Step Away From the Oreo

This week we observed National Food Day, described by its founding organization, the Center for Science in the Public Interest, as “a nationwide celebration of healthy, affordable, and sustainably produced food and a grassroots campaign for better food policies.”

Implicit in this goal of consuming food that is good, I hazard to say, is to avoid food that is bad, and this is where your humble servant possesses a fair amount of expertise.

Like anyone who has ever gone on a diet and been faced with obstacles around every corner—all of them delicious—I have over time subjected myself to every trick and strategy in the book to establish a sane, healthy eating regimen that stands even the slimmest chance of long-term success.

Through this experience, I have arrived at one definite conclusion above all others:  If you wish to avoid eating crap, keep said crap out of your kitchen.

If your objective is to resist temptation, then stop tempting yourself.

This sounds simple and obvious, until you realize how few Americans, based on the obesity figures, seem to have taken it to heart.

Consider, if you will, a study from the late 1960s and early 1970s known as the “Stanford marshmallow experiment.”

In this test, a child would be placed in a room containing nothing but a chair, a table and a marshmallow.  The child would be informed by the tester that he or she could eat the marshmallow at any time, but that if he or she abstained for 15 minutes, the tester would return with a second marshmallow, and the child could eat both.

Among the many interesting findings of this study was the particular set of strategies employed by those who managed to resist the marshmallow’s sugary allure.

“Instead of getting obsessed with the marshmallow,” wrote Jonah Lehrer in a New Yorker profile, “the patient children distracted themselves by covering their eyes, pretending to play hide-and-seek underneath the desk, or singing songs from ‘Sesame Street.’  Their desire wasn’t defeated—it was merely forgotten.”

“If you’re thinking about the marshmallow and how delicious it is, then you’re going to eat it,” Walter Mischel, the experiment’s architect, explained.  “The key is to avoid thinking about it in the first place.”

While this may sound far easier said than done, consider a related psychological rule of thumb, as articulated by Late Late Show host and recovering alcoholic Craig Ferguson:  “The desire to have a cigarette or the desire to have a drink will go away whether or not you have that drink or that cigarette.”

Exactly so, and the same is true with food.

Struck, as we all are, with a seemingly overwhelming hankering for some sugary treat or other, we often assume the only way to make the hankering go away is to seek out and eat said treat.

As it turns out, this assumption is false.  If you simply wait long enough, the urge to indulge will disappear of its own accord, without your having to blow a giant hole in your diet in order to return to some sort of culinary equilibrium.

The connection between food and drugs is useful in other ways, as well.

Just last week we learned that, in an undergraduate lab rat study at Connecticut College, Oreo cookies might be as addictive as cocaine, if not more so.

Whether this finding holds true for humans, it suggests a worthy strategy for how to think about one’s diet:  Treat the foods that get you into trouble as if they were addictive substances.

If Oreos are your Achilles’ heel, if you cannot stop at just one, and if Oreo binges leave you feeling powerless and discouraged, then the solution is not to stare down a stack and shout, “I am not going to eat you!”  Nor should you buy a whole package and assume that this time, finally, you’ll keep your urges under control.

The solution, rather, is simply to quit, cold turkey.  Like the children in the marshmallow study, to turn your back and forget they’re there.  And, whenever possible, to make it so they actually aren’t there in the first place.

In a society plagued by a dearth of healthy eating habits, where one’s poor dietary choices affect everyone else in any number of ways—not least regarding the cost of health insurance—some indulgences just aren’t worth it.


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