As I’ve mentioned here from time to time, I grew up in a housing project on welfare. Such beginnings provided their fair share of allostatic load resulting in a lot of less-than-best early brain conditioning. One area where me and my brain currently struggle mightily is in the area of food and nutrition.
Life on welfare was subsistence living. The welfare check came the first of the month, and after the rent was paid, groceries were ordered. Usually, by the second week of the month the groceries were all gone; but due to the kindness of Ralph, the greengrocer who owned the Fairview Market and provided us with a small mid-month grocery delivery on credit, it wasn’t until the final week of every month that things got more than a little dicey.
To supplement this situation, I took a job delivering the New Haven Register weekdays after school and on Saturday and Sunday mornings. That provided me with pocket money to spend on things I would buy from Charlie. Charlie owned a big step van, a traveling, high-priced grocery store that visited the projects twice a day, selling high-markup items to folks without cars or bus money – shut-ins stuck in the projects and unable to get to the nearest First National Store miles away in Westville. With virtually no nutritional guidance and very little supervision, what I mostly bought with my paper route money was candy, cookies, soda and ice cream – things I am still addicted to, and struggle mightily with, some 50+ years later. Needless to say, this is a diet that is not optimal for heart, brain, mind or body, and I often feel like a junkie with head down and gaze averted in the grocery store when I score a box of Good and Plenty, Famous Amos, Fudgecicles or Black Crows. One purpose eating high sugar foods serves now is the same one it served then: it works rapidly to help me regulate anxiety, lessen allostatic load, something the prefrontal connections in my brain apparently aren’t able to easily accomplish on their own. I was seemingly saved from an early life of struggling with weight issues due to a process researchers call “Banking” – being very active early as a kid. But my savings have been depleted and weight management has become difficult. Nevertheless, that doesn’t mean that I’m better off denying, rationalizing or simply accepting fat as my fate.
I Am Not Alone
I’m clearly not the only one struggling with diet and nutrition these days: the Center for Disease Control estimates health costs due to high weight have increased nearly 50% in a mere eight years. At the same time, revolving door manufacturers have had to widen their doors by two feet, coffin-manufacturers have begun offering the “Triple-Wide” and flying overweight people is estimated to cost the airlines more than a quarter billion extra dollars in jet fuel annually. The problem particularly affects overweight children between ages six and eleven, whose numbers have more than doubled in less than ten years, tripled in the last twenty-five.
There is more and more research appearing attempting to both explain and remedy this growing epidemic. My favorite is something I call the Big Brain Theory. Michael Power and Jay Schulkin at the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists argue in The Evolution of Obesity that our 21st century brains are currently required to process more energy and information than ever before in human history. This makes them high calorie demanding organs – more than three times the size of our Australopithecus ancestors, whose growth was subsequently spurred during the last Ice Age. Since then, our body’s ability to process and not store the fuel required for the higher energy demands of our more complex, energy and information processing brains hasn’t kept pace for many of us. Not only that, but since the eighties, the cost of fattening foods has dropped by as much as 20 percent, making soft drinks the number one food consumed in the American diet. If we only gave up soft drinks and substituted water for a year instead, supposedly we would each lose fifteen pounds.
But the problem for me is more than just soft drinks. Add in the fact that food scientists are hard at work fashioning foods known in the industry as “eatertainment,” using a lot of fat, sugar and salt to create “a lot of fun in my mouth,” resulting in “conditioned hypereating,” and my early conditioning makes me especially susceptible to things like Cinnebons or Strawberries and Crème Frappuccinos. Conditioned hypereating of food works in the brain, much like compulsive gambling or substance abuse. And what I appear to lack are circuits in my brain sufficiently connected to be able to readily and easily regulate the impulses and food cravings that mindlessly drive my behavior. In other words, I have a neural deficiency.
One Small Kind Step for Man
So, what are my options at this point. If I ask the Two Perilous Questions, what’s true for me is I don’t like being as heavy as I am, and I don’t like feeling helpless or the experience of being controlled by food cravings. I want to get my conditioning up and my weight down – to under 200 pounds. Unlike with drugs, alcohol or nicotine (which, thankfully, haven’t been challenges for me), I can’t simply quit food cold turkey. But I can identify one area of “food” I ingest and quit that. So, that’s what I’m doing. I’m electing to go cold turkey with soft drinks. I’m currently on Day Two. I’ll report here periodically on how it’s going. If you can believe that.