Tuesday, June 05, 2007

Drug of Choice

This weekend's New York Times "Style" section featured an article tracing the cupcake craze, the proliferation of bake shops across the country specializing in the fourth-grade birthday party signature treat, cupcakes. The article suggests our interest in cupcakes represents a return to comfort food (others find a similar path toward mac and cheese) and discusses how far from comfort, a la our diet culture, we've strayed. Lesley Balla, blogging food writer comments on the advent of cupcake stores in L.A.: "Do we really need another bakery? Probably not. But Angelenos have been starving for sugar and carbs for so long that the bakeries seem like a breath of fresh air."

Balla's wise words capture the principle of psychological reactance, defined in the APA Dictionary of Psychology :

. . . a motivational state characterized by distress, anxiety, resistance, and the desire to restore that freedom. According to this model, when people feel coerced or forced into a certain behavior, they will react against the coercion, often by demonstrating and increased preference for the behavior that is restrained, and may perform the opposite behavior to that desired.

The beauty of reactance theory is that it, despite its psychobabble, succinctly captures why diets fail (or at least the psychological reasons they fail). The more we're told we can't have, the more we want. Proponents of reactance theory might even argue for legalization of marijuana, gambling, and prostitution.

And so, since Atkins/South Beach/other diet of the moment has expressly forbidden sugar and, gasp, white flour, we begin to crave these ingredients to such an extent that we find ourselves secretly bingeing on them, or patiently, but urgently, lined up outside a cupcake bakery, waiting for our fix.

When I first visited Magnolia Bakery (a cupcake shop with its own wikipedia entry) in New York City*, I wasn't yet living here, but a friend thought I'd enjoy the experience. On a cold winter day, a line wrapped around the West Village block, and we were ushered in in two's and three's, allowed to box our own cupcakes, but warned of the cupcake limit (12). My friend apyly commented, "There's really no difference between this and a crack house." It's just a different drug of choice.

*for the record, now a permanent New York City resident, I prefer Crumbs, which offers 1) more flavors 2) a moister cake portion 3) frosting that isn't too sweet 4) an indoor line


PalmTreeChick said...

The indoor line is a plus, especially on those bitter cold winter days.

Yeah, I can see how sugar can be like crack. People do need it.

Sarah said...

I actually almost bought a cupcake when I was out last night but didn't. Instead, I remembered that I have 100 cal packs of cupcakes at home, so I had one of those.

The idea of sugar = crack makes sense to me. I know that if I go too long without it, and then have a little, I can't stop (just like I was with alcohol -- once that first taste hit my brain and blood, there was no telling what would happen). But if I have a little every day, I don't get those cravings (this would NOT work for me with alcohol, though. I need total abstinence there).

word verification: pddrofat

(how did it know?!)

Lindsay said...

One word: Prohibition.

Making alcohol illegal didn't make people stop drinking it. If anything, it became even more dangerous of an activity than it was before.

ps22 said...

I prefer Crumbs too :)

Anonymous said...

I can totally back the theory sugar = crack.
This year for Lent I decided to give up sugar (sweets, candy, cakes, you name it) and had really bad withdrawl symptoms for the first three/four days (which I tried to avoid by keeping my blood sugar level even with grains, fruits and such).

After those first days I felt fine and had no longing for chocolate at all. But after Lent I started eating sugary snacks again and guess what - the sweet tooth was back, along with reeeeally hefty cravings.

Karin, Germany

Barmaid said...

I like a good cupcake, but I can't see waiting on a long line for one. Now, Coldstone Creamery... that's my crack habit.

The Barmaid Blog

Anonymous said...

I don't know, sugar is just sugar. I know there are times of the day I cannot eat it or I become lightheaded and lethargic (e.g., first thing in the morning, or right after lunch), and times I can enjoy it with abandon (any time after dinner). This moralizing about foods just drives me mad, and also drives the national diet mentality.

drstaceyny said...

In response to the last anon's comment (which focuses on the others), I want to clarify that I don't inherently see sugar as a drug, though I think we've MADE it that way based on "our national diet mentality." If we didn't villainize sugar, it wouldn't have the allure that it does. Thanks for helping me clarify this--think I'll save more on the topic for a new post.

Jen said...

I so completely agree with your last comment, Dr. Stacey. Any time we villanize something it becomes a craved and much lusted-after item. Whatever the mainstream dubs as a "no-no" is pretty much also guaranteed to be the "next big thing." It's the very reason they tell us recovering binge eaters not to restrict anything...because sooner or later the craving for it will come back with a vengence.

Anonymous said...

Ah why did you have to have that giant picture of a cupcake on there? Now I want one! LoL

I've noticed bakeries are selling mini-cupcakes. So it's like you're having a quarter of a big cupcake, for less calories. I think it's a good idea, it still satisfied that sweet tooth.

On the subject of sugar withdrawal. I remember The Simpsons where they took, the entire town of Springfield off sugar. The cops were talking about the kids having withdrawal syndromes, like police talk about druggies withdrawing. Like one said "They're not riding the white horse anymore.."

Tym said...

Or, you know, maybe using "starving" in the context of a food article is just an excellent literary device. I'll bet coroners are just dying to get the job done, pilots "air" on the side of caution, never mind the psychobabble.

That said, Americans could very well have an addiction to sugar. It's pretty abnormal to find any processed food product without any added sugar, cornsyrup, cane juice or the like.

Anonymous said...

Sorry, but a quarter of a cupcake or a "100 cal pack" is just not going to do it. When I want a cupcake, I want one like in the picture.

Sarah said...

1:18 PM anon, FWIW I think your attitude is a lot healthier than mine. I just can't allow myself to have the real thing. I wish I knew why.

Anonymous said...

Sarah, do you mean those 100 pack Entenmann's cupcake things? Those are the best invention for food EVER!

You should get the chocolate chip muffins in 100 calorie packs. I think they make those.

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Anonymous said...

I'm afraid I disagree with some of these comments. Yes, we villanize sweets, which do make them more alluring, however our taste buds react strongly to sweet and salty foods, and once we start eating, it's difficult to stop because our taste buds want more. That's why it's so difficult to eat just one potato chip! I have a problem with sweets myself, and the only way I keep my weight down is to exercise, exercise, exercise. I wish I could eat more healthy and skip the sweets!

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