Sex and Drugs and the American Diet

Earlier today I emailed this link to my brother, who I love dearly, but who smokes like a chimney (don’t feel obligated to read this):

How Stuff Works:  How does your body digest a cigarette?

I found that article interesting, in part, because I had just finished reading a book:

The End of Overeating:  Taking Control of the Insatiable American Appetite

By David A. Kessler, MD

If you want to read it (just came out this year, 2009, in hardcover), it will only take a couple hours or so.  Very fast read.  Pages of footnotes in the back in tiny type, but they’re interesting also.

In any event, the point of the book is that there is a

Cue (dopamine driven) – urge – reward (opioids release) habit cycle

built into the human body.  It seems to activate for some people on some things and for other people on other things:  drugs, cigarettes, sex, gambling, alcohol, and food.  The more I read, the more a lot of things made sense and I was fascinated… there is nothing here you probably have not heard or read before, but the way it is put together is striking.  The food industry has done exactly what the tobacco industry did.  And they’re still getting away with it.  Of course, they didn’t start out to be “evil” per se, but the social costs of smoking and overeating are all too clear.  And the loss of Gerry’s son Willem due to a heroin overdose, of course, is still very much on my mind, so I continue to try to understand addictions.

Years ago the cartoon CATHY had a wonderful little strip in which she pointed out that she had lost five pounds but they came back and brought all their little friends with them.  I think I had that comic strip stuck over my desk for 10 years.  It felt absolutely true.  For me I always knew that I had to manage my weight because if I had to “lose” any weight, sooner or later I would not only gain it back but more.  If you saw a graph of my lifetime weight, which I will personally guarantee you will NOT, you would see exactly what I mean.  Like so many folks, I read the SET POINT diet, the Atkins Diet, the South Beach Diet, blah blah blah.  I even read Seth Roberts’ The Shangri-La Diet in which I quickly lost 5 pounds and then gained 10.  Blah.  I still think Cathy Guisewite had it right and science is still working on an answer.

When I was a small child I just plain KNEW that this memorizing multiplication tables business had its limits.  There had to be a better way.  I have happily embraced calculators all my life.  In a similar vein I have always trusted (ha) that there would be a magic pill that could dampen one’s appetite.  I mean really kill it.  As in… sometimes you’re hungry and sometimes you’re NOT.  I want more NOT.  Something called Pfen-fen was available years ago which broke the dopamine-opioid cycle but which had the nasty side-effect of killing a lot of folks.  So it was clearly not the answer.  But it did work.  It just did other bad things, too.  Otherwise it was exactly what I figured somebody would engineer.  I have a hard time believing that “big food” is as evil as “big oil” or “big tobacco” but what do I know?  Why is there no magic pill yet?  Other than that this is a really hard problem?

If you read this book you will come away with a healthy distrust of “big food”, not because they are evil (which maybe they are), but because their success has been based on training people to not resist their products.  They have learned to engineer the perfect products to create and maintain an addiction cycle.  Personally I’ve always believed that you shop around the edges of the supermarket for real food, not processed foodstuffs.  Sugar-fat-salt is the combination that is addictive and at the root of both food industry profits and the obesity epidemic.

On the other hand, I have never met a pastry I didn’t like.  Chocolate doesn’t phase me.  I can leave ice cream alone (except possibly a dish of Ben & Jerry’s Stephen Colbert’s Americone Dream which is the single most delicious foodstuff in the world).  I don’t buy candy, except around or  after Halloween and Easter, of course, but that’s a fairly minor vice.  We don’t drink soft drinks, just coffee, tea, OJ, a little wine, and Gerry will drink a little beer. ( I was fortunate to give up all soft drinks years ago when a chemist friend pointed out that diet soft drinks turned into formaldehyde inside you.  Ok.  That was easily the end of that.)  We do struggle with portion sizes in our house, more than any other food related vice.  And it is a struggle.  My latest approach is to serve a single plate of food for each of us which pretty much removes the “it’s just sitting there” temptation of second helpings.  Even Dr. Kessler was surprised to learn that his considered opinion of what was a reasonable portion was roughly twice what he should have been eating.  I understand completely.

We do struggle with our diet in this country.  And we’re exporting that tempting, addictive food, along with the social environment that goes with it, to the rest of the world.  I remember being outraged to see a McDonald’s on the Champs Elysees in Paris.  (Even worse, I stopped for a drink.  All the employees were Vietnamese, as I recall.)

Our capitalistic system has a lot to answer for.  Without going down a political road (any further), I highly recommend the book.  Along with his insights, Dr. Kessler offers some advice on retraining ourselves.  Interestingly, some of it is taken from drug rehab therapy approaches.  Let me know what you think if you read it.


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