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Nutritionista Book Club: The Only Other Non-Diet Book You Ever Need to Read (Part I)

Posted Nov 10 2011 10:05am

At the beginning of this year, I declared Gary Taubes’ Why We Get Fat to be the only non-diet book you ever need to read . Well, I’m revising that opinion. I just finished The End of Overeating: Taking Control of the American Appetite by David Kessler, and I think it’s equally important.

The first half of the book makes a scientific case for the drug-like nature of processed food (not that anyone really doubts this). Over and over, Kessler discusses the alluring combination of salt, fat, and sugar and how the food industry uses that allure to persuade us to eat more.

One example that hit home with me is the food industry’s use of layering — combining perfect ratios of sugar, fat, and salt for optimal pleasure. For example, buffalo wings start with the fatty part of a chicken, but then get deep-fried. They’re covered in sweet sauce and usually served with a creamy or sweet dipping sauce (with plenty of salt). You have your sugar (the sweet sauce), fat (the frying takes care of that), and the salt (the dippers).

I’m particularly susceptible to layering in desserts. I could take or leave plain chocolate ice cream (mostly fat with a bit of sugar), but add in some oreos (added sugar and salt) and swirls of fudge (more sugar)? Now you’ve got my attention. In fact, Kessler even points out that fat on its own isn’t that compelling — and it’s why people don’t tend to want to eat plain butter or drink heavy cream. But combine it with sugar and salt, and you’ve got yourself an addictive dish. There’s a “bliss point” for these foods such that gently sweetened 2% milk is more desirable than unsweetened cream or heavily sweetened skim milk.

This premise — that salt, fat, and sugar are physically addicting — builds the foundation for the rest of Kessler’s arguments:

  • Constant access to sugar, salt, and fat pushes up our weight settling point (where our weight naturally settles given appetite and expenditure, different from a weight “set point”).
  • Many of our brains have adopted a cue-urge-reward system for food: we see something we like (a piece of cake, let’s say), we get the urge to eat it, we try to fight the urge, but we end up eating the cake. We feel instantly rewarded (though later, we might not feel great about the decision). Junk food is rewarding, meaning that it reinforces our desires to keep eating it.
  • People feel powerless in the face of what Kessler describes as “palatable” food (not just tasty food, but food that makes you want to eat more of it). This isn’t just a silly notion. Junk food is nearly as addictive as cocaine.
  • Location, quantity of food given, and variety all play a role in how much we eat on a subconscious level. Places we’ve had pleasurable eating experiences before, a higher quantity of food on the plate, and a variety of flavors (like layering) all contribute to overeating.
  • Our biological preference for larger foods, sweeter foods, and energy-dense foods mean we’ll select those naturally more often. But the foods created in a plant are “supernormal,” meaning they contain levels of sugar, fat, and salt found nowhere in nature. We prefer those exaggerated stimuli.
  • Visual and other sensory cues can make us work harder to obtain the food “reward.” So can priming (having a small bite of something or smelling it). Emotions associated with food also make it more alluring and memorable.
  • The food industry knows all these things, and uses them to their advantage!
  • This will come as no shock to anyone, but most “flavors” in processed and chain restaurant food come from a lab.
  • Mundane foods like bread or pizza can contain more sugar, fat, and salt than we realize. The food industry knows how to add in flavors in the right proportions so they hardly ever taste too sweet or salty.
  • All of this has led to what Kessler calls “conditioned hypereating,” a cycle of overeating behavior driven by salient stimuli that reinforces itself. Many people can’t stop after a few bites of hyperpalatable food just like a compulsive gambler can’t stop after one bet, or a drug user doesn’t want to stop after one hit.
  • It has nothing to do with willpower and everything to do with the brain’s reinforcing cue-urge-reward system. Saying a person is overweight due to lack of willpower is like saying someone can’t stop doing drugs due to lack of willpower.

So we understand the problem pretty well. But what can we do about it? Kessler has some suggestions, and I have some as well. But you’ll have to stay tuned for part two, since this is already a monster of a post!

In the meantime, have any of you read The End of Overeating? What did you think? Do you think we put too much blame on the food industry for our health and obesity problems, or is it warranted?

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