Food addiction, and why words matter

Years ago I had a friend who used to talk about being “addicted to being a victim”. I thought it very deep and clever at the time (I was a teenager, and he an aspiring poet).

That was before I really cared – or thought that others should really care – about how we use words, or understood that how we use words can *actually* be deep and important.

(For the record, I don’t actually use the word “deep” anymore.)

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Sugar addiction for dummies

torture

Vox just published a Q&A with Robert Lustig (“famous” for his viral “Sugar: The Bitter Truth” lecture), purporting to lay out the case for treating sugar like a dangerous drug.

The hyperbole about sugar (it’s like cocaine!) has become pretty standard fare by now, not least thanks to films like Fed Up, and the whole fat-loving, carb-bashing brotherhood (now with its first ever physical filter bubble conference).

But Lustig made a couple of points I thought might be handy to keep in mind:

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Vegas baby!

Las Vegas is awesome. There are literally huge women everywhere.IMAG2229 IMAG2226

It’s also awesome because this year I got to attend The Amazing Meeting. It’s too much to describe (the Philosophe is doing daily round ups of all the cool stuff). But in summary, between 24-hr access to slot machines, $1 Bloody Marys, and some 65 very clever people talking about very clever stuff, let’s just say my dopamine levels are deliciously high.

About which, some of the talks I’ve so far enjoyed the most have been by Sally Satel and Scott Lilienfeld on the problems with popular misunderstandings of neuroimaging and the abuses of addiction-lingo.

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Cigarettes and chocolate

Yesterday, I tweeted the following:food addict cnn

Perhaps it was a little unkind, given that this writer was sharing rather intimate details about her struggles with self-control around sugar and carbs, like the fact that at the height of her “using” (let’s use the right language now), she was scoffing not just any old ice cream, but some of the ‘Bon-Appetit top-10-rated best-in-the-nation ice cream‘, and that in the second round of “lapsing”, it was those ‘‘50s-style red and white mini-popcorn bags’ being fed from the ‘Satanic butter machine’, aka a popcorn maker at her place of work that got her. After days of resisting, she finally ‘broke down’ and

I grabbed one of those red and white paper bags and the commercial-grade scooper and joined the crowd. I ate one bag and stopped.

Of course the “story” here is that stopping (for her) is so unusual, because her “addicted” brain wanted to keep eating bag after bag after bag.

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The Extraordinary (and Pretty Damn Cool) Science of Junk Food

cheetos

If you haven’t already, I’d encourage you to read this fascinating NY Times piece (excerpted from a forthcoming book) on “The Extraordinary Science of Addictive Junk Food”.

A friend tweeted that it was a ‘brilliant indictment of the food industry’, which I gather it was meant to be, and which I agree it was to some extent. There are some pretty chilling descriptions of industry strategies to sell more calories, including some pretty off-putting language to describe the bodies that those calories are designed for:

In Coke’s headquarters in Atlanta, the biggest consumers were referred to as “heavy users.” “The other model we use was called ‘drinks and drinkers,’ ” Dunn said. “How many drinkers do I have? And how many drinks do they drink? If you lost one of those heavy users, if somebody just decided to stop drinking Coke, how many drinkers would you have to get, at low velocity, to make up for that heavy user? The answer is a lot. It’s more efficient to get my existing users to drink more.”

One of Dunn’s lieutenants, Todd Putman, who worked at Coca-Cola from 1997 to 2001, said the goal became much larger than merely beating the rival brands; Coca-Cola strove to outsell every other thing people drank, including milk and water. The marketing division’s efforts boiled down to one question, Putman said: “How can we drive more ounces into more bodies more often?”

So while I remain sceptical of the “addictive” nature of “junk food” – or rather, I am concerned with how easy the criteria for “addictions” seem to be to fulfil these days – I can appreciate that it’s in the interests of people selling food that we don’t really need to strive to get us hooked on them. And the evident success of that venture has obviously contributed to the rising levels of obesity and poor health.

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Is “junk” food addictive?

In the same week that (just in time for Easter!) we are (again) told that chocolate is “good for you”, come these depressing headlines:

Depressing not because of the news itself, but because of how that news inevitably is – has been, will be – abused by lazy reporting and lazy reading. True to the “addicts” that some of us apparently are, we look to the instant gratification of headlines and will happily regurgitate them at dinner tables, if not (even more depressingly) use them to explain away the need to take responsibility for what we put in our mouths. Francis Lam at Salon put it poignantly when he wrote that ‘seeing food in the dark light of addiction … filled me with a confused sadness‘, but I’d venture that many more people will be delighted at the news. Finally, we can point the finger at evil food (Good news, Mr. Creosote. It’s been the food’s fault all along!). Continue reading “Is “junk” food addictive?”