Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Forbidden Food

So there's this thing that happens every 28 days or so... you know where I'm going with this.

Except now, since the Hubs and I have decided to take certain measures to prevent the little bit from having a sibling (just yet), that 28 days can be 30, 35, 40, or even 60. Basically, I have no way to gauge when and where I'll be when I suddenly morph from a relatively amicable person into, well, this.

I'd like to say I'm not one of those women who likes to blame everything on PMS. My husband would beg to differ... but I have to say that my bouts of bitchiness are fewer and farther between than other people I've known, who might commit capital punishment-worthy crimes if you so much as look at them wrong.

This past week, though, all I wanted to do was simultaneously gorge myself on brownies and punch every other person in the face. What can I say? I'm a multi-tasker.

Clearly, when my mood is less than spectacular my appetite goes all wonky on me. I know I don't need the crap that I crave, but I find myself eating it anyway. This makes me curious why my knee-jerk reaction to a few crabby days is to eat my emotions. Is it written into a woman's biochemistry that she is only going to want to eat based on her serotonin levels, or has it been ingrained in her by those damn Yoplait commercials that she would die without chocolate? I mean, I know I am a chocolate fiend. But I also love roasted red peppers, asparagus, and most recently, brussel sprouts.

Yes! Brussel sprouts! And they're not even dipped in a chocolate fondue pot!

So after a good bit of Googling (I love how that's a verb now), I've come across a few interesting tidbits that might shed light on our eating habits and weaknesses. First, a synapses of a study conducted in late 2009 on a small group of participants asked to fast for a night and then, when presented with their favorite food items the following morning, suppress their cravings. The doctors conducting the experiment measured participants' brain activity using a PET machine:

In men, this willful inhibition directly affected brain metabolism—the group suppressing their craving had less activation in the limbic and paralimbic regions, which control awareness of hunger and desire for food. The two groups of women, in contrast, had equivalent brain activity. This observation corresponds to the participants’ ex­perience: the men who tried to ignore their craving felt a decreased desire for the food, but the women were tantalized despite their efforts at self-control. Wang also reported that the women’s brains showed a much greater response to their favorite food than men’s did, and he speculates that these findings may help explain why so many women struggle with their weight. -- Diane Welland, Scientific American, May 2010.

So men have more willpower? Why? And, more importantly, do they really have more willpower or is there an element of competition that plays a role in how men behave in studies? I can just picture it, my husband walking in there like, "I'm gonna OWN this experiment! Yeah!!!"

Also, if this study were conducted on a much larger scale, I think the numbers would balance out between women and men as far as who could actively suppress their appetites and who could not. I don't know about you, but I know plenty of guys who go from saying they're not going out to conceding to "just one drink," to "ok, maybe I'll grab a bite while I'm here and one more beer..." to stumbling down to the late-night pizza joint to soak up the nights' indulgences with a large pepperoni.

Perhaps in the moment, women remain more "tantalized" by food than men (that word always sounds so dirty), but that over all, we still all suffer the same challenges when trying to exercise some measure of self-control.

So my next question is, why are we so turned on tantalized by food and why is it SO hard to just say know to cravings?

The answers may lie in our chemistry:

"The hippocampus, located in the temporal lobe, filters sensory data and puts it in short-term or long-term memory. Located on either side of the brain, the insula helps control your social emotions by interpreting your physical state [source: Blakeslee]. Then, the caudate nucleus, within the striatum deep in the center of the brain, helps control the dopamine reward system. Dopamine is a feel-good hormone also produced during sex, compulsive gambling and drug activity.

This type of dopamine stimulation and chemical reward that we obtain from fulfilling food cravings has been compared to drug addiction because both behaviors follow similar neural pathways. The pleasure and reward that we derive are simply milder versions of those that drug addicts experience when they get high. Neurologically speaking, that fast food joint isn't much different from a person selling drugs." -- Cristen Conger, Understanding Food Cravings, from TLC's "How Stuff Works"

And also in our emotional state:

"Studies on mood have found that our emotional state normally has a greater impact on cravings than hunger [source: Hill]. Diet influences our levels of the hormone serotonin, which regulates our disposition [source: Pressman and Clemens].On top of that, our sensory memories of these foods, which elicit that chemical satisfaction, reinforce the cravings." -- Conger.

What's important to know about the chemical and emotional connected behind food cravings is that they are nearly completely independent from actual hunger or the body's nutritional needs. There is the occasional case where a vegetarian suddenly develops a craving for red meat and discovers that she is anemic and deficient in B vitamins, but for the most part our cravings are for things we know we can live without: Fries, cookies, chips, burgers, brownies...

If the chemicals coursing through our veins and our finicky brains have rendered us completely unable to curb our cravings, where does that leave us (besides hunkered down in a corner in fetal position until someone comes to the rescue with a spoon and a jar of Nutella)?

I say, the first step, just like with any drug or other undesirable habit, is to own the craving. Acknowledge that it is there and make a conscious effort to get to the root of the craving and determine if it is something you truly need. I can tell you, I might eat ice cream day and night if I didn't constantly tell myself, "You don't need that now... or now.... not now, either." It sucks because ideally, I just wouldn't want the ice cream. But I do. So I talk to myself the same way I would explain to my 2-year-old why she can't have an entire bag of gummy bears.

Regardless of whether anyone else would admit to this, I think we all have a toddler stomping its little feet up in our brains. It's the voice that goes "More, more MORE!" and doesn't settle down until sitting in a sundae the size of a bathtub. And, like kids, this voice knows no shame. Ever see a little kid feel bad about the junk food he just scarfed down? It's always the parent who suffers, knowing the impending crash that always comes after the sugar rush. Well we have to be the parents to our childish, toddler brains. Deal with the fact that you just should not have that whole box of cookies right now, maybe even throw a temper tantrum to get it out of your system, then go work out!

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