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Resistance to the Food Addiction Paradigm, Part 1

September 22, 2010

Fat kid

One of the arguments against accepting the idea that people can be addicted to food is that food is a biological necessity and we can’t live without it. In the “Comments” section of a previous post, Dr. Pretlow says,

Granted, it’s ‘biological’ for humans to seek out food, as well as pleasurable stimuli. But what’s actually the biology here? Is it simply the biggest survival bang for the buck, i.e. highest number of calories? If that were the case then humans should be equally driven to consume dry baked potato, which has the same calories per gram as sugar. It may be that the comforting response to highly pleasurable stimuli is actually a biological coping mechanism. However, it appears that progressively increasing stress in our population, in conjunction with the overabundant, highly pleasurable comfort food environment, has put that coping mechanism into overload. That’s the biology we need to deal with.

And how much of it is mental? Paul Bloom, in an Atlantic Magazine article that may shed some light on the childhood obesity epidemic, explores the idea that a human is not a monolithic entity, but a “community of competing selves,” a collection of personalities that sometimes work against each others’ interests. They bargain with each other, and often deceive each other. The self that gets up early and goes for a run on a bright morning is not the same self who, the next night, hunkers down in front of the TV with a quart of ice cream. Somehow, one self has momentarily “won” and made the other self shut up and ignore the ice cream orgy. Bloom says,

This theory might explain certain puzzles of everyday life, such as why addictions and compulsions are so hard to shake off.

It’s almost like the old cartoon cliché where a person has a tiny devil sitting on one shoulder and a tiny angel on the other. They do battle, and sometimes the devil wins. Sometimes we keep the devil from winning by a process of self-binding, and even kids can do it.

Bloom cites a study done in the 1970s, where a child would be given a marshmallow and offered a choice: this marshmallow now, or more marshmallows if the child could wait a few minutes. Even though they don’t understand the psychology of self-binding, some kids figured out how to do it, by looking away or covering up the marshmallow to avoid the immediate temptation and get a bigger reward. (Interestingly, the ability to self-bind was also found to correlate with life challenges later in life, such as scoring well on the SAT and handling exposure to recreational drugs.) Restraint can be even harder to muster as the years go by. Bloom says,

For adult humans, though, the problem is that the self you are trying to bind has resources of its own… We bribe and threaten and cajole, just as if we were dealing with an addicted friend… For every argument made by the dieting self — ‘This diet is really working’ or ‘I really need to lose weight’ — the cake eater can respond with another — ‘This will never work’ or ‘I’m too vain’ or ‘You only live once.’

Back in 1991, in the Chinese city of Luoyang, people started noticing long lines outside some restaurants, while others drew only a scant number of customers. Eventually it was revealed that, with true entrepreneurial spirit, dozens of eateries had begun serving food seasoned with the ground-up opium poppy pods. Strangely, no diners complained about their noodles or rice. Health authorities said that the complaints came from the owners of other restaurants who weren’t lacing the food with opium. Weekly World News reported that nearly 1,500 pounds of poppy pods were seized from the 92 participating restaurants. In 2004, The Sunday Times reported another wave of opium by-product additives in restaurant food.

Fortunately, in today’s United States, nobody is lacing the food with the ground-up poppy residue. But something is going on. Certain highly pleasurable foods do seem to have an addictive effect, and certain people seem very susceptible to being hooked on them. Or hooked not even on particular foods but on eating in general. Some people just don’t have an “off” switch, like Mr. Creosote in Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life, who is done in by one wafer-thin mint.

Society is able to tolerate a number of addictive substances. Coffee gets a free pass. When I was in high school, my girlfriend told me about how her father had to set the alarm to get up in the middle of the night and swallow a couple of teaspoons of instant coffee, to avoid a terrible morning withdrawal headache. But America is not going to give up its coffee, so we just sort of pretend that this kind of addiction doesn’t exist. It seems like a blind eye is also turned on the addictive qualities of highly pleasurable, hedonic foods.

Your responses and feedback are welcome!

Source: “First Person Plural,” Atlantic Magazine, 11/08
Source: “Weekly World News,” Google Books
Image by daniel is clever, used under its Creative Commons license.

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