Wednesday, July 04, 2012

Twinkling of the Treats

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!)


Zhoen said...

Yeah, just never buying sweets at the grocery store makes a huge difference. We rarely ever make desserts, usually only if we are having company over.

Sabine said...

I am with you all the way. I find it extremely difficult, if not downright impossible to not finish anything made from milk chocolates (easter bunnies, santas, toblerone in all sizes, Swiss 500 g bars...) and I am amazed and a bit disgusted with those very prim people who can nibble just that one bit and put the opened packet back in a cupboard.
My brain and my body totally agree that milk chocolate must be eaten, never mind the aching teeth and the havoc it creates in my intestines.
The only really sane option is to pretend it doesn't exist.

JMartin said...

Let's rig cameras, and watch Martha cleverly never glancing towards the hiding places.

All so sadly true here as well, save for a more vestigial ownership circuit. Alas those chocolate minis, intended for after-school kids. And thanks for heads-up on new Sapolsky.

am said...

Fascinating observations, especially in connection with the differences and similarities between us and the great apes.

For the first 37 years of my life, I could not stop eating scarce (yes, that's what my mind and body told me --that's it exactly) energy-dense foods once I started eating them. Not having them in the house did made a huge difference, as Zhoen noted.

What I found, though, was that if I ate a certain category of treats under other circumstances, they would still trigger craving, and that I would start to toy with the idea of bringing them back into my house. For me, it has been easier to just not eat those foods at all once they were out of my house. The world is full of delicious food that doesn't have that effect on me. By not eating a certain category of treats at all, I am absolutely free of that horrible gnawing craving.

I don't feel that I am depriving myself of anything. It's not that way at all.

I don't think of those foods as foods for me anymore. They are someone else's food. Someone with a different body chemistry. Someone who can take one bite and walk away. As you put it so well, they are foods that don't belong to me.

In another way, those foods are something like beautiful works of art. Some of those foods are quite lovely to look at, artfully designed for consumption, but I wouldn't eat them anymore than I would eat a painting. I can look at a painting with appreciation and not have eat to it to feel filled.

As long as I don't eat those foods at all, I am free of craving. That's my experience for the last 25 years. I love food. I can eat plenty of food that I deeply enjoy now without experiencing craving.

Thank you for sharing your experience in the last two weeks. Sounds like a major breakthrough to me.

marly said...

Oh, you are making me feel just a tad guilty about the few pounds I gained on book tour. In fact, I think I will go and eat the last Cadbury ice cream bar dipped in chocolate in the freezer and so get it out of the way...

There. It's in my mouth now...

Dale said...

Hah! And so many people convinced that you're a nice woman, Marly! :-)

Dale said...

Am & Sabine, yes, I think that's the route I'm going to have to take -- these foods just don't exist for me. There's no point in trying to have a casual once-in-a-while relationship with Heathcliff. It doesn't work that way.

Dale said...

Julie -- :-)

The Sapolsky book is ten years old! But -- I don't know what rock I'd been living under -- I didn't know it existed till a month ago.

Zhoen, I love how sanely you two live! It's an inspiration.

Murr Brewster said...

My observation is that what I want most in the world, after having something delicious, is more of that, and right now. If I am somehow able to wedge a half hour between firsts and seconds, it goes away. Usually. Then the other trick is to allow yourself anything in the house, but the bad stuff you have to note down on your calendar. The joy of not having the bad marks on your calendar seems to be as strong and self-enforcing as the bad stuff. When it isn't, of course, I go for the whole bag. On the theory that you can't gain ten pounds in one day.