Thursday, July 26, 2012

Salty, Sweet and Out of Control

The End of Overeating: Taking Control of the Insatiable American Appetite.
by David Kessler
320 pp. Rodale, Inc. 2009

The root of American overeating is summarized in Dr. David Kessler's book, The End of Overeating, in three words: sugar, fat and salt.  Each of these alone will trigger certain amounts of pleasure in our brains, but together, the trio is irresistible.  Kessler launches into many scientific reasons why this is the case and uses anecdotes to show that many smart, rational people he knows cannot resist eating excessive amounts of tempting yet high calorie junk foods, despite knowing better. Few of us need that illustrated by example.

Perhaps more interesting then, is his exposé of the ways in which the food industry manipulates consumers utilizing the latest science on taste and pleasure. As the former commissioner of the FDA he has inside information and quotes industry professionals attesting to the lengths to which they will go to create an addictive product. Combined with their marketing efforts ("Betcha can't eat just one"), the book certainly paints a picture of a food environment where the public is damned to overeating, or as Kessler fancily calls it, "conditioned hypereating." 

Thankfully, he offers up a treatment program, called Food Rehab. Just as in other substance-related rehab programs, it is meant to help people become aware of their conditioned hypereating, rewire their brains, create new habits to restore control over eating and think differently about food. The main distinction in his work from others before it lies in his conviction, backed up by research, attributing the undesirable eating behavior (ie. the conditioned hypereating) to actual biological mechanisms rather than willpower. It's a nuanced approach that takes the blame away from the individual. Overeating isn't a flaw, it's a physiological urge that must be overcome through treatment and training. 

I certainly identify with the type of hypereating Kessler describes. Since I was ten years old I could tell you that I was absolutely powerless in the face of sugar cereals - I could literally eat boxes of them and never feel full. While I know that I'm not alone (my sister has the same weakness), I was intrigued to learn that this constant craving and insatiable desire is by design. Cereals get special attention in the book as they do in the recent Corby Kummer article in Smithsonian Magazine's Food Issue where he too admits to being "helpless before a box of dry cereal." 

As in most research related to caloric intake and weight gain, the science of conditioned hypereating points to yet another instance of our bodies working against us. The brain wants more pleasure. Sweet, salty and fatty foods provide it. One of the reasons many diets and weight loss plans fail in the long run is because they are restrictive and lead to feelings of deprivation. There is tremendous potential for lapses under Kessler's plan, which he freely admits. And I agree with his call for awareness about hunger cues and creating a new relationship with food. And yet I can't help but wonder what would happen if rather than constantly fighting our bodies we find a peaceful middle ground? Can we ever learn to "eat just one"?

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