Saturday, November 13, 2010

Certified: Chapter Twelve: Feeding the Dragon, Part Two

During the month between residencies I read The End of Overeating by David A. Kessler. Dr. Kessler, the former FDA commissioner who worked to expose the tobacco industry, wrote this book to try to figure out why he and other people overeat.

I wanted to know the answers to this too. I've had off and on food issues all of my life, including bouts of anorexia/bulimia before I started high school and then bouts of cravings for sugar and carbos the rest of my life. The cravings always felt beyond something emotional: They felt physical.

Kessler discovered many things, but what most fascinated me was what happened to rats when they were fed a junk food diet: They ate until they were obese. And when Froot Loops were put out in an open field--where rats normally don't go because that's where predators can find them--they hurried out into the field to get their Froot Loops, not paying any attention to the danger.1

What scientists were learning was that a combination of salt, fat, and sugar caused pleasure neurons in our brains to fire and the more we ate this combination, the more neurons were fired. When Kessler talked to researcher Sara Ward at the University of South Carolina at Chapel Hill he asked her about the combination of fat and sugar being a "stronger reinforcer." How strong was it, he wanted to know. She said that "the breaking point at which...animals will no longer work for the slightly lower than the breaking point for cocaine. Animals are willing to work almost as hard to get either one."2

Wow. Doesn't that put a different spin on using willpower not to overeat?

Kessler also learned from one of his sources, a food executive, that the food industry understands this tendency for these food combinations to create cravings and the desire to eat more and more: They designed food to have layers of fat and sugar and salt to stimulate these cravings.3 They also designed foods that people wouldn't have to chew so much, a kind of "adult baby food." People will eat this kind of food quickly and eat a lot of it before their stomachs have time to signal them that they are full.4

When I read this I remembered Marion Nestle had said she didn't think the food executives were sitting around a table trying to figure out how to make people fat and diabetic, with heart disease. They tried to figure out ways to sell their products. I don't think tobacco executives sat around a table trying to figure out how to give people lung cancer and emphysema. They were trying to figure out ways to sell their products to people. Wasn't it the same thing? Was there any difference between the part of food industry who was trying to sell addictive and unhealthy products and the tobacco industry who was trying to sell addictive and unhealthy products?

After I read Kessler's book, I lost a sugar and carb craving I had had for several weeks. It felt like someone had thrown a bucket of cold water over me and it reset my brain. Or something.

For the class, we had two projects to do over the month. One was to go to a grocery store we didn't normally shop at and try to figure out the narrative of the store. Mario and I went to a Safeway in Lake Oswego, which is an upscale town close to Portland, OR.

The building looked like an older Safeway. Inside, the lights were low, the music on the sound system was mellow. I didn't see any children and only one man; mostly I noticed middle-aged women (and up) shopping. Safeway had huge signs over the produce declaring: Organic, organic, organic! Then all through the store were these yellow cards touting the discounted price if you had a "club card." I figured the narrative of this store was you can be mellow and classy (because it was a rich town) while being smart and saving lots of money.

We also had a "commodity challenge." We had to abstain from eating anything with corn or soy in it for 48-72 hours. I thought this would be easy breezy since I was so accustomed to depriving myself of different food stuffs. And I didn't eat corn, anyway, or much packaged foods.

It was not breezy. We couldn't eat animals who had consumed corn or soy either. This meant no eggs or chicken.

Then I discovered my packaged gluten-free rice tortilla had xanthan gum in it. I knew this was a kind of bacteria fermentation. What I didn't know was that it was often cultivated on corn or soy. So that was out.

I learned that abscorbic acid (which is in my organic fruit spread) was also probably made from corn (along with citric acid). That was annoying. But since I couldn't have my rice tortillas, I didn't have anything to put jam on anyway.

All those years I thought I was corn-free, I wasn't.

Very annoying.

I was able to eat well easy enough: rice, beans, vegetables, salmon. But I did get cranky having to watch everything I ate even more carefully than I normally did. Plus I felt tired most of the day since I didn't get much protein in the morning. (Legumes may be protein but they don't react in my system to give me that same kind of clarity and energy that animal protein does. I wish it weren't true, but it seems to be. I was vegetarian and vegan for many years. I didn't work for me.)

I stopped my soy and corn fast at 42 hours. Then I went out and got an Amy's gluten-free pizza.

One Tuesday, Mario and I drove to Seattle to hear Marion Nestle speak.

Yes, I voluntarily drove to Seattle when I didn't have to. We left a couple hours early so I could show Mario around the city. I journeyed to the Dragon of Seattle ahead of time. This time the Dragon wanted another dragon. I had a small red Chinese dragon. He wanted me to bring it to the Troll. (Yes, I know how this sounds. But I just see it as bringing a gift for your host when you go to their house for dinner.)

The drive to Seattle was much easier and more fun with Mario along. We got lost trying to find Cafe Flora, but we pulled over and looked at the map together and figured it out. Mario used to have a lousy sense of direction and I used to have a great one. When we moved to the West, everything switched around: Now he knows how to get everywhere. And I don't.

We had a great late lunch/early dinner at Cafe Flora, and then I drove Mario to see the Troll. We couldn't find it at first, but I kept driving around, since everything looked familiar, and finally we were driving up Troll Drive and there was the Fremont Troll. I left the red dragon in the Troll's hand.

We went to Marion Nestle's lecture on the U of W campus. She covered much of the same ground as she did in her books and on the video I had seen. She talked about how the food industry was now targeting children with their marketing and how the food industry balked at every attempt to get truthful and complete labeling.

She often acknowledges how difficult reading food labels are. When she shops, she first reads the labels on packaged or frozen foods. If the list is long and incomprehensible, she puts it back. If the ingredients are food ingredients, then she checks the serving size. (I got these gluten-free English muffins once and looked at the label and calories, sodium, etc. The calories and sodium seemed a bit high but I thought it would be all right once in a while. I forgot to check the serving size, which turned out to be A HALF a muffin. They're still sitting in my freezer uneaten.)

Next, if the calories seemed low, she looked at the per serving for calories, fats and sodium. "If these are big fractions of the Daily Values," Nestle says, "I leave the packages where they are...I watch the sugars. To keep my intake of sugars below 10 percent of my daily 2,000 calories, I can only eat the equivalent of four tablespoons (60 grams) a day."5

Still a wee bit confusing, no?

We left Seattle while Nestle was answering questions, and we got safely home.

When it was time for the second residency, Mario agreed to go to Seattle with me again. This time we got caught in some heavy rushhour traffic, so it was after dark when we got to town and we were hungry. We met my Seattle friend at Cafe Flora. I had the Autumn Root Roast: celery puree with chanterelle mushrooms, parsnip and butternut squash hash and wilted beet tops. The dish was a bit too salty, but beyond that, it was scrumptious. And the conversation was great.

Afterward Mario and I checked into our hotel, the same one I had been in last time. It was late so I couldn't take Mario around the neighborhood. We put stuff away, and then went to bed. Mario fell to sleep almost immediately.

I lay in the dark, wide awake, listening to the Friday night revelers outside, crowing and laughing and talking.

I turned on the TV once or twice, to see if it would lull me to sleep, but it didn't have a timer, so that didn't work. I couldn't turn on the light because that would wake Mario. I hadn't brought my computer because I wanted to travel light. (My meditation CDs are on it.)

I didn't sleep and I didn't sleep and I didn't sleep.


I couldn't believe it. I had brought Mario to make everything better. Easier.

And I couldn't sleep.

I finally fell to sleep around 3 or 4:00 a.m. I was awake by 7:00 a.m.

Fuzzy, cranky, and wobbly as hell.

Mario drove me to school. I had talked him into going back to the hotel and hanging out, maybe doing some writing. He had wanted to check out when I left for school. Something imagining him back at this old hotel in our room on the second floor overlooking part of the city, seemed calming to me. And romantic. As though he was going to a hotel room in Paris to be this great writer.

What a cornball I am.

At school, our class was in a different room from last time. It was bigger and had windows and we turned off the fluorescent lights! I was so happy with this turn of events.

In the morning, we talked about our experiences with the commodity challenge. At least half of the people had done the challenge wrong. They had continued to eat dairy, eggs, and meat. The instructions seemed very clear in the syllabus. No one had an explanation about why they had done it incorrectly.

Then our instructor asked us to describe a favorite Halloween candy and what it meant to us. (Since it was the week after Halloween.) As we went around the room, I was astonished at the stories about all these different candies. And not a one of them seemed embarrassed to talk about how much they loved candy.

I thought, "But isn't candy for children?"

I could not remember the last time I had bought candy, except for Halloween to give out to the trick or treaters.

I wondered if this was an age thing. When I grew up, eating candy was a treat. We didn't have candy in the house, except after Halloween. When I was in junior high, I would sometimes walk down to the drug store after school and buy a Three Musketeers bar. Or when I was a young kid, I would run down to the five and dime if we were in town on a Saturday. I'd stare at the bins of candy for a long while until finally I'd pick up and buy a hard candy we called a jaw-breaker.

That was about it.

It felt strange listening to people talk so fondly about candy. It seemed too personal. Shouldn't people be ashamed of such things?

Of course not.

Yet, it still felt weird.

I told the class I didn't eat candy. (What a prig I must have sounded like.) I did remember enjoying candy corn at Halloween when I was a kid.

I told them I liked Halloween because it was my mother's favorite holiday. It was the only one she seemed to really participate in. Dad took us out trick or treating and then when we came home, Mom had decorated the kitchen table and put out apples and cider and caramel for us. She seemed happy and involved with our family.

That's why I liked Halloween. Not because of the candy.

Anyway, we had other discussions. At lunch, I found Mario sitting downstairs, so we went to a Vietnamese restaurant that had one gluten-free vegan dish. A bowl of vegetables and noodles.

In the afternoon, our class listened to several speakers. One was a woman who worked for the food industry. She did research to find out how, what, and where people ate to help the food industry market to people. I kept wondering if she did the kind of research that enabled food companies to design addictive food we didn't need to chew.

She was currently doing research on Americans eating alone. Unlike most people in other cultures, a lot of Americans eat alone. She said we in the U.S. eat 45% of meals alone. 20% of people eat meals in a car. Americans eat more separate meals. In a family, the husband might eat something different for dinner from the wife and the children might eat something different from either of their parents.

We also heard from two women from Nicaragua and one woman from the Philippines. The woman from the Philippines talked about how things had changed now that they were mining the mountain near her. She said, "I exist because others exist." They had been healthy and strong because they understood the connection with the mountain. They buried their ancestors on that mountain, only they didn't call it that: They planted their ancestors. Now the water and air were polluted.

The Nicaraguan women talked about fair trade. How fair was fair trade? The prices were often too low still for the workers and farmers to make a living even when it was called "fair trade."

Even though this was all interesting, I could barely stay awake. My three or four hours of sleep were not enough. The class ran long, but I was anxious to get our of town before a storm was set to hit. We had planned on leaving at the end of class, 4:30. I hated driving in the dark and the rain. I asked the instructor if I could go, and then I left.

Mario and I got to the car just as it began raining. I had wanted to stay overnight so we weren't driving in the rain, but Mario wanted to leave right away. I felt like I had dragged him to Seattle on his days off, so I agreed to leave on Saturday after class.

We weren't on the expressway ten minutes before I regretted that decision. A torrential downpour began. Soon passing cars in six lanes of traffic were spraying water everywhere. It felt so dangerous. Our tires seemed to barely touch the pavement. I had my hands up several times, waiting for a crash. I was so stressed I could barely contain myself. I wondered if I was going to have a stroke or a heart attack.

I got angry. I yelled at Mario for not wanting to stay in Seattle. He glanced at me dumbfounded. I kicked the inside of the car. I growled and cursed.

I was so sick and tired of being scared to death all of the time.

I told Mario I didn't actually blame him. I blamed myself for not doing what I wanted to do. What I knew would feel safer for me.

We kept driving until we got to the food co-op in Olympia. We stopped there to eat and for me to calm down. I wanted to stay until the rain stopped. (In April?)

At the co-op I got rice cakes and macaroon chocolate chip cookies. (So much for not eating junk as a response to some emotional crisis.)

We sat in the car and ate rice, sweet potatoes, salmon, and vegetables. And then I began eating the cookies.

I started to calm down.

As though I had taken a tranquilizer.

We got back on the road. It was raining less.

Or else I couldn't tell the difference.

After I ate three cookies, I realized they didn't taste that good.

I ate the rest any way.

We arrived home safe and sound around 9:30 p.m.

I decided I couldn't do this any more. I was going to quit school.

I emailed my advisor that I was done after this class.

Thanks for the memories, but I was outta there.

1 Kessler, David A. The End of Overeating. p. 33
2 Ibid. p. 31.
3 Ibid. p. 18.
4 Ibid. p. 95.
5 Nestle, Marion. What to eat. p. 304.


Stephanie said...

hey -- you just reminded me -- did I tell you about the Lierre Keith book I found? When I find one used at Powells or someplace, I'm going to own it, because it's such a great resource for having the conversation.

The Vegetarian Myth: Food, Justice, and Sustainability (2009)

(NOT what you'd think it to be - it could be called "Die Hard Vegetarian Kicks Butt on the Myths & Eats Meat")

And another person who figured out that her getting sick all the time on a vegan diet was for a good reason is Nina Planck, author of Real Food: What to Eat and Why (2007) -- she's a great writer, to boot!

Kim Antieau said...

Thanks, Stephanie. I'll look for those. I don't know how you read the post. I hadn't proofed it before I posted it and didn't have time before we left. I just proofed it. Man, there were a lot of mistakes. I'm hoping I got them all but I am a LOUSY proofreader. I read paragraphs rather than words and that difficult when proofing your own stuff.

Stephanie said...

They couldn't have been all that terrible. I'm a proof reading shark, and I didn't even see them. (The post came up in my Google reader)

Kim Antieau said...

Oh good. Mostly they were sentences that didn't make sense. Maybe you're just used to that with me. ;-D

kerrdelune said...

Have a look at Jessica Prentice's book "Full Moon Feast". She tried the vegan way for a few years and found herself sick much of the time.

Kim my sweet, are you giving up school completely?

Kim Antieau said...

Hi my sweet Cate! I actually am not quitting. I did quit and something happened to make it easier for me to stay, which I will write about soon. (A little long for here.) How are you doing? I love your blog, love your photographs. YOu are such an amazing photographer! (My photos used to be better than they are now. I lost heart when my computer and flash drive died and took thousands of my photos with them. But even before. I'm not sure my digital camera is as good at my old Pentax 1000.)

All work copyright © Kim Antieau 2008-.