We all know intuitively that certain foods can be addictive. I, for one, can't be in the same room as a certain brand of peanut-butter cup without polishing off every one in sight. But the food-as-drug model hadn't received much support in the scientific community until the last decade or so. As Businessweek reports, scientists who wanted to study the addictive properties of food in the 1990s were unable to get funding for their research.
Now, however, there is a respectable body of evidence that sugary, fatty foods produce addictive effects in the brain. (The article has a good rundown of some of the most interesting studies.) And this evidence could have significant legal ramifications for the makers of junk food:
“This could change the legal landscape,” said Kelly Brownell, director of Yale University’s Rudd Center for Food Policy & Obesity and a proponent of anti-obesity regulation. “People knew for a long time cigarettes were killing people, but it was only later they learned about nicotine and the intentional manipulation of it.”
Former FDA commissioner David Kessler's great book, The End of Overeating, explores that "intentional manipulation" in depth, and it makes a pretty good case for treating junk food like we treat tobacco. Food companies, of course, would hate that.
An approach that would probably be more palatable to the food industry (not to mention the pharmaceutical industry): treating food addiction with more drugs. According to Businessweek:
Food addiction research may reinvigorate the search for effective obesity drugs, said Mark Gold, who chairs the psychiatry department at the University of Florida in Gainesville. Gold said the treatments he is working on seek to alter food preferences without suppressing overall appetite.
[...] “We are trying to develop treatments that interfere with pathological food preferences,” he said. “Let’s say you are addicted to ice cream, you might come up with a treatment that blocked your interest in ice cream, but doesn’t affect your interest in meat.”
Personally, I think a far better solution is making fatty, salty, sugary foods less ubiquitous; teaching people to appreciate healthier foods; and making healthy choices as affordable and convenient as the "addictive" stuff. But of course that will take social change and (gasp) government intervention...far more complicated than just popping a pill.
is that there are some great programs in place to extend the buying power of food stamps. For example, here in NYC, for every $5 you spend in SNAP money, you get a "Health Bucks" coupon for $2 worth of fruits and vegetables. Spend $10 and you get $4, etc. So food-stamp dollars go 40% further at farmers' markets. Other cities have similar programs--Philadelphia has something called "Philly Bucks" that does the same thing. So for my project, if I were really on SNAP and were using Health Bucks, I might not have gone over budget after all.
Since Wednesday, I've been trying to eat on a food-stamp budget--$46.50 per week, or $6.64 per day. That's actually the maximum amount that anyone can receive in food stamps (officially known as SNAP), so I have it easier this week than many SNAP recipients. I'll continue with the project through Tuesday, and I only have $9.50 left. I'm hungry and cranky and ready for this week to be over.
The project is an assignment for Rebecca Sparks's Community Nutrition class at NYU, and it's meant to show us future dietitians what it actually takes to eat healthy on such a tight budget. It's almost doable, since I've been cooking all my food at home using ingredients from the farmers' market or cheap local supermarkets; I haven't skimped on fruits or vegetables yet and haven't set foot in a fast-food joint. Yesterday for lunch I had a delicious one-dish meal, a bean salad with corn, cilantro, pepper, and onion. The day before I made a satisfying stewed cabbage dish with a recipe we use at Stellar Farmers' Markets, and ate that with a hard-boiled egg and a couple of brown rice cakes. Tonight I'm having a whole-wheat pita and hummus from Damascus, plus some farmers'-market beet greens sauteed with garlic. Each of these meals was about $1.25 and provided roughly 350 calories.
But three meals a day of 300-ish calories isn't enough, and since many of my other meals have cost $2 to $3 (or even $4 for the ones with meat), I can't really afford to eat more. I've been consuming several hundred calories less each day than I should. Having larger portions of the main dishes would be too expensive, as would filling up on the kinds of snacks that I usually eat to round out my diet: yogurt, fruit, nuts, energy bars. Eating less isn't the worst thing in the world, since it wouldn't kill me to lose a pound or two, except that when I'm hungry I get cranky and can't concentrate on anything but where my next meal is coming from. The other day, ironically, I was out of my mind with hunger during Professor Sparks's class, which meets in the evenings right before dinnertime. And that was even on a day when I'd treated myself to a Greek yogurt ($1.65) as a between-meal snack.
I might be able to afford more calories if it weren't for the additional food-related expenses that come up regularly for busy working people in New York City. "Indulgences" like a bottle of water while running errands and a great cup of coffee before work have put me over budget a few days this week. Granted, many bodegas and cafes don't accept food stamps (although soon fast-food places might), so if I were really on SNAP I might have paid for those drinks out of pocket anyway. But for plenty of people, there really isn't any room in the budget for those out-of-pocket expenses. Again, it wouldn't kill me to stop drinking bottled water or non-homemade coffee, but it would make life feel that much more austere.
And if I were exercising as much as I usually do, this whole thing would feel downright draconian. At the end of a day on this diet, the idea of going to a yoga class or hopping on the elliptical machine sounds about as appealing as a fork in the eye. And going home and taking care of my new little kitten is exhausting enough; I can't even imagine if I had kids to feed and help with homework and put to bed.
I'm not saying it's impossible to eat healthy and get enough exercise while on food stamps, and I'm certainly not saying that I bought the absolute cheapest ingredients possible. I know for a fact that several items on my list are cheaper at the supermarket in Bushwick than they are in my upper-middle-class Brooklyn neighborhood. But I do have a much deeper appreciation for the work involved in eating healthy on SNAP, and a better understanding of the appeal of cheap calories. Speaking of which, I'm trying to figure out where I can get the biggest, cheesiest slice of pizza for less than $2.50...let me know if you have any recommendations.
Over the past several weeks, I've been editing great pieces about childhood obesity by Daniel Engber, Nicholas Bagley, and Gary Taubes. I've also been culling through Slate reader ideas about how to address the problem. The Hive has come up with solutions as diverse as requiring calorie counts in food advertising, ending weight-based discrimination, and even killing aliens. Monday we'll announce the winning proposals, so check them out then and see if you agree.
People on diets tend to beat themselves up for perceived failures, and that probably doesn't help their efforts at all. That's the message of a number of existing books that target self-identified emotional eaters (and a message that makes intuitive sense to people who don't worry about what they eat), but Tara Parker-Pope's latest "Well" column makes it clear that anyone who tries to eat healthy could stand to have a little self-compassion. Parker-Pope cites some interesting research I hadn't seen before; as she explains,
A 2007 study by researchers at Wake Forest University suggested that even a minor self-compassion intervention could influence eating habits. As part of the study, 84 female college students were asked to take part in what they thought was a food-tasting experiment. At the beginning of the study, the women were asked to eat doughnuts.
One group, however, was given a lesson in self-compassion with the food. “I hope you won’t be hard on yourself,” the instructor said. “Everyone in the study eats this stuff, so I don’t think there’s any reason to feel real bad about it.”
Later the women were asked to taste-test candies from large bowls. The researchers found that women who were regular dieters or had guilt feelings about forbidden foods ate less after hearing the instructor’s reassurance. Those not given that message ate more.
The hypothesis is that the women who felt bad about the doughnuts ended up engaging in “emotional” eating. The women who gave themselves permission to enjoy the sweets didn’t overeat.
That makes intuitive sense, in my experience. But I know some people who would say it's a slippery slope from giving themselves permission to eat doughnuts once into eating doughnuts every day. I'm not sure if they would really ever feel like they had total license to enjoy the "naughty" food, but it's possible that for them, food really does have some addictive qualities. As research by Gary Taubes and David Kessler suggests, in certain people, foods like doughnuts may lead to a vicious cycle of cravings and repeat consumption, so they are probably best avoided.
I would really like to see some research that distinguishes between the effects of people's feelings about "forbidden" foods and the (possibly) addictive effects of the foods themselves. But that kind of distinction would be very hard to make, and of course the same foods may have radically different effects in different people.