The Frontal Cortex

Craving and Denial

I was raised in a kosher household, which meant that I grew up convinced that bacon, lobster, pepperoni pizza and cheeseburgers were the promised land of food. (I assumed the banning of trafe was part of God’s punishment for Eve and the apple.) I’m no longer kosher, which means that I’ve since learned that I was right: bacon really does make everything taste better. If I see shellfish on a menu, especially when the shellfish is combined with a pork product (scallops wrapped in prosciutto?) I can’t not order the dish.

My point is that we learn to crave what we are denied. It’s a perversity of human nature, but it’s also rather universal. My friends who couldn’t drink Coke as kids now chug it for breakfast. If sugary gum was forbidden, then they now chew a pack of Bubbalicious every day. And so on. Nothing is more rewarding than rewards that feel a little illicit – just ask Eliot Spitzer.

Which brings to me to this bit of research:

Dr. Vaillant compared 136 men who were alcoholics with men who were not. Those who grew up in families where alcohol was forbidden at the table, but was consumed away from the home, apart from food, were seven times more likely to be alcoholics that those who came from families where wine was served with meals but drunkenness was not tolerated.

He concluded that teenagers should be taught to enjoy wine with family meals, and 25 years later Dr. Vaillant stands by his recommendation. “The theoretical position is: driving a car, shooting a rifle, using alcohol are all dangerous activities,” he told me, “and the way you teach responsibility is to let parents teach appropriate use.”

“If you are taught to drink in a ceremonial way with food, then the purpose of alcohol is taste and celebration, not inebriation,” he added. “If you are forbidden to use it until college then you drink to get drunk.”

In a more recent study of 80 teenagers and 80 young adults in Italy, Lee Strunin, a professor at the Boston University School of Public Health, found that drinking wine in a family setting offered some protection against bingeing and may encourage moderate drinking.

In other words, people who were never exposed to alcohol as young adults treated booze the way I treat bacon. The end result is that they didn’t know how to consume it (they’d never been taught the proper rituals) and were convinced that alcohol was this incredible reward, which is why they had to wait 21 years for it. And then they binge, which is why I always order the bacon cheeseburger.

Here’s an experiment I’d like to see: take a bunch of kids raised kosher and flash them pictures of bacon in an fMRI machine. Then, compare these scans to people with no dietary restrictions who were also shown pictures of trafe. (You’d need some non-kosher Jews for control.) Look for activity in the dopamine mid-brain. My hypothesis is that people who have never eaten bacon would be most excited by images of bacon. The forbidden fruit is the sweetest fruit.

Comments

  1. #1 Mark
    March 26, 2008

    So true! Funny idea for an experiment. I do brain imaging work, and I’d be pleasantly surprised if you could detect differences between the two groups. But then I wasn’t raised kosher…

  2. #2 bsci
    March 26, 2008

    um. You have way to many gaps in logic here.
    From the alcohol perspective, the study seems to make the assumption that families that abstain are doing so for moral reasons. Quite a few might have tendencies addition or are former addicts. This correlates much more with future addition rates than whether or not alcohol is on the table at home. Did the source article address this confound at all?

    As for kashrut, the data just doesn’t match. If you were correct, why would anyone still keep kosher? The picture of generations of people depriving themselves what they desperately desire just doesn’t make sense. Perhaps a more realistic answer is people like you stop keeping kosher and people who have little or no interesting in trying forbidden things like bacon keep kosher.

    Your concept of an fMRI study is also overly simplified and bizarre, but I won’t delve too much into that here. :)

  3. #3 student_b
    March 26, 2008

    As for kashrut, the data just doesn’t match. If you were correct, why would anyone still keep kosher?

    So I guess all those evangelicals don’t like sex.

    I mean, if you were correct, why would anyone want to be abstinent?
    ;)

  4. #4 speedwell
    March 26, 2008

    You’re right, if I can use my own experience as a guide. I was raised in a non-drinking household where drinking was no big deal. If I wanted a taste of booze, once in a blue moon when I was curious, my parents got down the vermouth and mixed us a martini, or poured me a quarter-glass of wine with dinner. If we went out to someone’s house and wine or cocktails were served, I was allowed to have a little. So I therefore learned that I really didn’t like anything but really good ($$$$) wine, and that getting drunk was, honestly, no fun. This came in handy during college drinking parties, when I could simply turn my sophisticated nose up at the rancid cheap swill instead of whining, “mom and dad said not to.”

    Now I’m a vegetarian. I have cravings, more sometimes and less sometimes. When I don’t have cravings for a while, I swing vegan or even raw-foodie. When I do have cravings, I banish them quickly with a surreptitious hamburger or order of hot wings, which never taste as good as my craving promised, and gets me back on the wagon immediately and without fuss. This doesn’t mean I’m not REALLY a REAL TRUE vegetarian. I do this at most once a month. It simply means that vegetarianism is my lifestyle, not my cult affiliation.

  5. #5 speedwell
    March 26, 2008

    Oh… for veggies, kosher keepers, and other people who wish for bacon and don’t want to give in to a craving… a couple guys came up with a seasoning called BaconSalt that does indeed taste like real true bacon. I cook greens with it. It only takes a little. You can get it at their website here: http://www.baconsalt.com/

  6. #6 Alan
    March 26, 2008

    What would Escoffier do? (There’s an idea for a bumper sticker!) Once aware of your predilections, he might prepare a small, savory bacon-cheeseburger and serve it with your favorite wine.

    On a less frivolous note: I’m not sure there is valid basis for comparing consumption of pork to that of ethyl alcohol. While both involve gustatory experience, the overconsumption of only one leads to intoxication and damage to organ systems over time (arguably accelerated accumulation of atherosclerotic plaques from the other). I would argue that alchohol abuse causes far more harm and suffering in the world than pork ever could.

    How does one disentagle the social aspects of drinking? Using broad, though hopefully not misleadly generalizations, Mediterranean types tend to drink together in social gatherings, and over time, with food and not to excess. Nordic types tend to drink alone and frequently to excess. According to some accounts in the UK press, British drinking habits tend to combine aspects of both–social drinking, and then to excess. Of course, counterexamples to the above stereotypes abound.

    What are your thoughts on kashrut primarily as a means of group indentity reinforcement, ritual, and control? In pre-literate times or in unstable social settings, wouldn’t dietary habits be a useful means of tracking who is and is not a member of one’s tribe? (Dietary laws also have the effect of confering monopoly power to those preparing and selling the food.)

    Your candor and open-minded approach on this blog are most appreciated. Cheeers.

  7. #7 Mustafa Mond, FCD
    March 26, 2008

    The J-Walk Bacon File
    bacon flavored chocolate, bacon vodka, bacon processing video, bacon flowchart, bacon meatloaf, and much much more.

  8. #8 speedwell
    March 26, 2008

    Alan, I think you underestimate the power of food to influence, even intoxicate, people, in or out of social gatherings. Of course we drink to become intoxicated, but we also eat sugary food to elevate our mood, drink coffee when we sit around talking, eat beyond repletion on holidays, and so forth. The mere presentation of food affects us psychologically as well, of course; the difference between a pork chop blue plate special and a brown whole-pig roast with mouth-apple, or between a prepackaged cake from the grocery store and a full-bore wedding cake complete with pillars and fresh flowers, can’t be underestimated.

    About kashrut and early tribalism… I had always understood that tribes associate certain foods with themselves and other foods with outsiders, and considered the eating of “outsider” food wrong. But there’s something else specific when the pig is concerned, and that’s the taboo so extreme that it’s the first thing you think of when you hear “kosher.” I don’t remember where I read this, but someone presented a convincing argument that the pig was taboo because it was once the tribal totem. Apparently this is very common among early-tribal people even today. Another modern example could be seen in how devout Hindus hold the cow sacred to the same extreme extent. Eating a cow is not merely disgusting to them, it’s sacrilegious.

  9. #9 Nikhil
    March 26, 2008
  10. #10 Marc
    March 26, 2008

    This is completely off this topic, but I just wanted to say thanks for turning me on to Radio Lab. Since you mentioned the show last month in your blog, I’ve listened to every available podcast. What a fantastic show!

  11. #11 marc
    March 27, 2008

    I see evidence of these drinking trends in almost every one of my friends (or did see them, several years ago). Since we were all forbidden to drink alcohol, the times when we we did (even before 21) we utilized to the fullest. We raided our parents’ liquor cabinets, even paid bums to buy us beer, then got fake IDs. We learned how to binge drink, and learned even better how to do it in college. Now that we’re a little older, we’ve all settled down and I see remnants of the trend occasionally but most of us have learned how to drink like normal adults. I compare this to some friends of mine who grew up in Europe and were able to drink at a young age. They learned to drink in moderation and were surprised by the binge drinking that goes on here in the states. It’s another example of Puritanistic attitudes in this country that tend to exacerbate the problem instead of mitigate it. Our drug laws and teaching abstinence are a couple other examples.

  12. #12 bsci
    March 27, 2008

    Marc,
    See drugmonkey’s comment #6 at http://scienceblogs.com/drugmonkey/2008/03/teen_drinking_is_it_time_for_a.php#comments
    The “Europeans don’t have alcohol problems” whine is a myth.
    If anything Europeans drink just as much, but it’s more socially accepted to get smashed.

  13. #13 OftenWrongTed
    March 27, 2008

    Any kind reader: Please give the definition of ‘trafe’. In the third world, “grinds”, is our word for great tasting food likely not to be good for us. Aloha to all.

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