Possibly the most effective step we've yet made in getting our eating under control was undertaken with very little thought: in fact, mainly by accident. Martha asked what I was thinking, and I – caught a bit off-guard – answered that I was gloomily considering that I knew what the next step was, but that we would never take it: we needed to get everything we thought we shouldn't eat out of the house, and, when we did bring home something to eat that we thought we shouldn't, to toss all the rest of it out when we were done.
I'd been thinking that for a while: there's the times when we're just jonesing for cookies, or chips, or General Tso's chicken, when it's really hard not to go out and get it. But those times don't account for most of the junk eating we do. Most of the junk eating happens just because the stuff is there. We know it's there, and that knowledge twinkles somewhere in our neural networks, shooting off reminders. “There's half a bag of potato chips in the cupboard! Chips in the cupboard! Chips in the cupboard!” Only a matter of time till a reminder hits a big clot of hunger or anxiety or mere boredom, and – bang! Eating the stuff. I'd even find myself thinking “I'd better clear this stuff out of the house” – dutifully eating it so that I wouldn't be tempted by it any more. (Yes, I know. Welcome to my brain.)
But the thing is (I went on), we never resolve on these things at the same time in the same way, and I couldn't see it ever happening. A longstanding part of our couplehood has been supporting each other in self-indulgence. We both needed to think this was a good idea at the same time.
Martha said, no, we didn't: that if I needed her to hide her treats from me she could do it easily. It would even be rather fun. And from that moment, treats disappeared from the house.
That must have been two weeks ago, and I haven't eaten a treat since. No ice cream, no cookies, no chips. And – this is important – not because I've resolved not to. I've made no resolve. I've wasted no mental energy on that. I can have all the ice cream etc. I want: I just can't store it.
It turns out that, while I crave a treat desperately if I know it's in the house, I have not, so far, actually wanted one so much that I'll go out and make a special trip to get it. The mismatch is ludicrous and I'm startled by it. It's as though there were an inverse square of law of treat attraction. Not only that, but my brain obviously takes ownership very seriously. The cookies in the store are not only far away – they don't belong to me yet. Which means that, while they may show up forcefully in my consciousness from time to time, they don't just sit in there twinkling. It's the damnedest thing. If I own them, some portion of my brain, it seems, thinks about them continuously. If I don't own them and don't see them, though, they really truly just vanish from my mind for hours and even days at a time.
The fact that they may actually be there, in some cunning hiding place of Martha's, doesn't register at all. The craving seems to hook to a concrete and definite recollection. Abstract and general knowledge doesn't offer the purchase of a specific memory of a specific bag of chips in a specific cupboard.
This actually all makes a fair amount of sense if you consider that mostly what primates do all day is wander around looking for things to eat, or figure out how to get to things they know are there, or divvy up treats amongst the band other under more or less threat of violence. Hunter-gatherers do a lot of spotting treats and mulling over how to get at them, or how to get them away from competitors. Most of us great apes seem to have moved into the evolutionary niche of finding particularly clever ways to get at scarce energy-dense foods, which possibly helps explain why we're so high-strung, and so socially high-stakes. Gorillas never went that way – they still just munch leaves all day – and they're notably sweeter-tempered and easier-going than the rest of us. Human beings went that way with a vengeance, though. It doesn't make a lot of sense to snatch leaves out of each other's mouths when there's abundant foliage all around. But a honeycomb trove? A tender young lamb? That's worth fighting about, or kowtowing for.
(Yes, I have been reading Robert Sapolsky, A Primate's Memoir. Oh my God. What an amazing book!)