This week I’d like to reflect on one of my recent food related reads—David Kessler’s excellent “The End of Overeating.”
No, it doesn’t offer five easy ways to achieve a perfect beach body this summer, nor does it have a new magic trick to overcome food craving and obsessions. Rather, it‘s a lucid, well-researched and gentle book that takes a shot at explaining why we overeat. Knowing and understanding this could be a valuable first step toward eating better and with less torment, and maybe to losing weight or avoiding weight gain too. I think that Kessler’s book is a good read for anyone who eats food and for every parent raising kids in our food-crazed culture, and that includes those of us who have never struggled with overweight.
David Kessler M.D., a pediatrician, former dean of the Yale and University of California medical schools and former Food and Drug Administration commissioner has led the battle against the tobacco industry and dramatically reinvented the food label, and in this book goes deep into how the food industry, assisted by very clever marketing, designs and promotes products perfected to hijack our appetite and our brain and get us to consume more of their food.
Kessler admits to being one to obsess over food and struggle with uncontrolled eating and weight. His book combines personal stories with many scientific studies that delve into the science of obsessive, or what he dubs “conditioned overeating,” the kind in which food has power over you, draws you in, leaves you always wanting more and rarely satisfies your hunger.
The formula for irresistible food
According to Kessler, American industrial food has perfected a formula for food that’s highly palatable. The main driver of food desire is sugar, and when you layer that with fat and salt, food becomes irresistible (despite that these formulaic products are terrible for your body). Kessler cites food consultants and designers who describe processed food as “adult baby food” —free of the elements of whole healthy food, it goes down very smoothly and quickly, and delivers lots of calories without much chewing.
Processed foods manufacturers make what they know consumers want-- sugar, fat and salt in perfect balance, with the right texture, mouth feel and flavor. Flavor of course can be completely designed by food chemists and can make the blandest of raw material into a highly palatable food. Chemists can imitate a multitude of traditional, expensive or exotic ingredients, and create processed food in which the only real thing is cheap readily available ingredients with not much taste, yet the end product is optimized to give it great sensory appeal. Technology enables the food industry to make anything they want from a few simple cheap building blocks and plenty of sophisticated chemical inventions. It looks like food, it captures your attention (and your taste buds), but it isn’t nutritious and doesn’t satisfy.
Add to that the ingenious selling machine that pushes these foods and makes them available everywhere and you start to understand why it’s so easy to overeat.
How to regain control
The first step to improving your diet is to look at these foods critically--see them as addictive, not nutritious, and designed only to sell. Kessler calls for a perceptual shift of the kind that occurred with tobacco. The next step is to fight back. Kessler devotes several chapters to a strategy that starts to enable people to free themselves of overeating and obsessing. The treatment plan includes planned eating (rather than eating in an unstructured impulsive way), controlling portion size, choosing the right foods, finding joy in eating and overcoming the old unrestrained eating behaviors.
He also believes several public policies can make food manufacturers change their products for the better. Among these are calorie posting in restaurants, prominent display of added sugar, refined carbohydrates and fats on the food label, monitoring and exposure of food marketing ploys that promote harmful behavior, and education campaigns informing the public of the dangers of eating unhealthy foods loaded with sugar fat and salt.
But Kessler thinks the main power we have as consumers is our ability to change what’s acceptable as food—when we change social norms, and better food in moderate amounts is what’s expected by us the food landscape will change too.
Can we prevent junk-food craving?
I think that very few people are completely free of worries about eating and weight, and most people who care about their health and weight exercise control over eating on a regular basis—I certainly do. But one of the nagging thoughts I had while reading this book was that I personally couldn’t really identify with the attraction to the processed hyper-palatable foods that are rich in sugar, fat and salt that Kessler sees as conditioning us to overeat.
I don’t think I was ever attracted to these sweet, fat and salty processed foods. Did I reason with myself and turn against them because they’re unhealthy and fattening? Maybe, but honestly, I think I rejected them based on taste. When Kessler describes the milkshakes, chocolate chip cookies, fried foods and the offerings at Chilli’s and Cinnabon’s, my mouth didn’t water at all. I know I wouldn’t eat these foods even if I was hungry.
I tried to think about my kids, who are unconcerned with weight issues. While they do have a notion that eating well is important to their health, they don’t worry about it much. I do believe they, too, would reject these foods (even a triple-thick chocolate milkshake) on the basis of taste and appeal.
And in that thought lies a hopeful message to us parents: I believe that if you feed your kids real, unfussy food made from fresh, quality ingredients, they’ll develop a taste for it. They’ll also develop an expectation for how one feels after eating a good balanced meal, and contrast it with how one feels after consuming the super-sized fatty fast food meals. Real food has a sophistication and complexity that is very appealing if you’re sensitive to it. When you’re used to healthy real food, fast food feels like a heavy bombardment of sweet, fat and salt that’s really quite crude and indeed unsatisfying.
I do think that it’s just like art appreciation: once you’ve immersed yourself in the real thing, the reproductions pale.
I was thinking of Kessler’s book again when we were at a party last weekend. I was selecting dinner from the extensive buffet that included foods with “kid appeal”, such as French fries and onion rings. My ten year-old and her friend were right next to me, and her friend called with delight: “Asparagus! I love asparagus!” and filled his plate with the grilled stems topping them with hot sauce. My daughter selected nothing but cucumber sushi rolls. I don’t think the fried food had a chance with these kids—they simply didn’t think of it as food.
Part of the strategy to end our overeating, I think, lies with developing good competition to the sweet, fat and salty in the form of simple, healthy, tasty food.
Did you ever feel like food has power over you? Do you have ways to free yourself? Please share!