Monday, August 29, 2005

Sugar Busting, Salad Shootings: Dietary Drama in New Haven

It was a dark and poor-me night, the Thursday before last. I was upstairs in my room, sprawled out on my bed, websurfing by the flickering light of my powerbook screen. My inner monologue was trying to convince my outer monologue to get up and do something productive. It wasn't working. I couldn't understand why I'd been feeling like such a physical and emotional lump those last few weeks; maybe it was the depressing rotation at the veteran's hospital, maybe it was those doggone monthly hormones...or maybe, it occurred to me in a momentary olfactory hallucination of the brownies sitting on our kitchen counter, it was my worsening sugar addiction.

Thinking back on the previous week of meals, I realized that I'd been consuming more and more of the insidious white stuff--at least at every meal, plus snacks and dessert every night. I'm not saying I was a hardcore addict--I hadn't gotten to the point of dipping my baby carrots in corn syrup, or rubbing the Orbitz wrappers on my gums for the extra kick; but I do have a history of abuse (I once attempted to snort pixie stix in 7th grade) and I could see that I was well on the road to being consumed by the empty calories I was consuming.

I thought about the upcoming few weeks. The most exciting thing on my calendar was my dad's Israeli movie screening benefit, set to take place on Aug 31st at the legendary West Hampton Synagogue. Apparently, the WHS is a ritzy shul founded by Steven Spielberg, frequented by all the big shots Jews who spend their summers in the Hamptons. From my brief google search, I get the sense that it's the kind of synagogue known more for how much its congregants pay than how much they pray. I calculated that it was exactly 12 days until the event...hmm, 12 days...12 steps...sugar addiction...and that's when I decided to go cold turkey and avoid refined sugar for the next 12 days.

Today is Day 10. I'm happy to report that I have been largely successful, aside from some illicit Heinz ketchup that I put on my eggs yesterday, and the organic gum (that I incorrectly assumed to be sugarfree) that was ironically the first thing I ate on Day 1. Mostly, I've been eating a lot more fruit, to avoid feeling such an intense sweet craving that I cave in and dive into one of the many taunting ice cream tubs in our freezer. I've even been going over to the dark side -- last week one of our professors hosted a going away party for a visiting resident on her way back to Mexico. Rather than leave myself vulnerable to cake attack, I proactively had one of the delicious chicken chimichangas and a few shots of tequila; by dessert time, my tummy was all too happy to stick with watermelon only.

At this point, I have no doubt that I will be able to push on until Wednesday. And, I've realized, it has nothing to do with willpower or discipline per se. Instead, I think there is an art of neural negotiation inherent in making changes to one's life. We all have habits and thought patterns that don't serve our highest good; say, for example, eating too much sugar, or procrastinating because I don't feel like expending the effort to get something done. In each of these, it might seem appropriate to say that what is needed to overcome these obstacles is more willpower or discipline. But actually, I would argue, the fact that I can procrastinate so effectively, so consistently, and so powerfully *must* be representative of *some* sort of willpower--just not directed at the goal that I consciously say I want. I would say that these behaviors have just become part of a mental short circuit in my brain, a sort of rut carved out in my neural path by the habit of doing this same thing over and over. Therefore, the best route to behavior change (in my experience) is to start laying down an alternate neural path, brick by brick slowly convincing my brain to believe that newer is better.

If you try to change a behavior just by not doing it, it's like doing construction on a highway without installing a detour. Car after car approaches the barrier, and with nowhere else to turn, the angry drivers get into such a tizzy that they inevitably plow through the barrier back onto the old road, sometimes with even greater strength than before. In this metaphor, "willpower" and "discipline" are the lone construction workers standing at the barrier trying to singlehandedly direct oncoming cars to turn around and go no farther. What an impossibly difficult job! Whereas, if there is a detour in place, all Mr. Willpower and Ms. Discipline have to do is hang out and point their orange flags towards the big detour sign, reminding the sometimes absent-minded commuters that they'll make it to their desired destinations much quicker if they follow the detour.

I've told a few people about my sugar busting endeavor. One person suggested that I embark on a 100-day eating experiment, trying a different "fad" diets every 10 days, and then write a book about my experiences. If I can come up with 10 reasonable diets to try, I'd do it.


In other, more dramatic news, there was trouble down at the med school lunch carts last week. When I went outside to grab lunch one day, there were cop cars in the street between the two rows of food carts, and the waiting lines were abuzz with rumor: apparently, the Vietnamese guy at the American grill cart had just made a death threat to the Vietnamese guy at the authentic Vietnamese cart. Yes, a death threat! According to some, he had even walked right over and punched the guy to prove that he was serious about his threat. The offense? Authentic Vietnamese cart had started selling salads of the same variety as those that were already a hit at the American grill, and Mr. American grill was feeling violently possessive of his salad selling monopoly. Could it be true? By the time I got out there, Mr. Vietnamese cart had already graciously packed up for the day, to avoid further provocation, but it was said that the American grill would be deported permanently if there was any more funny business when Vietnamese returned. While waiting for my burrito, I engaged in typical rubbernecking gossip with my fellow burrito hankerers; I've never personally been to either of the carts in question, but I found it pretty amusing to hear others already taking sides, especially since their opinions were obviously based solely on their total of several 10 second interactions with either of these guys, as well as how much they liked the food. I imagined the whole situation escalating to the point of lunchtime war -- a West Side Story of the culinary variety, including spontaneous song and dance, flashy costumes indicating whose side you were on, and of course the symbolic struggle of assimilation vs. cultural identity, represented so poignantly by the central theme of salad bowl (instead of melting pot) as a metaphor of our multicultural American society.


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