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A caffeine addict’s tell-all; food shaming

  • Washington Post
  • Published Saturday, May 3, 2014, at 12:47 p.m.
  • Updated Tuesday, May 6, 2014, at 6:19 a.m.

The nationwide proliferation of coffee shops notwithstanding, we actually drink a lot less coffee today than our grandparents did, Murray Carpenter notes in his new book, “Caffeinated: How Our Daily Habit Helps, Hurts and Hooks Us.” Instead of coffee, blame soft drinks for our heavy caffeine intake, he writes.

And the main thing to know about caffeine, Carpenter notes, is that most people underestimate its power, both for good and ill.

A self-described addict (he begins the book with an eye-popping catalogue of the coffees, teas, sodas and energy bars, gels and pills in his cupboard), Carpenter describes caffeine as a drug so effective that if it didn’t grow on trees, scientists would have invented it. Of course, scientists have invented it – actually synthesized it in the lab, making it widely available and affordable.

Carpenter details what’s he’s learned about where caffeine comes from, how it can both lessen depression and increase anxiety, and how it can be utilized for peak performance – by athletes, for example. (The World Anti-Doping Agency used to regulate it, he writes, but gave up in 2004 because there is so much caffeine in general use.) He tells the interesting story of United States vs. Forty Barrels and Twenty Kegs of Coca-Cola, a case that got to court in 1911, when Coke had as much caffeine as today’s Red Bull; there’s also a lot of unnerving description of what goes into energy drinks and who’s drinking them. If you want more, he includes an unusually readable bibliography.

‘Food Shaming’

Guilt is useful for taming a lot of bad behavior: It’s a good thing to feel guilty about hurting an innocent person, say, or not picking up after your dog.

But it’s not a productive emotion when it comes to dieting, some experts argue in an article on the Web site of Women’s Health magazine. “Here’s the problem,” says Michelle May, a doctor who wrote “Eat What You Love, Love What You Eat.” “When we judge food as being ‘good’ or ‘bad,’ we also judge ourselves and other people as ‘good’ or ‘bad,’ depending on what we ate.” This can lead to oversimplifying nutritional information, suffering low self-esteem, and what May calls the “eat-repent-repeat cycle”: A dieter who overindulges will punish herself by extremely depriving herself, “which is one of the most powerful triggers for overeating.”

The article, by Robin Hilmantel, also says that spending emotional energy on what you “should” eat – what she calls “food shaming” – weakens your ability to trust your own body to make food choices. And when people disconnect from their natural signals of hunger and fullness, she writes, they can wind up with eating disorders.

It’s an interesting argument, put in the context of the larger culture that glorifies both decadent desserts and size-zero figures. And for a little food-shaming entertainment, it links to the “I’m So Bad” clip on misplaced guilt from the TV series “Inside Amy Schumer.”

Washington Post

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