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Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Cupcakes

Filed Under: This & That
Posted on: July 4, 2013 12:21 PM



I am currently on Step 1.   I acknowledge that I am powerless over cupcakes and that my life has become unmanageable as a result.  I have found that my buttercream threshold has elevated to the point where I now need 4-5 cupcakes to experience the dopamine response that one cupcake used to provide.  I find myself arranging my schedule, and my route home, in order to casually travel past the Mariano's bakery... stopping to purchase 6 cupcakes each and every time.  "Are these a gift?  Are you taking them to a party?  Should I hand you the price sticker separately?"  asks a hopeful bakery attendant.  My face fills with shame as I shake my head, avoid eye contact, and long for the moment when I will be away from judgmental eyes, and I can finally fill my face with frosting and self-loathing, in the privacy of my apartment.

It sounds like a joke, but there is a LOT of scary (and eerily self-identifying) data coming out regarding what is now called "food addiction".  Just think, you skated through your college years relatively unscathed... you didn't end up in a back alley with hypodermic needles sticking out of your skin, and what was once a low grade alcohol addiction has evolved into the occasional 'drink with the boys'.  You survived, only to learn that what you thought was providing nourishment and sustenance... was slowly drugging, addicting, and killing you!  The six year old inside wants to yell, "No fair!"  I agree! (said through mouthfuls of frosting and chocolate).  Darn that dopamine!!

Get your teddy bears ready, because here comes some scariness: 
Obese people have fewer dopamine receptors in the brain, and therefore have to eat more to experience the same reward (or 'high') as average weighted individuals (in the drug world, this is known as 'tolerance') (Wang et al. 2001). 
When rats were given free access to the typical "hyperpalatable" foods available to humans (e.g. sugary, starchy, fatty and salty foods), the rats' brain structures changed the same way they would if cocaine were ingested  (Gearhardt et al. 2011).
After developing an addiction to sugar, the rats were far more eager to gobble up amphetamines, alcohol and cocaine in huge quantities... and they became almost instantly addicted to those substances as well.  However, given the choice between sugar, cocaine, and alcohol, the cross addicted rats ALWAYS chose SUGAR  (Johnson & Kenny 2010).
In one study, when rats had access to high-fat, high carbohydrate food for only 1 hour a day, they consumed 65% of their daily calories in one sitting, continuously gorging until the food was removed.  However, then the food disappeared, they did not return to their regular rat food... they withdrew and curled into a fetal position, soothing themselves with nervous hand-wringing, and becoming excessively twitchy and easily startled.  They were hungry for their 'fix'.  Without it, they ended up with 'the shakes'.  (Johnson & Kenny 2010).

Does it bother you to hear food described in the terms of drug/alcohol addiction?  Do you notice when you are stressed, worried, or rushed, you automatically reach for your 'fix' in order to self soothe?   Do you find that you constantly need more of your favorite food in order to receive the same 'high' that you used to get from less?  Do you see how effortlessly food cravings, withdrawal symptoms, tolerance, etc. can shift into an addiction paradigm?  It is more than a little scary... and it brings to mind visions of a cliché, back alley 'drug deal' going down with  dime bags of Mrs. Field's cookies. 

"But, Megan... it is a holiday weekend!  I wanted to read something light, fluffy, and slightly patriotic... with a side of 'victory fries' and Bud Light!"  Well friends, I do want to pause a moment and reflect on the history of this great nation.  The sacrifices of generations have brought us to a place where we have the freedom to eat, worship, exercise (or not) in any way we choose (unless it breaks the law).  We have the freedom, nay, the right to eat cupcakes to our heart's delight!  True, our forefathers had to grow, harvest and hunt in order to survive... while we wonder if we will survive the Great Hostess Crash of 2013.  I suppose it all comes down to the quality of our freedom.  How will we use our liberties to prolong, rather than shorten, our lives and the lives of others?  How will we chose to spend our brief span of days... consumed by thoughts of trans fat, or reveling in the limitless capacity of a healthy body?  In short, how will we chose to realize the 'self-evident truths', the 'unalienable Rights' that have been purchased at a price on our behalf?  Let us throw off the shackles of our food addiction, and embrace this one, glorious life and all that it has to offer... armed with our health, our freedom, and our good choices.  Let us admit that we have a problem (because that is the first step), let us consistently wean ourselves off of the processed poison that floods our shelves and our dopamine receptors... and let us retrain our brains to derive a 'high' from fruit, exercise, and the joys of living life... with liberty and justice for all.  ;)

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