Saturday, December 8, 2012

Feed Me, Seymour!

Lately I've been paying more attention to the cravings that impel me to eat (usually high calorie, high fat foods), and I've noticed that the cravings are not stopped by eating the preferred foods (chocolate, for example).  Yesterday at about 9:30 AM I ate some pumpkin bread that one of my coworkers brought.  (There's always some food available there, it seems, especially now at holiday time!)  I figured it would suffice as my snack, but one hour later I was hungry again, so I went ahead and ate what I had brought, a muffin with a teaspoonful of peanut butter.  That seemed to satisfy me, since I wasn't hungry at 11:45, when I ate my lunch.  Was it because of the protein that I was satisfied--protein I didn't get in the the pumpkin bread?  Maybe, but I'm not sure.

Earlier this week, in response to a craving, I had some candy.  I waited to see if that would satisfy the craving, and it did--for a little while. But only 15 minutes later I was wanting more of it.  I've talked about the quality of the craving in my eating blog--it feels like a burning sensation, and it's very insistent.  It takes my focus away from whatever I'm doing and so is difficult to ignore.  But if I give into it, before long it's back. In fact, the craving returns in a shorter and shorter span of time, it seems.  I'm reminded of the play, Little Shop of Horrors, where the plant cries, "Feed me, Seymour!"  (I can't help but think that this play is about addiction.)  I know that what I'm supposed to do is ignore the cravings, but why do I (and other people) have them to begin with?  And why do some people not have them?

I've been reading the book, Understanding Biological Psychology, in an effort to learn more about brain chemistry and its effect on the mind and behavior.  The author, Philip Corr, seems to share my way of thinking about the brain as hardware and the mind as software.  And he's talking about genetics and how they affect brain chemistry, something I definitely want to know more about. And in the chapter on Evolution, he's relaying that we are going to learn about how certain traits survived because they made the organism more able to survive and reproduce. I believe that the collection of traits I'm calling "hyperalertness" was in ancient times very effective at increasing survival, but has over the years become more and more troublesome.

So, I can't help but think that the high-calorie/high-fat-food-seeking behavior that could informally be called a craving is nothing more than a formerly adaptive mechanism that is currently causing the organism to fail to survive, especially if that organism is young.

We know that obesity is related to Type II Diabetes (what was once called late-life diabetes).  Because it has been for many years an affliction of middle-aged and elderly folks (developed after the child-bearing years), the genetic predisposition for Type II continues to be passed down.  Diabetes affects the survival of the individual, but only after he or she has already reproduced. (It seems that no one worries about passing down that particular bad trait, unlike hemophilia or sickle cell anemia.)

I think that the recent increase of Type II Diabetes  in children is a sign that the formerly (in ancient times) highly adaptive behavior of eating foods that will most efficiently sustain life (high-fat, high-calorie, low-bulk foods) in the face of a what must have then been an uncertain future has become maladaptive and will cause the organism to fail to survive and--because that individual might die young--fail to pass on his/her genetic material (including the tendency to develop Type II Diabetes) to succeeding generations.

From Nature's point of view, this would be considered a good thing: bad traits are not passed down and eventually become extinct.  Is that how we will get rid of Type II Diabetes?  Probably not, because we can't bear to let nature take its course, at least here in the U.S. 

But to get back to the idea of an ancient, formerly adaptive desire to eat fuel-efficient foods: at one time in our dim past it helped us, but it no longer does, at least not those of us in developed countries who don't daily engage in calorie-burning survival activities.  Despite the fact that it doesn't help, the desire still exists and expresses itself in the cravings we feel that we have a hard time ignoring.

If indeed this now maladaptive desire is imprinted in my brain and not likely to go away, what to do about it?  Well, I think my strategy for this feeling should be no different from the one I use for other pesky feelings conjured up by my brain.  That is: 1) recognize it for what it is and not what it seems to be (an emergency), 2) restrain myself from responding immediately, and 3) do something non-harmful to make the feeling go away.

All three parts are hard, unfortunately. But the beauty of this approach is that is it not reproachful.  The problem is a physical one and the solution is practical: to take up the challenge of maladaptive brain chemistry in the most effective way possible.  Find it, fix it, and forget it.

Today I'm mainly focusing on the first part: recognizing the cravings for what they are.  The next part is a little harder, I think--to find a way to not respond to the craving. The third part helps the second part; if I can find something to do that will make the feeling go away before I respond to it, I'll succeed.

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