Thursday, March 31, 2011

Animal Behavior and Preference for High-Calorie Foods (Answering Anon's Q)

"Anonymous" posed the following question to me several days ago under my "Snack Attack Experiment" post:
"Just curious about this idea. As a zoology major, what do you think about the tendency of all animals to 'prefer' high-calorie foods as a survival instinct? To clarify: sugar, starches and fats taste 'good' because it is more advantageous to the body than low-calorie food sources like grains or veggies. You know, bigger bang for your dietary buck. Any thoughts?"
I do have thoughts (and rare moments to quietly think them through in a tangible flow). I'm certainly no expert on animal behavior, but I enjoyed mulling over your question. Although I recall reading about this subject, I have no references before me, and I don't know if this tendency applies to "all" animals -- it may, but I can't make that claim.     (Continues below picture).
Source: Bansky

What we're talking about:
In a raw, unsalted nut shell, many animals (including us) evolved and experienced times when food was scarce and had to be worked for (hunt, gather, till). It was advantageous to like high-caloric foods in order to be sustained until more food was found. With meat-eaters, for example, the fatty muscles of the kill would be eaten first. That extra energy was needed for survival: obtain more food, find and defend shelter, and do the mating dance (including looking healthy enough to attract a mate).

My youngest.
On top of desiring sweeter, high-caloric choices, our taste buds also detect bitterness - a survival trait to avoid ingesting poisons. Green vegetables can be bitter, especially raw. The bitterness, it's been suggested, is an indication of toxicity. The levels are low in the common green veggies we consume and won't harm us. However, that bitterness is stronger for children's taste buds, they are more sensitive to it. Which makes sense because their bodies are smaller and may not handle the toxicity levels the same way an adult can. Their bodies tell them "Ugh! Don't eat this!" They eventually, with repetitive exposure and patience, will grow into their green veggies and eat them. Until then, they will most likely choose the sweeter, high-caloric foods, which they NEED for their growing bodies and seemingly endless supply of energy. Nuts and fruit certainly fit the bill, but according to their taste buds, so do cookies, ice cream, and candy, and maybe even more so because of the high sugar content.

Therefore, if given a choice between a sweet, high-energy food or a possibly bitter, lower-energy food, the natural tendency is to choose the sweet one, just like Anonymous pointed out.

Our modern lifestyle doesn't require as many fatty/starchy/sugary foods because we move less.
We still need to earn a living to obtain food, find shelter, and support a mate/family -- but now a lot of it can be done while sitting down. Even finding a mate can be done sitting down with computer-dating services.


At the risk of over-simplifying, for much of the modern population, we've moved from an active-because-you-have-to environment to a sit-because-you-can civilization. BUT, we still have the high-caloric-desiring tendencies. Bummer.

Expending energy.
Young children (as well as most young mammals) want to play, jump around, and chase each other; it's part of their development and preparation for adulthood. As adults, energy is conserved for survival needs. Some potential prey will be foregone if the cost of energy to catch it is too great, especially if there are other food sources available, although less-tasty.

For instance, would you run a mile for a hamburger that may or may not be there, or conserve energy and go for positively-available greens, roots, berries and nuts?

But we have many choices at our fingertips. And many of them are poor, inferior choices. They are "convenient" alternatives to the real thing, resulting in not only conserving energy but packing on more "energy stores" a.k.a. "fat" in the process. Thanks to our taste buds, food chemists, food giants and marketing schemes, we learn to prefer fruit snacks to fruit because they are more convenient to eat (it's easier to pop a fruit snack than to deal with sticky fruit, peels and seeds).

At this point you may be thinking I'm ready to chuck my kids' snack boxes and force them to only eat nutrient and power-dense foods.

If we go on mindlessly succumbing to convenient play food and a sedentary lifestyle, our health will pay the toll.
We gravitate towards easy energy disguised as food. Now we need to educate ourselves of the differences, but we still want them! We didn't used to have to learn about the difference between play/junk food and real food. You ate what was available, and what was available was real, and you had to work somehow to get it.

Education will help us stop being mindless/ignorant to what's happening.
We need to teach ourselves to compensate for lifestyle changes. Manipulated "foods" won't be going away. Sedentary lifestyles are easy to slip into. We, therefore, must wake up and work to try to return some of what our bodies were built to do and process. We have to educate ourselves that our bodies feel better with real foods and activity. Our emotions and mental capacities improve, also.

It takes work/effort/desire to educate ourselves and family to make better choices.
It takes work to provide vegetables and grains in a pleasing way especially if my family isn't used to it. It's so much easier to grab a "convenience" food. When I'm especially hungry, I don't feel like washing and chopping and preparing. I just want to eat. It takes work to plan ahead. And it takes work to educate ourselves that those convenience foods aren't so convenient to our health if they are the main source of our nutrition.
It may take work for some of us to MOVE in our sedentary lifestyle (and stop conserving energy for the hunt or migration). To some it comes naturally because they know how good moving feels and of its benefits. They have found exercises they like. For others, it takes work to convince themselves to run although no one is chasing them, or climb going no where or to do any kind of exercise that doesn't result in obtaining food and shelter (wouldn't our ancestors laugh at us?!). {Me personally, I know how good activity feels, and my body craves it, but sometimes I ignore my body's incessant reminders that it needs to be more active. I'm an all-or-nothing kind of person for most things in my life, including exercises. I'm teaching myself 10 minutes here and there is okay, and that I don't have to act like a person in training}.

Educate ourselves and our family. But who do you believe?
We need to educate ourselves, and it may take trial and error to find what is right you. Now, who do you believe to provide you with accurate information in an ever-changing, multi-million dollar diet industry? Who's expert advice do you believe?

The body, untainted, is an expert. It's amazing. It will tell you when it is hungry and full. It will tell you it didn't like what you just ate. It will tell you what it needs. It has evolved to do that. And in the last 60 or so years, we've managed to mess with its perfect system by ignoring the body's signals.
I'm amazed I found this photo.
I love how "I have a voice" is in front of the
body and stomach area.
We blame ourselves for having cravings.
Cravings are signals from the body. When we go on fad diets and eliminate food groups, the body tells you it needs it. The signal is ignored because it doesn't fit into the diet designed by "experts." The body proceeds to scream for it in the form of cravings. Then you grab a cheap, junky version of what it's really asking for and blame yourself for not having willpower.

I love this quote (don't know the source), "Obesity is a symptom of starvation."
Like I said earlier, the body is the expert. It sends us signals. We grab sub par versions of what it is asking for (we follow only our taste buds), and our bodies never really get fed and sends more signals. There may be something in the stomach, and our taste buds approve, but our bodies are not happy or satisfied -- it's starving for real nutrition.

What to do?
Do I pull the snack stash boxes? No, not yet. I want all of us to be conscious of what is out there and why it is out there and make choices.

I'm not going to be around forever to tell them (my kids), "No, you can't have that (play/junk food)." I want them to learn they can have it but then choose not to most of the time. (Besides, how much more do you want something that you are told you can't have?)

I'm learning how to cook real foods and am teaching my kids how to cook so they are not at the mercy of fast-food chains, packaged foods, and restaurants. The art of cooking in everyday households is disappearing - zap a tray, open a box, dump a can. When all else fails, drive to a drive-thru.

(Interesting, after cooking real foods with real flavors, fast food chains have become unappealing for the most part).

Looks like I've written a lot (Anonymous, are you sorry you asked?).
Other things on my mind but won't get into:
-I wonder if we are the only species that binges. I'm sure there's some rat-study somewhere.
-Emotions, what kind of affect they have on our energy and desire to grab sugar
-Artificial ways of receiving energy
-Thinking you are healthy because you are skinny

Friday, March 25, 2011

Snack Attack Report 2

One week down, three to go.  I was able to talk Danny into giving it a month.

After a week, this is what remains in their stash box:

5 y.o.
5 out of 8 granola bars remain
1/3 bag of Doritos (he shares them with his visiting friends)
7 oz peanut M&Ms (hasn't eaten any)

10 y.o.
5 out of 8 granola bars remain
Doritos still UNopened
6 count of peanut M&Ms
Halloween candy

11 y.o.
0 granola bars
0 Doritos (except some broken pieces)
0 M&Ms

Today was restocking day.  I asked the oldest two to make a wish-list, and I would pick two out for each.  
-For my daughter (from her wish-list):  regular chocolate chip granola bars and fruit leather.
-For my oldest son:  chocolate-covered coconut granola bars and fruit snacks.
-My youngest has so much stuff remaining that I didn't ask him for a wish list.
Oh, and look at this >>>  My oldest son, without any prompting from me, also requested plums and blackberries.  Real, live fruit!!!

They will have more-individualized stash snacks this week than the starting selection from last week.  In addition to the two play foods they asked for, I also took the initiative to add pistachios and raisins for all three, small size Slim Jims for the boys -- they really like those, and quality fig bars for my youngest - he loves those).  I want to send the message that snacks can include real food as well as pretend play foods.

A Good Sign
My 5 y.o. son was the first to see the new stash.  I was busy wrapping my daughter's birthday presents but later noticed that he was eating some raisins, 7 pistachios, and a Slim Jim.  They were in the same box as the M&Ms, chocolate-covered granola bars, and Doritos -- but he chose the real-food snacks!  (Slim Jims, although salty, are real, aren't they?)

I told him he was eating foods his body likes, and they have good things in them that will help him grow.  He said, "I ate healthy things!"  Later he said, "I'm gonna get more raisins!"  And then moments later, "Yum, yum."

And I haven't had the desire to jump into their stash.
Double wow.

Update:  When my oldest son saw the box of raisins he shouted, "AHHH!!  Get these outa here!"  And then he tossed them into the air.  I guess raisins aren't his thing.  But, he did dig into the plums.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Snack Attack Report

I began the Snack Attack Experiment a few days ago, and the experiment may be squelched before it has a chance to show its merits (should it have any, that is).  DH is having misgivings.

At first he thought it was a good idea and was for it.  Now, he wonders, "How will we know it's not working?  When will we know?  And, will there be irreparable damage if the experiment produces kids hooked on junk and fat?"  This experiment goes against all ingrained common sense, and he doesn't want to experiment on his kids.

Fair enough.  I get it.  I'm discouraged at the same time because I did have some hope.  Here's some data from the past few days:

My 5 y.o.:
5/8 of his granola bars remain
Almost all of his MMs remain
Dorito bag is almost full (and he sweetly shares a few with his brother and friend)
He hardly goes to the stash -- maybe he forgets it's there -- and asks for milk, fig bars, or a nectarine, instead.

My 10 y.o.:
6/8 of her granola bars remain (I pack them into her lunch box)
1/4 of her MMs remain (she likes those)
Dorito bag is UNopened -- she said she's not in the mood for them.
She asks me for oranges and grapefruit.

My 11 y.o.:
0/8 granola bars remain (GONE after day 2)
2 measly MMs remain after day 2 (started with 7 oz)
1/4 bag of Doritos remain

Yes, I'm concerned about my 11 y.o.  Is he "over-eating," or is he a growing boy with an insatiable appetite that ideally should be filled with power/real food but isn't always?

I expect this experiment to have a period of adjustment where the play treats are a novelty for a week or two and then lose their savor.  I think it's too soon to stop it.  I'll see if I can talk DH into giving it a month.

Do you know what I wish?  I wish this was an ideal world where bottomless pits of trash food didn't exist.  I wish only wholesome goods were provided at grocery stores, church functions, potlucks, and parties.  No such luck.  Instead, I have to help my kids deal with the real world where unreal foods are abundant.  I want them to learn that the play food is no big deal and nothing to go crazy about, and that real foods are so much better.  I don't want them to be ashamed for snacking on play food (hiding in a closet and thinking, "Oh, I shouldn't be eating this.  This is so bad.  I'm bad.  I can't stop.I better eat this until it's gone.")

Another reason I want to give it month is to also see how I do with the experiment (but, yeah, I shouldn't do it at the kids' expense).  My bag of MMs are still there as well as an unopened bag of Doritos, and I have no desired to sneak into their stash.  So far, so good.  I wonder if that will change with hormonal fluctuations, lack of sleep, etc.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Snack Attack Experiment

I've begun an experiment today, and I may be criticized for it. 

Pre-Experiment Observations:
What happens when there is a large family and a rare bag of chips is opened up?  Everyone grabs at it frantically trying to get their "fair share" (even if they aren't hungry).  They are all competing for it.

What happens when a family rarely allows play food (junk food) and same family attends a pot-luck or party?  Chips!  Whoo-hoo!  Cookies!  More!  Grab, grab, munch, munch, munch.  Mom doesn't allow this stuff.  I better get it now while I can.

If desired play food is off-limits or limited, it's wanted that much more.  If, however, the playfood is always available, it will lose its appeal.  If everyone has their own, competition eating will stop, and eating while not hungry will be greatly reduced.  If allowed to eat on own in the open, closet-eating will be avoided.

-Give everyone their own stash box with favorite treats:  this week its Doritos, Peanut M&Ms, chocolate-covered granola bars.
-No one is allowed to take from anyone else's.
-They can request different play foods for their stash.
-The stash does not have to be empty to request something different
-I will shop once per week to restock.
-Real foods will also be prepared and provided for snacks after school, etc.
-Real foods will be served for meals
-Continue educating family about real food vs. play food:  what sustains fullness, what the body needs, what gives energy, what zaps energy, what will help moods, etc.

I worry there won't be any internal stop signals, and we'll eat until we puke.  I'm concerned that the high salt or sugar content will be addicting, and they will lose all desire for real foods.

I'm not worried about my 10 year old daughter, though, she still has Halloween candy and is amazing at listening to her body's hunger signals (she hasn't been corrupted - LOL) and asks for fruit for snacks (she even asks for Brussels Sprouts for her birthday meal, she loves them).  She's a great example to me, an example of a natural eater not affected by the diet perspective or junior high.

I'm curious as to what my 11 y.o. son will do.  He's very much like me.  I'm curious about how I do, too, come to think of it.

As far as my 5 y.o. goes, I don't have a clue what to do I know he will stop snacking when he's full but I wonder if he will fill up on playfood and lose his appetite for real food.  I hope to steer him away from that and educate him as we go along.

When I see obese children, I judge, "What's wrong with the parents?  Why do they let the kids eat whatever they want?  That's child-abuse!"  I hope I am not going down that road and do more harm than good.  My desire is to instill in them a positive relationship between food and their body and not fear or shame, and that real food is the norm and there is room for play food.

I began the experiment on myself a couple of weeks ago by bringing in a bag of peanut M&Ms to use as my pacer food.  The bag was eaten very quickly and in secret I didn't want to share.  The second bag is still there.  I haven't binged on it.  And now that my kids have their own stash, I will eat these in the open without shame.

I know, I know, there's going to be the diet mindset that will say those M&M calories are going to add up, and I should choose carrot sticks,* instead, or trick my body into thinking it's not hungry by drinking a glass of water.  This is not about dieting.  This is about getting OUT of the diet perspective.  This is about getting a better relationship with food and learning it's not the enemy and that the body is not the enemy.  This is about learning to not binge on forbidden foods anymore (and we know THOSE binge calories add up, too).  This is about foods not being forbidden.

*I do serve carrot sticks, by the way, as well as collard greens, cabbage, Brussels sprouts, broccoli, salads, spaghetti squash, and several other varieties of veggies as you are welcome to read about on my veggie-quest blog "What Am I Supposed To Do With That?"

The idea for this experiment is influenced by what I'm learning from Eating for Your Soul.  It may fail or be a success.  I'm open to either outcome.  It's all a learning experience.  It's time to bring in a new way of thinking.