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The Good Dr. Volkow

Nora Volkow wants my chocolate. I’m sitting at a round conference table in her
large windowed office at the National Institute on Drug Abuse, where she’s the director.

Volkow is telling me about her research into the neurology of eating and how, for some people, quitting foods—like, say, chocolate—can be as hard as kicking heroin is for a junkie. Food, she says, hooks people by triggering the exact chemical reactions triggered in the brain by hard drugs. Or nicotine. Or alcohol. Or shopping. Or sex.

“I can’t stop looking at your chocolate,” Volkow says, her eyes darting from me to the chocolate and back. It’s a Hershey’s Kiss Volkow’s secretary gave me moments earlier. I took it with a smile and a thank-you, but I’m one of the few women in the world who actually don’t like chocolate. So I bit off the tip to be polite, put the rest back in its metallic wrapper, and slid it onto the table next to my notebook. This makes Volkow uncomfortable, which isn’t what I expected.

Most articles about Volkow focus on her childhood in Mexico City. They say, Isn’t it amazing she was raised in the same house where Stalin had her great-grandfather—Leon Trotsky, the exiled Russian revolutionary—murdered with an ice ax? They talk about how Volkow started medical school at 18, then went to the United States and became one of the nation’s leading research psychiatrists. But to me, the most fascinating thing about Volkow is the fact that she—the head of the country’s national drug abuse agency—is not just a chocolate junkie. She’s also a chocolate pusher.

Volkow paces back and forth in her Bethesda, Maryland, office—frizzy hair bouncing, black knee-high boots clacking—then stops, narrows her eyes, and grins. “I have some good stuff,” she says, reaching into her desk drawer. “Seventy-seven percent pure cocoa.”

She throws a quartereaten bar on the table next to me. “Go ahead,” she says, “have some.” I tell her no thanks, and she raises her eyebrows.

“I do experiments with people,” she says. “I put the chocolate there and see how long it takes them to pick it up.” She shakes her head. “I am very bad with chocolate. I take it immediately. I fail my own test. But you,” she says, pointing at my Kiss, “you have very good inhibitory control!” This makes me laugh, because if she’d offered cheesecake or Swedish Fish, I wouldn’t have lasted five seconds.

-from Why Is it So Damn Hard to Change
By Rebecca Skloot
from O The Oprah Magazine
January, 2007

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