Mary Beth Albright is a writer, editor, and host at The Washington Post, where she has developed multiple culinary series since she arrived in 2017. She was a project director and subject matter expert for the US Surgeon General, appeared on Food Network, and earned degrees from Johns Hopkins and Georgetown. Her book, Eat & Flourish: How Food Supports Emotional Well-Being (Amazon, Bookshop) hit shelves this week.
I couldn’t wait to talk to Mary Beth about happiness, habits, and the way we eat.
Gretchen: Is there a particular motto or saying that you’ve found very helpful?
Mary Beth: When I was on a months-long cooking competition show on the Food Network, every time I looked at a clock (which is a lot during timed challenges) I said to myself “I am a great cook and I can help people.” It always helped give me confidence and focus on why I was there. I still say it to myself when I walk into work in the morning.
In your field, is there a common misconception that you’d like to correct?
You can’t eat pleasurably and have good health. How sad would it be if this were true? Because it’s one thing to live a long life…it’s another thing entirely to actually enjoy getting to old age.
Pleasure is a critical part of nourishment and health, and we can get food pleasure several times each day. It’s all about working with how your body and brain create flavor and in Eat & Flourish I have lots of evidence-based tips on how to do that. For example, a dessert served on a round plate tastes sweeter than the same dessert served on a rectangular plate. Even the scientists I spoke with about their research said that, while they know it’s the same coffee in a blue cup and in a white cup, it just tastes better in the white cup.
Ultra-processed food actually interferes with that body-brain connection—I’m talking cellophane-wrapped mass-produced cakes with an expiration date a year away—and doesn’t tell your body when it’s had enough. Eat a homemade cake and the neurons in your stomach (yes there are neurons in your stomach!) will tend to tell your brain that you’ve had more pleasure (and you will likely stop eating sooner, if you’re concerned about that kind of thing).
You’ve done fascinating research. What has surprised or intrigued you – or your readers – most?
In Eat & Flourish I discuss what I call the Feast Paradox, that people who eat in groups eat more food, but they have better health. Eating alone as a regular pattern is a health risk. We focus more on nutrients when we talk about food health though, because nutrients are as familiar as our alphabet and they’re measurable. But, for example, the Mediterranean diet is about community and food preparation, as much as it’s about the actual foods. For some of us, being nutrient-focused has taken away the pleasure of eating a snappy carrot because we just see “Vitamin A.”
What’s a simple activity or habit that consistently makes you happier, healthier, more productive, or more creative?
In science there is something called Hebb’s Postulate, that neurons that fire together wire together—meaning that when you associate a food or activity with a feeling, you’re creating an association that continues getting stronger the more you do it. We create our own comfort foods every day.
When my book’s first review came out—I know this sounds like bragging but for the sake of the story I have to tell you, it was a great review—I consciously had fish and vegetables for dinner so I could solidify my association of fish with happiness. (PS—I know this sounds all virtuous but the fish was positively smothered in a lush, mouth-coating tomato sauce glistening with olive oil and the vegetables were caramelized broccoli. I’m not a monster.)
It’s not a quick fix, but science shows it’s lasting.
Does anything tend to interfere with your ability to keep your healthy habits or your happiness? (e.g. travel, parties, email)
Yes! I’m so protective of my own happiness that sometimes I err on the side of isolating myself because it’s just easier than dealing with people.
People are messy but we’re worth it. Family-of-origin drama is particularly triggering, because when I was younger I dealt with it by eating in ways that didn’t support my intense emotions, including eating alone. There was so much shame around eating that I learned that the most pleasurable way to eat was with no one else around. And a pattern of eating alone is a risk factor for poor emotional well-being, regardless of what you eat.
Which is not to pathologize eating alone; I love it sometimes. But there is a big difference between a steamy bowl of homemade stew while watching a movie and shoveling in Halloween candy.