“Last week’s reports that low-fat diets may not reduce the risk of heart disease and cancer have left Americans more confused than ever about what to eat,” begins a Tuesday New York Times op-ed by writer Harriet Brown. “I’d like to make a radical suggestion: instead of wringing our hands over fat grams and calories, let’s resolve to enjoy whatever food we eat.

Brown does not base her suggestion on love for gastronomy alone but also on science. Her article goes on to describe a nutrition study conducted in the 1970’s in which researchers fed spicy Thai meals to a group of Thai women and a group of Swedish women. The Thai women absorbed about 50 percent more iron from the meal than did their Swedish counterparts. Furthermore, when that same meal was run through a food processor before serving, the Thai women absorbed 70 percent less iron than before — even though the meal’s nutritional content did not change. So why did the Thai women absorb so much less iron from the minced food? Brown continues:

The researchers concluded that food that’s unfamiliar (Thai food to Swedish women) or unappetizing (mush rather than solid food) winds up being less nutritious than food that looks, smells and tastes good to you. The explanation can be found in the digestive process itself, in the relationship between the “second brain” – the gut – and the brain in your head.

Imagine sitting in your favorite Japanese restaurant before a plate of sushi, chopsticks poised. You take in its fragrance and the beautiful cut of the fish, the shapely rice and nori rolls. Those delectable smells and sights tell your brain that the meal will be enjoyable, and the brain responds by pushing your salivary glands into high gear and ordering your stomach to secrete more gastric juices.

Result: you get more nutritional bang for your buck than you would, say, faced with a platter of lutefisk. In that case, your brain might send fewer messages to your mouth and stomach, causing the food to be less thoroughly digested and metabolized.

This study (available here from The American Journal of Nutrition) is hardly the final word in nutrition science. We don’t have the final word, and neither do the food police at places like the Center for Science in the Public Interest.

What’s important to keep in mind is that scaremongering comes at a price. Sometimes it’s an obvious one — as when inflated mercury fears frighten pregnant women away from fish — but the endless series of scares can easily taint a conscientious consumer’s every meal with anxiety. In 1989 Julia Child warned: “What’s dangerous and discouraging about this era is that people really are afraid of their food … Sitting down to dinner is a trap, not something to enjoy.” It’s not the only thing we have to fear, but fear itself needs to get a lot more attention from joyless public “health” advocates who seem to have forgotten about actually enjoying what you eat.