Until I saw Milk yesterday, the biopic starring Sean Penn as gay activist and San Francisco city supervisor Harvey Milk, I'd forgotten all about the Twinkie Defense. Fellow supervisor Dan White shot and killed Milk and Mayor George Moscone in their offices at San Francisco City Hall in 1978 and got off with essentially a slap on the wrist: White was found guilty of manslaughter and sentenced to eight years (he ended up serving five, and committed suicide two years after he was released.) The defense argued that White was chronically depressed; they also argued, as a small aside, that his bipolar disorder wasn't helped by a steady diet of Cokes, HoHos, and DingDongs (Twinkies, apparently, were never mentioned.)
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White was clearly nuts, and it was more than just
his junk food diet that made the 32-year-old ex-cop climb through a window, shoot the Mayor, reload his gun, and go after Milk. Still, in the 30 years since Milk's murder, a bunch of studies have indicated that foods high in fat and sugar, and specifically Omega 6s, can have an effect on how our bodies regulate dopamine, serotonin, and the stress hormone cortisol; and an impact on the very cellular structure of our brains. A clinical trial by the US National Institutes for Health a couple of years ago, for instance, found that prison inmates given fish oil supplements (high in Omega 3s) were more than 30 percent less prone to violence. Researchers have argued that our high fat, high sugar, high omega 6 diet has an influence on our high incidence of depression, antisocial behavior, and homicide.
Joseph Hibbeln, who organized the NIH study, has said that as a culture we're suffering a sort of mass nutritional deficiency due to a "modern industrialized diet" high in Omega 6 fatty acids. Those Omega 6s are found in soy, corn, and sunflower oils, in everything from ice cream to potato chips to margarine, and in most anything that's fried industrially. Hibbeln theorized that because our diet is high in Omega 6s and low in Omega 3s, our brains begin to overuse the 6s to make cell membranes which don't function as well as those made with the more flexible 3s (it's a complicated but fascinating theory, click here for a detailed explanation). At any rate, the Twinkie Defense is starting to seem less and less far-fetched.
There have also been some intriguing studies done on monkeys that binge on junk and comfort foods (high fat, high sugar) when they're under stress. It's only a short leap to see how stressed-out humans in a scary economy might flock to restaurants serving junk and comfort food, and how savvy restaurateurs might be hip to exploiting our cravings -- even though eating healthy foods would probably make us feel a lot more emotionally stable in the long run. I have lots more to say on this subject, but it'll have to wait for another post.