12 January 2011: A simple question: s’mores or carrots?

A simpe question: s’mores or carrots?

Into the second week of 2011, it’s time for assessing progress on those dietary New Years’ resolutions made with best intentions. Weakening? There’s an explanation for it: dopamine, a pleasure-seeking chemical released in the brain.

An article in the Denver Post, “Brain’s dopamine is habit-firming: The pleasure-sensing chemical’s immediacy can keep regrettable routines locked in place,” caught my eye for two reasons. The first is that I am a chocoholic when it comes to fitness and good diet, which seems somewhat contradictory. My point is, though, that carrots and broccoli can be ingested just as eagerly as chocolate. It’s a matter of rewiring the brain.

We call chocolate and its kin “comfort food”: that which we consume not necessarily because our bodies’ nutritionally require it, but “to obtain a degree of psychological comfort,” according to Brian Wansink, the John Dyson Professor of Consumer Behavior at Cornell University and director of the Cornell Food and Brand Lab.

“Fifteen years of my research can be summarized in saying ‘People’s tastes are not formed by accident,’” writes Wansink with Cynthia Sangerman in “Engineering Comfort Foods.”

Wansink points out that comfort food might not be necessarily junk food, as it “may be a bowl of soup on a cold day, a pint of ice cream when we are sad, or a turkey sandwich when we are happy,” but the key is the food fulfills not some physiological need, but a psychological one.

So, some food for thought: If you are what you eat and the body and mind are one, then First Lady Michelle Obama is carrots and broccoli and ex-governor Sarah Palin is s’mores: gooey marshmallow and milk chocolate on graham crackers. While Obama is campaigning for better childhood dietary practices, especially in schools, Palin wisecracks about her, which leads to the second reason the Post article caught my eye:

It’s metaphoric for a widespread literary problem of Americans: a slovenly citizenry that prefers reading People magazine over Newsweek or Time, FOX over PBS, and Glenn Beck and Sarah Palin over, well, any public figure with a brain. For all our hand-wringing about declining test scores, written pieces put out there often don’t require better than a sixth-grade reading level for comprehension.

I admit to being a literary snob, preferring works written by men and women if not smarter than I, which most times they are, then at least by serious and diligent intellects whose research and analytical and critical thinking skills reflect an open and curious approach to issues that give me an insight I hadn’t had or wouldn’t have come to on my own, thus eliciting a “I hadn’t thought of _?_ that way” reflection.

Over the past four months, I have, for example, immersed myself into reading, or rereading in the case of Black Elk Speaks, a series of books on the plight of Native Americans with particular attention to Crazy Horse. More on that and him in a future piece, but simultaneously I’m working my way through the Dalai Lama’s The Universe in a Single Atom, and finally beginning Mark Twain’s Autobiography. Lying on the coffee table and insisting “I’m next” is The Grand Design by Stephen Hawking.

Will I completely comprehend every single morsel of thought offered by these great writers and thinkers? Hardly, but they serve as my intellectual comfort food. It’s called curiosity, and if one is reading only to be self-reinforced, to have one’s version of reality validated, then one is not doing justice to his/her mind. One might as well be back in Dark Ages, when unorthodox thought was considered anathema.

As a rule, I prefer writers who write their own stuff, which seems obvious, but is not. In this day of “ghostwriters,” much of what is put out there is not the result of an individual sitting at a keyboard and cranking out his/her own thought constructs. It takes me hours to compose an approximate 800-word weekly column. Serious authors can spend years on a work, which, whether research-based or creatively written (fiction) that still requires incredible amount of background research, can and should be daunting.

It shouldn’t surprise anyone that Christopher Michel is attributed to being the actual writer of George W. Bush’s memoir Decision Points. Whether President Obama literally wrote Dreams from My Father is a subject of debate. No evidence exists to the contrary, but given Obama’s command of the language—he actually articulates a coherent thought unlike his bumbling predecessor—the work Time calls “the best-written memoir ever produced by an American politician” is likely his.

There is that old stock line about being a garbage can. If one diets on soda and chocolate chip cookies, then having health issues ought not to be a surprise. So it is with the mind: garbage in, garbage out.

So, s’mores or baby carrots? Glenn Beck/Sarah Palin or Mark Twain

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