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See Inside November 2008

Science of Snacks: Thinking Makes You Hungry

Why reading this story might cause you to clean out the fridge--and other mysteries explained



Matt Collins

Why am I so hungry after writing one of these columns? I have often wondered. Now comes
an answer.

A study in the journal Psychosomatic Medicine contends that intellectual work—that’s right, I’m calling writing this stuff, ya know, intellectual—induces a big increase in caloric intake. The research had 14 Canadian students do three things at different times: sit and relax; complete a series of memory and attention tests; and read and summarize a text. (It was that last activity that disqualified rodents and U.S. students as study subjects.) After 45 minutes at each task, the kids were treated to an all-you-can-eat buffet lunch. Because Canada has a truly advanced code of human-subject research ethics.

Each session of intellectual work required the burning of only three more calories than relaxing did. But when the students hit the buffet table after the text summation, they took in an additional 203 calories. And after the memory and attention tests, the subjects consumed another 253 calories. Blood samples taken before, during and after the activities found that all that thinking causes big fluctuations in glucose and insulin levels. And because glucose fuels the neurons, a transitory low level in the brain may signal the stomach to get the hands to fill up the mouth, even though the energy actually spent has gone up just a hair. The researchers note that such “caloric overcompensation following intellectual work, combined with the fact that we are less physically active when doing intellectual tasks, could contribute to the obesity epidemic.” Think about that—unless you’re on a diet.

Speaking of calories. The journal Science reports that mathematicians from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, New York University and the Free University of Brussels have figured out a better way to wrap spherical pieces of chocolate. There’s a lot of wasted material when wrapping spheres with square pieces of foil or paper. But our intrepid geometers found that by using equilateral triangles rather than squares, they could generate a savings of 0.1 percent. That’s one full square saved for every 1,000 pieces of triangle-wrapped chocolate you eat.

Speaking of the munchies. Some of the chemical compounds found in marijuana show promise for fighting drug-resistant bacterial infections. That’s according to the Journal of Natural Products, published by the American Chemical Society. (As opposed to The Book of Mr. Natural, published by Fantagraphics Books. Seriously.) Naturally, scientists have long known that pot contains antibacterial constituents. But lack of seed money stems research, so little has been done to investigate pot’s potential.

In the new study researchers tested five cannabinoid marijuana ingredients against the superbug MRSA, methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus. All five did a lot of damage to the bacterium. And two of the substances don’t even appear to be psychoactive, meaning they could be turned into medications that don’t cause a high. Because the last thing you want to administer to a patient incapacitated for weeks in a hospital bed experiencing the horrors of an out-of-control staph infection is an antibacterial drug that would also lighten his mood.

Speaking of mood-altering. Earlier this year Republicans in the House of Representatives adopted as a reelection sales pitch the phrase “The Change You Deserve.” Which they apparently didn’t realize was already the trademarked slogan for Effexor XR, a potent antidepressant. But I digress. At the Republican National Convention former real senator and fictional New York City district attorney Fred Thompson said of Sarah Palin, “I think I can say without fear of contradiction she is the only nominee in the history of either party who knows how to properly field-dress a moose. With the possible exception of Teddy Roosevelt.”

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