her till she did.
But what actually happened?
At first, the babies sampled everything. But after two weeks, each began to show clear preferences -- which would suddenly and unpredictably change over time. (With some generalities: babies preferred meat protein over vegetable protein -- sorry vegan parents!) Four of the babies were undernourished at the beginning of the experiment, and three had rickets, a dangerous vitamin D deficiency. These babies would freely drink cod liver oil, which is infamously difficult to get kids to swallow, until the deficiency went away.
Independent pediatricians verified that these children grew, overall, healthier than their peers. They got sick less often -- and, when they did get a cold, it usually lasted less than three days. They ate more protein during growth spurts, and higher-energy foods when they were more physically active. And, on a daily basis, they chose an extremely balanced diet. Read more >
What's the takeaway, then?
There was a time when scientists believed that, due to evolution, humans are calorie zombies. We want to eat as much high-fat, high-calorie food as possible. But that is definitely not true. After all, as Schatzker wrote,
Fine restaurants feature trim diners, a good deal of whom do not seem to be in it just for the calories. They order small pieces of raw oily fish that, it just so happens, feature brain-healthy omega-3s. They relish just-picked asparagus, say, or sauteed langoustine next to pearly drops of emulsified oyster sprinkled with crumbled seaweed. As they eat these expensive small portions, they do not sit there silently fending off cravings for stuffed-crust pizza and bottomless Dr. Pepper.
Speaking of which, if you want to go ahead and make your own lox, and you want it to be the best lox ever, read this. #omega3s
Next time you get a craving, be mindful. Your body is trying to tell you something. Of course, your body is probably very confused due to the rise of artificial flavors and sweeteners... but if you focus on eating mindfully and high-quality ingredients, you, too, could come to love maple, cod liver oil and three-cough olive oil.
About the Author
Eva is a content specialist with a passion for play, travel... and a little bit of girl power. Read more >
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