Thinking About What We Think About When We Think About Food

9 minute read

At the risk of sliding down an exceptionally slippery meta-cognition slope, I’ve been thinking about food and thinking about thinking about food a lot lately. This is partially due to what many observers from the Western world would see as a rather restrictive diet I’m currently on (where diet does not mean “A fad to lose weight” and instead simply refers to the food I choose to eat). It’s also caused in part by attending a lecture by Michael Pollan last Thursday in which he talked about the average Western diet, specifically American, its effects on weight and health and rules from his Food Rules book which is 240 pages meant to give you guidance on what you should and should not eat (if the neurotic anxiety sensors in your head just went off, don’t worry, you’re not alone. While I appreciate Pollan’s desire to simplify food choice through simple, common-sense rules illustrated with pretty pictures, the last thing I want to deal with is 240 pages of what I should and should not eat. “Eat Food, mostly plants, not too much” was a far better idea from Pollan though I’d hazard a guess it’s hard to sell many books with only 7 words.) Thinking about food is an interesting activity, one fraught with potential pitfalls and obsessive tendencies (not that I would know anything about obsessing about eating Oreos). We all know people who seem incapable of thinking about anything else even when fully sated. We also know people who just don’t seem that concerned with food. Typically the former have trouble curbing their eating while the latter go on to obsess about something else.

At a micro level (micro enough for our purposes), hunger and the relief of it are a classic example of the pain-pain avoidance conundrum. For most of our history, the idea of skipping a meal would have been something beyond ludicrous requiring mental gymnastics we were actually incapable of performing. Tell my cat she’s going to have to skip a meal to lose some weight and not only will she walk circles around the bed until you get up and feed her, she’ll probably also claw your eyes out and maybe take a dump in your shoe just for good instructional measure. Animals are fundamentally designed to avoid pain at all costs which of course is a fantastic way to stay alive long enough to get ones genes into the next generation. What helped the continuation of the species ten thousand years ago might now be slowly (or quickly!) killing us today as we are not designed from a physical standpoint to voluntarily choose pain over pleasure.

Avoidance of pain and pursuit of pleasure happens at a subconscious level. At that level, our ability to think and rationalize about food entails very little choice. If we see a maple glazed donut, regardless of when we last ate, we are likely to at least momentarily crave it and consider having just one bite because after all, we can always go to the gym tonight and work it off. That’s the avoidance and delay of pain working. Our bodies know that even if we’re not particularly hungry currently, we might be in the near future when the mammoth we killed is consumed by saber-tooth tigers and the caloric input of that maple glazed donut might come in handy.

If you are slightly salivating over the thought of a warm maple glazed donut, you’re not alone. I’m positive I could go to the local donut shop and polish off 4 or 5 of them right now. Thinking about food has been shown to actually causes an insulin spike in people susceptible to hyperinsulinemia resulting in more cravings and higher intake of food. However, some really promising work in the field of habituation has provided evidence that through cognitive thought at the conscious level we can reduce cravings caused by the subconscious or unconscious level. Studies show that direct thought regarding consuming particular foods in abundance can actually reduce cravings of said foods. For example, imagine a box of 30 maple glazed donuts. Imagine yourself eating them all. Not in theory but actually imagine reaching out for the first one. Imagine consuming it bite by bite. Think about what it would taste like, the texture. Get another one. Maybe have a sip of coffee. Get another one. Work through the entire box until you have eaten all 30 (if you can make it through 30 without causing yourself to throw up, you’re mentally stronger than I am). Your future cravings for maple donuts (and I would guess donuts in general, though not ice cream as the study showed that this technique was not transferrable to other items) will be greatly reduced. This is due to habituation. In the same way people who live on a feedlot don’t notice the methane cloud they live in, you won’t “notice” maple donuts and thus won’t crave them.

This is the difference between actually thinking about food and allowing the subconscious to dictate how we think about food. It’s not easy work to overcome but it is doable. Unfortunately, most of us never rise above the subconscious when we think about food. Even though we are surrounded by food, we allow the old mechanisms of pain avoidance to dictate when we eat and what we eat. This is strongly encouraged by our food industry through the constant bombardment of our senses with sounds and images designed to avoid our conscious filters and make their way to our subconscious, rational claims regarding the hydrating properties of Diet Coke notwithstanding. I watched an hour of television last night and probably saw 10-15 commercials regarding food. Almost all of them are designed to subvert your conscious ability to decide when you should eat and instead go straight for the gut (literally, in the sense they try to stimulate your cravings for their products).

This gets to how we are constantly manipulated against our own rational wishes (or in support of them in the case of those of us who want to stay hydrated and who discover that a big important sounding medical committee has said that all drinks are hydrational and thus, when we don’t feel like drinking water, we should just have a big bottle of sugar labeled “Powerade” or “Diet Coke”.) Food marketers are exceptionally good at what they do and their ability to manipulate our choices is based on the very instinctual desire to avoid pain and increase pleasure that we must overcome if we’re going to be healthy. Once upon a time, marketers just showed us food and that was enough to get us to buy it. Now, they are combining instincts in a more insidious message. Carl’s Jr currently has an ad with Kate Upton that combines the base instinct of eating 750 cheese and jalapeno stuffed calories of hamburger with the base instinct to hump Kate Upton (my guess is that the target market for the commercial isn’t elderly women). If you haven’t seen it (and if you haven’t, you don’t watch much TV between the hours of 6 and 7 PM), go over to Carl’s Jr website and take a gander. What probably would have been considered pornography in the 40s is suddenly a hamburger commercial and I’ll be damned if I’m not hungry again (and wanting to hump Kate Upton. Stupid instincts).

McDonald’s currently has an ad that combines that hunger instinct with our desire to be the first to get anything, a ploy Apple is exceptionally good at. In it, 4 people line up outside a McDonald’s to be the first to try the new Fish McBites, the latest FrankenFood from our friends at Mickey D’s wherein they take flaky Alaskan pollack and coat it with a insulin increasing breading and provide it in Snack, Regular and Shareable (or what I like to call “Mistakes I make while drunk in the drive through”) sizes. Even if you think you are immune to the ploys of these marketers, I can tell you that you aren’t. The amount of money spent to find out what will make you eat Fish McBites is probably astounding and the result is effective.

All these things conspire to make it difficult to eat reasonable portions at regular intervals of things that are actually food (and things with more than 5 ingredients aren’t food, according to Michael Pollan, a good rule to live by which effectively eliminates all items at McDonalds except coffee and a salad which sounds like a disastrous combination on a road trip, the quintessential time I want McDonalds). How can we and our weak little impulse control ever hope to eat well?

We have to accept the fact we’re going to live in pain for a little while, a state of affairs that almost every one of us desires to avoid at all cost. It’s not waterboarding pain but it is the understanding that to truly be healthy we won’t ever have the rush of dopamine and pleasure that comes from eating an entire pint of Ben and Jerry’s Everything But The… or an entire pack of Thin Mint cookies. There is ample evidence that sugar and refined carbohydrates are just as addicting as cocaine. Breaking that addiction requires the cognitive understanding and desire to deal with a great deal of pain over the short (and possibly medium) term. Most of us really aren’t that dedicated to changing. I remain unconvinced that I am even though 20 days of almost pure Paleo eating has fundamentally altered how I feel. Still, addictions are lifelong battles as anyone with an alcoholic in the family can tell you. And that speaks to why food addiction is even harder to break away from. If you’re doing lines of coke off a hooker’s ass or drinking a fifth of Jack Daniels after work and with your morning coffee, chances are your family will support you at almost any cost if you commit to cleaning up. But if you commit to stop going to Baskin Robbins or to quit the Sunday morning donut ritual, your family will likely metaphorically take a dump in your shoe the same way my cat does. So far, sugar addictions haven’t reached the same level of societal opprobrium that other fun addictions have. Thus, getting your family and friends to support what you are doing is far more difficult even though that support is fundamentally critical to your success. You’re likely going to have to have twice the resolve necessary to kick a food addiction unless it’s extreme and they are talking about taking you out of the house when you die through the bay window.

Changing eating habits requires the conviction that the pain involving the life-long battle against almost everyone who desires to get us to eat sugary, processed crap is worth the long term benefits to our mental well being and health. As any smoker can tell you, that conviction is hard to come by. Once upon a time, ten thousand years ago, being healthy meant eating enough food to make it to the next day. In our Western civilization, we now have to come to terms with health being completely antagonistic to our impulses and rely on the wonderfully large cerebral cortex that we’re endowed with to explain how pain today is going to pay off with pleasure in the future. I can tell you from personal experience that it’s not an easy battle but it is one that can be one if you stay vigilant and make as many rational decisions about food. Understand that your subconscious is trying to subvert you at every turn and you can win the battle against unhealthy foods.