Medical researchers who specialize in obesity, especially of the childhood variety, are always trying to figure out what is going on. As soon as one question seems to be answered and one fact seems to be in the bag, along comes new information about cholesterol or fat or microbes, and a committee decides to rewrite the textbooks.
Some mysteries resonate eternally, like, “Why is it so difficult to inspire motivation in obese young people who are obviously not living their best lives?” and “Is it even possible to kickstart the motivational apparatus in another person, young or old?”
Other puzzling questions are on their way to being answered, like exactly how to pin down and classify the disorder that looks an awful lot like food addiction, and actually seems more closely to resemble an addiction to the physical actions involved in eating. Sometime the edges blur. Dr. Pretlow has described displacement-behavior eating as involving such motor actions as “licking, sucking, biting, chewing, and swallowing,” which alleviate stress for many people. These activities provide relief from tension.
But if blowing off steam is the unconscious intention, why do people find it hard to switch from their habitual motor activities to more benign ones, like isometric exercise? There might be complicated psychological roots. Mammals tend to lick their offspring, mechanically and repetitively, often for extraordinary lengths of time. (Is a mother cat under that much stress, really?)
For a new little animal, the gentle massage of its mother’s tongue is one of the first connections with the outside world. It serves all kinds of useful functions, waking the nerves, tuning up the lymphatic system, encouraging the blood to circulate through its proper channels. Plus, being licked probably feels great.
Conversely, in most human cultures, mothers do not lick their infants. But somewhere in our psyche, do we hold a faint, indirect, roundabout memory of the comfort of being licked? When a human is emotionally bereft, can the mind reach back into the depths of mammalian history and recover a vague sense of the value of being licked, and conflate the very different states of licking and being licked?
What if all we really want is to be licked, like a kitten, by a large, protective, loving entity who never tires of meeting our needs? But of course that satisfaction is not available to us, even though a very faint wisp of ancestral instinct is convinced that it should be. Desperate and frustrated, equipped with only a vague impression that licking is good, the subconscious twists and misdirects the impulse.
The booby prize
Struggling with this deprivation, in addition to all the other problems that started our trouble in the first place, the most we can achieve is the consolation prize, also known as the booby prize. Unconsoled by Cosmic Big Mama Cat, we settle instead for licking an ice-cream cone, and take in a bunch of calories, and put on pounds, and then have yet another problem to contend with.
A large body of literature has collected around touch hunger, skin hunger, touch deprivation, touch starvation — it goes by many names. (A typical example is “Touch Hunger, and How it Affects Our Eating Behavior,” from the Center for Mindful Eating.)
The point is, how much of what we call motor activity is a perverse response to touch deprivation? If we had our druthers, we would much prefer to be touched. Doing the touching occupies a poor second place. But out of emotionally urgent necessity, we warp that need to be touched into a compulsion to touch other things — mainly food — with our lips and teeth and tongues and esophagus.
When it comes to eating as a tension-relieving Body Focused Repetitive Behavior, the stereotypes tend to center on the more active motions, like biting and chewing. The sight of someone tearing into a steak or enthusiastically crunching an apple pretty much says it all. In a casual sense, we think of motor-action food as the kind that displays a lot of athleticism in the jaw area.
But strangely, soda comes under the same heading. Dr.Pretlow wrote:
Motor-action foods, which also taste good, are eaten in the largest amounts. This applies to sugar-sweetened beverages, which essentially are sugar, water, and flavoring. The swallowing displacement behavior action with sugar solution results in copious consumption in contrast to granular sugar containing the same calories.
Millions of words have been written about the evils of sugar-sweetened beverages and their cousins, the artificially sweetened beverages (which may even be worse), yet very few writers have recognized the potential for harm that these drinks present by being not only in the substance addiction suspect pool, because of the sugar; but in the motor addiction camp at the same time.
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