On the 16th of August, fans around the world marked the fortieth anniversary of Elvis Presley’s passing. The King died aged 42 in 1977. But among the countless tributes pouring in, one has caught the attention: Colorado State University food scientist Melissa Wdowik has published her research in what drove Elvis’s obsession with food.
Presley’s fans often honor their favorite pop icon by indulging in his favorite foods, including fried banana and peanut butter sandwiches (with or without bacon), fried biscuits, bacon-wrapped meatballs, chicken fried steak, jelly doughnuts and vegetables saturated with butter and salt. Elvis, who was born in Mississippi and grew up there before moving to Tennessee as a teenager, had a notorious hankering for large quantities of southern-style food.
The King’s particular favorite was his self-designed peanut butter, bacon and banana sandwich called Fool’s Gold, and was known to eat 15 in one sitting. Now, the Colorado State University research claims some people are more susceptible than others to overeating high-fat, high-sugar foods which could be down to genes, neurological or physiological reasons.
Elvis was a known comfort eater and struggled with his weight later in life, many believing his dietary habits played a role in his untimely death
There are many theories as to why we indulge in food we know is bad for our health; not least, the fact that it actually tastes good.
Other reasons range from social norms, our environments and the connection of memories to emotions and genetics. Social norms, or acceptable rules of behavior, affect both what we choose to eat and how much of it we consume: if we are surrounded by others who eat, prepare and condone unhealthy foods, we are more likely to eat them too.
Similarly, our environment influences our dietary choices: growing up poor may have an influence in choosing cheaper over healthier alternatives. Additionally, food preparation is influenced by culturally acceptable traditions, such as cooking greens with pork fat, as common in the Southern United States.
Presley was raised in a poor household, but it is said his mother was an excellent cook. He always spoke fondly of her specialties, such as fried chicken, mashed potatoes, corn bread, and gravy.
The appeal of eating foods from our childhood has already been explored by scientists: reminiscences of family outings, holidays and sporting events can often lead to cravings for the foods that were eaten there, while their smell can bring back happy memories.
Elvis’ long-time cook, Mary Jenkins Langston, reported that Presley said the only thing in life he got any enjoyment out of was eating. She obliged with the down-home cooking he loved, and he is said to have gone to extremes to satisfy additional cravings, such as his cross-country flight to a Denver restaurant.
Recipe: Elvis’ Fool’s Gold Sandwich
2 slices of white bread
2 tablespoons of smooth peanut butter
4 slices bacon, cooked
1 small ripe banana, mashed
2 tablespoons butter
The King was not alone in finding comfort in food. According to some estimations, thirty-eight percent of adults report overeating or eating unhealthy foods due to stress, with almost half doing so at least weekly. This behavior serves as a distraction or a way to numb feelings of sadness or depression. Emotional eating, as this is called, may arise from an inability to manage emotions in other ways. It is self-perpetuating, as the behavior increases cravings and intake in turn.
Colorado State University food scientist Melissa Wdowik has explored the reasons behind Elvis Presley’s comfort eating habits
According to Wdowik’s research, the neurological and hormonal adaptations that perpetuate binge eating are also influenced by genes. Leptin and ghrelin are digestive neuro endocrine hormones known to regulate feelings of hunger and fullness.
Current research focusing on their genetic variants and determinants will help us understand eating behavior better, but most nutrition experts agree that genetic susceptibility can be overpowered by intentional healthy eating efforts.
The role of nature can be explored further in examining the microbiome, an “ecological community of commensal, symbiotic and pathogenic microorganisms” found in the stomach.
Research suggests lower diversity in microbiome is associated with more unhealthy eating behavior, and there is evidence that gut bacteria affect how we respond to hormones that make us feel hungry or full.
A diet high in fat and processed foods and a low intake of fiber, fruits and vegetables may cause a low diversity of gut bacteria. Increased good bacteria can be achieved with more fresh fruits and vegetables, legumes, fermented foods and probiotic sources such as yogurt and kefir.
We will never know whether Elvis’ eating habits were down to nature or nurture because we will never know the extent of his loneliness and whether his sense of isolation was fed, in part, by his fame. This latest research, however, suspects that a combination of the foods of his youth retaining a hold on him perpetuated by the influence of genes and biology might have played a part in the King’s dietary choices.