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.
“This is my favorite spot,” he confided. “Look down.”
The sea, far below me, was calm. I could see all the way to the bottom in the moonlight. Blues and greens sparkled up at me – a feast of colors I’d never seen before.
I looked back at Antonio for a moment. His eyebrows lifted – barely perceptibly. Without counting out loud, we bent our knees and leapt out into the Adriatic in perfect synchrony.
The water was refreshing, but warm. We floated below the stars, sharing stories, sharing silences.
But then it was!
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.
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:
- Cod liver oil
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.