Animal Addiction

» July 24th, 2014

The British psychotherapist Adam Phillips writes movingly about the relationship between frustration and satisfaction. Frustrations are inevitable and they instinctively seek satisfaction. But not all our sought for satisfactions are equally healthy or effective.

In fact, the source of most human angst is that the vast majority of our chosen satisfactions are off the rails. Way off the  rails. Most of them may in fact be preconditions for addiction. We become frustrated, we overshoot the satisfaction bullseye, seeking a solution in behaviors that feel good in the moment but leave us damaged in the long run.

We all have addictions, whether we are aware of them or not. Some addictions are low grade—such as watching too much TV, running too many miles, drinking too much coffee, playing too many video games, worrying too much, not worrying enough, Facebook. Others are debilitating–everyone with an uncle  knows about those. Somewhere on this continuum of addictive behaviors lies the craving to eat animals.

This idea came to me this afternoon, while swimming. I was in a city pool, a fairly run down one, and I was swimming laps and feeling residual anxiety about having to change in the tiny “locker room” where a lot of underprivileged people shower, do drugs, and even have sex. As I was contemplating the admittedly minor frustration of my clothing change in a grungy changing area a huge waft of meat smoke from a nearby grill came over the pool.

And suddenly   . . . .  I felt better.

The smell overwhelmed me,  evoking the safety of childhood and, I suppose, the satisfaction of a deeply comfortable flavor. On another level it may also have satisfied a less obvious desire to dominate another being, to manipulate the genetics of a critter to make my life more focused on satisfaction. As the “locker room” anxiety receded under the influence of a grilled animal flesh, the thought came to me that eating meat was an addiction—a culturally approved addiction. It seems perfectly safe to hypothesize that killing sentient beings when we don’t have to might very well be a pathology.

As I say, it’s only a thought. But it seems reasonable to interpret eating animals—which we once did for survival but (for most of us) no longer have to—as a particular kind of all-too-easy response to our very real sufferings and struggles. And, as indicated, there’s virtually no psychoanalytic check on this behavior, no cultural message that indicates how our response is out of whack with the anxiety it seeks to alleviate. As with so many of our pathologies, the impulse to pursue them may have once helped us survive. But we mature and outgrow them, once we recognize them for what they are. Addictions.


15 Responses to Animal Addiction

  1. John t maher says:

    Such a viewpoint is symptomatic of the Americsn tendency to avoid responsibility for individual and collective choices through the label of addiction. Oprah would no doubt agree. This avoidance mechanism has its roots in Christianity which asks for faith in return for expiation of immoral acts And continues through the associated American tendency to apologize for just about everything. Where I agree with James is that carbide is. “Culturally approved” by the therapeutic nanny state as a means of biopoliticdl control over what is considered normal. Instead I Argue in favor if an analysis centered upon enactivustic cultural factors and dispute the catch-all Addictive label and all it implies and exonerates. For the record the scent if grilling pork and chicken make me nauseous but this I do not is not claime as a virtue.

    • Taylor says:

      John, I’m sure you are too virtuous ever to be thought nauseous. But, like me, you are nauseated by the smell of meat being grilled.

      • Ellen K says:

        I’m sure many find me a nauseous killjoy, certainly when it’s obvious to other BBQ attendees I’m nauseated by a nearby grill as you both are.

        Agreed re JTM’s rejection of catch-all label of addiction, but James is certainly on target with Buddhist-flavored reflections on attachment as root of problems, the extraordinary power of scent on psyche, and especially with abusing, killing and eating animals as a way of feeling powerful when one otherwise does not. Of course there’s no cultural or psychoanalytic check on this pathology: hunting, dominating, killing and eating are culturally and almost universally sanctioned as fundamental to proving one’s human superiority and especially manhood.

  2. Elaine Brown says:

    Is this intention or habit? Or both? Or more? Does Big Ag have that grasping a grip on us? Are ranchers the Big Bro? They never stop getting rid of our Wild Horses and Burros. Cliven will tell you all about the ranchers rights to Private Profit using Public Land.

    Oddly I have been on this same wavy addiction track over the last few days. In a recent discussion with a 14-year-old relative, she told me that she doesn’t get enough protein without eating meat. She has been ill and this belief comes from one or more of her doctors who have also exerted influence on her mother who already eats meat regularly.

    She also thinks that grass fed “beef”, her favorite, comes from humanely killed cows, because they go to a special meat market.

  3. Lisa LeBlanc says:

    I understand the ‘comfort’ brought about by the habit of an entire lifetime…I am surrounded by neighbors of different cultures who barbecue like it’s a mission from God, and the scent is … evocative …

    But I seem to have gone another route since giving up animal flesh: I find myself trying to account for how many pigs, cows, chicken and fish have escaped the butcher’s table (in terms of pounds, not actual animals) since I quit. I am absolutely DRIVEN to find the perfect combination of rice, lentils, beans and assorted veggies & herbs that will help me mold a flawless and flavorful Grain-n-Veggie Burger. I HEAP my plate with salads and greens and anything that comes from the ground, a plant or a tree, while my poor family must attempt to eke a nutritious meal from a mere three items – meat, carb and veggie – for I am unwilling to share my bounty. After all, I am now a cheaper feed, and feel entitled to a some latitude.

    I have no regrets; I quit drinking alcohol 28 years ago for nearly the same reasons I gave up animal flesh: For my health and for my sanity. If the scent of barbecue – like the bouquet of bourbon – can evoke a sense of pleasance (and nothing more) it’s a ‘feeling’ I can live with.

  4. Sarah says:

    This is very interesting indeed. I’m curious if you usually have this kind of comforting reaction to the smell of animal flesh cooking or if this was unusual to this situation?

    • James says:

      It was not a common reaction. This time it hit something specific–there was something about the specific anxiety and the immediately available solution that made things click. The lesson, if that’s what were after here, is that awareness of addiction can lead to awareness of seeking more healthy satisfactions.

  5. Mountain says:

    Interesting description of the locker room, a place where poor people* enjoy the pleasures of the flesh– the external pleasure of warm water on skin, the internal pleasure of drugs in the bloodstream, and the shared pleasure of skin on skin. I can’t blame you for feeling anxiety; I would have been very uncomfortable in that situation, too. But it’s interesting that these pleasures of the flesh weren’t harming anyone (assuming the sex is consensual). And the pleasure of the flesh that quelled your anxiety– the smell of grilling meat– is one that causes great harm. Obviously, you weren’t causing any harm by smelling it, but whoever was grilling it had caused harm.

    That is all.

    *Having grown up poor, I hate the term “underprivileged.” Maybe because no one in our poor neighborhood used that word, preferring the straightforward term “poor” instead. Not that my preferences should affect your usage.

    • James says:

      Poor in part comes from Old French povre, which means “wretched, dispossessed; inadequate; weak, thin”; underprivileged seems more accurate to me in that privilege–and I’m going by recollection—comes from the French prive lege, which means private law. Weathier people get to follow their own laws, those under them do not–hence underprivileged. But I can use poor if you prefer.

      • Mountain says:

        The way I think about it, “underprivileged” is a word privileged people use. After all, look at how many letters it has. How’s a poor person supposed to afford so many letters? Some people are so poor they can only afford the P and the O.

  6. Publius says:

    Animal products are physically and psychologically addictive.

    Addictive products target the brain’s dopamine neurotransmitters, bringing feelings of pleasure. Animal foods are designed and manipulated by the AIC to be a supernormal stimulus of the dopamine, resulting in artificial pleasure from self-destructive products that are not supposed to be in our en-vironment and not characteristic of our evolutionary history, resulting in fatal addictions and habits. The addiction to animal products is a habit formed during childhood and carried into adulthood.

    AIC manipulation and alteration of foods’ molecular physical shape and structure enhance the additive qualities, which affects the absorption rate, and increases the appeal, “mouthfeel,” and “bliss point.” The manipulation increases the addiction. The brain lights up the same way for animal fats as it does for cocaine, heroin and nicotine. The compulsion to overindulge can be suppressed by the same drug used to block and counter the effects of heroin.

    Milk protein releases mild opiates (casomorphins) that trigger dopamine release. Cheese has concentrated casein. Meat also has an opiate effect, with less obvious but effects no less powerful. Animal fats and proteins drive people to eat more, and are used as an allure, to compel overeating. Animal fats are one of the most potent components of processed food, a pillar ingredient even more powerful than sugar.

    In Food Addicts in Recovery Anonymous, attendees talk about fat and sugar like it was heroin. Animal foods (and processed, sugary and salty foods) create addictive cravings and make people feel hungrier. Overeating is as difficult to overcome as some drug addictions. The success rate for overcoming heroin, nicotine, and animal foods are all comparable—with about 25% success rate for those with lots of support. The pleasure reward is very potent, so no matter how good the intentions, self-control is very difficult, which is the same for other serious drug addictions.

    The observable effects of addiction include tolerance and withdrawal. Tolerance involves creating a learned behavior. The pleasure derived declines over time because people get used to high intensity stimulus, in habituation. The fattier or saltier the industry makes its foods, the more people want. Industry exploits the biology of children, teaching the child the level of saltiness or fattiness the foods should be, thus impacting the child’s cravings, tolerance and health. Transitioning from an animal-based diet to WFPB/vegan nutrition involves a difficult and painful withdrawal, detoxification and healing process lasting several months that makes people, temporarily, feel worse—causing headaches, depression and anxiety.

    In summary, based on the synthesis of the addiction analysis in Blue Cross & Blue Shield v. Philip Morris, in addition to causing disease and illness, animal foods can lead to addiction. Like nicotine, chemicals (opiates) are carried almost immediately to the brain where it sets off a series of chemical reactions that alter mood and produce feelings of both sedation and stimulation. It activates the transmission of dopamine that generates pleasurable body sensation and ultimately causes a craving and addiction. So powerful is the addictive force that in the absence of animal foods, the person suffers symptoms of physical withdrawal (headaches, depression, anxiety) in much the same way as do nicotine, heroin and cocaine addicts. Many animal food consumers are unable to quit until they suffer a heart attack or contract cancer and even then, many return to eating animal foods.

    • unethical_vegan says:

      Oh please. There is absolutely nothing about animal flesh that makes it more addictive than nutritionally similar plant-based “flesh”.

      That being said I think it’s very possible that we are evolutionarily programmed to feel gustatory pleasure when eating a greasy mass of umami-laden animal flesh. After all our primate ancestors almost certainly ate quite a bit of scavenged brain and marrow (and decomposition generates free glutamate and aspartate).

      Thankfully we no longer have to obey our evolutionary imperatives…

      • Publius says:

        “absolutely nothing about animal flesh that makes it more addictive…”

        Nothing except that animal- and plant-based meats inherently have a different nutritional profile.

        Nothing except marketing.
        Nothing except availability.

        Nothing except the vast amounts of money that goes into the animal-based research labs to precisely calculate and manufacture the absolutely most addicting product possible.

        And, what I wrote above is based on the great reporting in Salt, Sugar, Fat: How the food giants hooked us (2013) (p.147-160) by Michael Moss.

        • Mountain says:

          But salt is a mineral, sugar comes from plants, the fat used by “food giants” is almost entirely plant-sourced. Other than that, your claim about animal foods makes perfect sense.

  7. Maire says:

    As humans multiply I feel sorry for the animals. We are the most dangerous predators on earth and capable of extreme cruelty.
    Also, the veneer of civilization is very thin. We need only look at what is going on all around us. We are basically in the same mode as when the barbarians sacked Rome. But now our technology has helped in terms of how we commit atrocities and raise animals for slaughter as well as how many can be slaughtered on a daily basis to fuel the barbecue season, etc. We can ponder all we like but the basics do not change.

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