Recently I attended a workshop on food addiction as part of the continuing education requirement of my license to practice psychology. I learned some fascinating facts that got me thinking about something not usually associated with food addiction—contraception. Let me explain. What I learned was this:
Researchers tell us that there is a close similarity in the way our brain regulates concern for food and the way it regulates concern for sex. In both cases, the brain has a reward system that makes these activities pleasurable. This ensures our survival both as individuals and as a species.
Researchers also tell us that this reward system is regulated by a higher function of the brain so that, in the case of food, we lose our desire for more, once the needed caloric intake has been met. There is a delicate homeostatis between need and want. But this does not work for all foods.
Foods containing processed sugar, added salt or certain fats can overpower the higher function of the brain by flooding it with pleasure signals. This makes us wants more of these foods, even though there is no caloric need for them. Over time, our brain reacts defensively by down regulating or “dulling” its ability to enjoy pleasure. This dynamic with processed foods is similar to the process of “tolerance” in drug addiction. Then one has the urge to eat yet more in order to experience the level of pleasure that one formerly experienced. A process of brain “rewiring” occurs, not unlike that resulting from drug addiction, promoting compulsive consumption and loss of control.
But here’s the interesting thing: these foods—sugar, salt and fat—are not addictive until they have been extracted and concentrated by modern industrial processes. For example, when sugar is found in natural, healthy foods, it does not cause addiction. This is because in healthier foods sugar is found in smaller concentrations and coexists with other substances found in natural foods that are beneficial (such as fiber, vitamins, and trace minerals).
A healthy diet, consequently, will center on whole foods and will avoid foods that have been artificially processed. It will not focus exclusively on the pleasure-giving sugar and salt to the exclusion of the larger context—fiber, vitamins, minerals—within which those pleasure givers are naturally found. It will take the whole apple, not just the sweetness. This is what got me thinking about contraception.
It struck me that there is a strong parallel between a diet of processed food and contraceptive sex that has not been sufficiently explored. I have always thought it is a glaring contradiction to see a woman leap back in horror at the thought of purchasing a chemically sweetened Pop Tart™, and yet think nothing of daily pumping her body with artificial hormones to override its natural fertility.
The pleasures of food and of sex are regulated by the same reward-system of the brain. As noted above, this is for the survival of the individual and of the species. This is why eating is pleasurable. This is why sex is pleasurable. The continuing education presenter applied these observations exclusively to the issue of diet, mentioning sex only in passing. But, I thought, as with food, so with sex: we must take the whole apple, not just the sweetness.
From a man’s perspective, the whole apple includes a woman, to whom he is irrevocably committed, who has a menstrual cycle, which includes a phase, during which pregnancy can occur. As part of the whole apple, the pleasure associated with sex is healthy and good.
But when the legitimate pleasure of sex is removed from the larger picture—a wife with a fertility cycle—and sought for itself in isolation from the larger picture, something analogous to food addiction, and even drug addiction, can take place. Over-focus on the pleasure aspect can, paradoxically, result in less pleasure over time. This is turn can lead to a felt need to “spice up” the couple’s sex life with experimentation, in order to recapture the earlier level of pleasure.
In the case of the husband, he can experience “withdrawal”, not unlike that of drug addiction, when sex is denied, during which he regresses to the level of a four-year old: pouting, irritable, slamming doors, and giving his wife the silent treatment. It may be that the contraceptive sex of the “hook up” culture on college campuses is contributing to an increasing number of female students seeking antidepressant medication.
I am not saying that contraceptive sex is the only disorder that can account for these behaviors. There are many others. I am not saying that a couple must intend pregnancy whenever they have sexual intercourse, any more than one must intend to digest fiber and minerals when one eats a sweet apple.
What I am saying is that, again speaking from the man’s perspective, you do have to accept the whole, natural reality of sex, which includes your wife’s menstrual cycle with its fertility potential. You have to accept, continuing my analogy, whatever fiber and minerals are there.
What the continuing education presenter said concerning the preference of natural foods over processed foods has an application to sex. Like the flour we chose to make our bread, our sex is healthiest when it is whole and “all natural”, unbleached and without additives.