Obesity: Overeating Is Planned and Designed Into Our Foods

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Call me late to the game, this book came out last year, but I just read Dr. David Kessler’s The End of Overeating, Taking Control of the Insatiable American Appetite. Wow! If you haven’t read it, you should. It’s never too late to tell someone about a good book.

I can no longer look at food as anything but salt loaded on fat loaded on sugar. It is a refrain throughout this in-depth work that pulls the curtain open to reveal, among other things, how manipulated we are into over-eating by food manufacturers.

The book is segmented into three basic categories

1) Why we are addicted, emotional eaters – In part, because more and more people are looking toward food as an indulgence. A reward for, and a break-away from, their over-packed, stressful lives.

Because salt, sugar and fat create the perfect storm for craving and addiction: The perfect blend that keeps us returning to a food, hooked beyond intelligent reasoning. What Kessler, the former commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration, calls “conditioned hypereating.”

Kessler’s research suggests that how we think about food and what we eat today has actually changed the neural pathways in our brain, setting up a push-pull struggle (I want this food/I shouldn’t have it) so that we are almost powerless against temptation. Further, this leads us to follow an eating script that has been written into the circuits of our brains.

2) How America’s food manufacturers are spending millions to hook us and keep us hooked - In part, by purposefully creating salt, sugar, fat explosions of flavor that are novel, to spark and stroke our senses. By creating food that is maximally chewable and easy to swallow. How devious. This makes eating so easy and quick that we’re consuming loads more food than we realize, and before we have time to feel full. And, that inexpensive, highly processed food is available everywhere, anytime.

3) How to break our addiction and take control over our eating – Here Kessler suggests a number of cognitive strategies. Like changing our visual cues. If you pass an ice cream shop you can’t resist while driving to work, change your route. Don’t diet – it only leaves you feeling deprived and you will resume your old habits when you quit. Replace rewarding yourself with food with other things. Also, plan your eating, talk yourself through how you will feel after you eat that food and move toward what you want. In other words, make a commitment to health rather than run from the foods that have you stuck like Chinese water torture.

I agree with Kessler’s strategies to help break our food addiction, but most people will not be able to execute them. They take powerful attention, concentration, a deep commitment to change and practice, practice, practice. Dr. Kessler agrees, telling us repeatedly that it is hard work.

Personally, I found the first two sections of this book mesmerizing. We are treated to some historical knowledge of how our whole food schemata changed in the early eighties. For instance when Coca Cola got fast-food restaurants to supersize drinks from 8 oz to 12 oz to 16 oz to today’s 32 oz, and, stop giving out water. When food started coming out of laboratories rather than off the farm.

Don’t just think McDonalds and Burger King are to blame for our rising obesity. Rather, think every chain restaurant across America like Chili’s, Ruby Tuesday, Houlihan’s, the Cheesecake Factory, Outback Steakhouse and more also bear the blame.

At Outback, for instance, one of Kessler’s food consultants ordered their signature dish, ‘Aussie Fries,’ and it came smothered with cheese and topped with bacon bits. He calls this enormous plate 20 cents worth of cheap filler for $5 worth of wow!

Our feel-good, family restaurants also get our kids hooked early on fat loaded on sugar loaded on salt. The ubiquitous spinach dip found in many of them is a high-fat, high-salt dairy product where the spinach adds mostly color. Breaded proteins like chicken and fish are deep fried before they leave the food factory to be shipped and then fried again when you order them. That’s fat on fat. Cheese in a dish adds hefty salt and fat. Even Starbucks has joined this ratty pack. Their white chocolate mocha frappucino is coffee diluted with sugar (up to 58 grams of sugar), fat and salt.

Here are a few other tasty excerpts from the book:

Andrew, a typical food-craver, celebrated every Little League victory at Carvel, the legendary ice cream chain in New York. Now his childhood memory sends him back to Carvel whenever he sees one. He battles with his desire to go and his determination not to. Foods become imbued with emotional resonance.

Kessler says because a cookie makes him feel better, it’s easy to develop the habit of seeking it out when he’s sad or angry. Over time, as neural pathways link the change in his mood with the experience of eating the cookie, the association grows stronger. These products have a hedonic, calming effect. They relieve the itch, but the problem is the itch comes back.

Mike McCloud of Uptown Bakers, an artisanal wholesale bakery based in Maryland, talks of “tricked-out” bagels. “You take a basic concept like a bagel, which is a very clean bakery item and then you add ingredients to change the mouth feel and the texture.Panera’s crunch bagel is such an example. It has vanilla drops (sugar and partially hydrogenated palm kernel oil), brown sugar, honey, vanilla, salt, molasses, more palm oil and is then topped with sugar, cinnamon, and soybean oil. Taking his first bite, says Kessler, the topping gave a crunchy sweetness that contrasted beautifully with the soft interior. As he chewed the bagel it became a moist wad, easy to chew and swallow, with a lingering sweetness. Lubricated by its fat, he devoured the bagel in only a few chews.”Panera,” says Kessler, “manufactured the cinnamon crunch bagel to perfection.”

Panda Express’s “Orange Chicken” is described on the menu as “tender, juicy chicken pieces lightly battered and fried, sauteed in a sweet and mildly spicy chili sauce with scallions.” Preparation of the dish begins in the factory where the meat is processed, battered, fried and frozen. The dark chicken chunks contain as much as 19 percent of a water-based solution: oil and salt are also added. More salt and other spices are added before the battered chicken nuggets are pre-browned in soybean oil, frozen and then shipped to Panda Express outlets. At the restaurant, the meat is deep-fried in oil just before you eat it. The accompanying chili sauce has sugar, salt and oil striking the golden triangle of our neuro-wiring and palate.

Food manufacturers have long been using focus groups to test for cravings and then designing their product for “irresistibility” and “crave-ability.” When a food scientist at Frito-Lay analyzed what determines “irresistibility” five key influences were pinpointed: calories, flavor hits, ease of eating, meltdown and early hit. Companies know this and use this.

I continue to be amazed, and outraged, that as a nation we continue to subsidize the food industry to kill us. To line our supermarket shelves with chemical food substances. To refine the nutrition and fiber out of almost everything we eat. To make food so easy to swallow we don’t even have to chew anymore, as foods race to our stomach on a slick of oil. To allow neighborhood suburban restaurants to saturate an ordinary piece of chicken with fat on fat and chemicals and write it up on the menu as if it were a healthy choice.

Is the government hoping we’re too drugged out on donuts to think clearly and so big business keeps getting a free pass? Would we even need such reform in our health care plan if we revamped accessibility to, and affordability of, healthier foods?

The Culprits of Obesity
If you think being healthy is an individual choice, and solely up to the individual, you are not alone. But it requires enormous discipline to make enough right choices in the face of our unhealthy environment. Kessler says we are nearly powerless against the pull and craving of fat, salt and sugar and they are built into most foods and food products.

I have also always thought beside the obvious culprits aiding obesity – highly refined and processed foods, huge portion sizes, chemicals additives that mess with our metabolism, the availability of unhealthy fast food at cheap prices – that there is another culprit. We have elevated “thin” to a must-have so that eating now has an element of psychological warfare.

How often do you just eat and enjoy your food? Instead aren’t you always sizing up calories, fat, carbs, playing tug of war with yourself whether you should give in to what you want or walk away virtuous? We depict the brass ring of “thinness” everywhere. But until we break the cycle of fat on sugar on salt on fat on sugar in our food, like an addict most of us will just keep reaching for more.

If I’ve whet your appetite to read Kessler’s book, you too will likely look at that next slice of pizza or muffin or breakfast cereal or even seemingly harmless vanilla yogurt or virtuous protein bar as fat loaded on salt loaded on sugar. And maybe that’s a useful strategy to help us break our craving and addiction. To deconstruct our processed food into its less attractive edibles. That may just push the “pause” button long enough to slow our reach.

As Kessler says, it’s a process to break the cycle and create new habits. It took me two decades to change my eating habits so that fruits and vegetables are what I crave and salt on sugar on fat only tempts me now and then. Stopping counting calories, staying off the scale and looking toward what I wanted – health, energy, vitality and looking good in my clothes – rather than being fixated on, and running from, the three-headed monster, was what moved me to end my overeating.

Originally published in The Huffington Post

Visit Casual Kitchen for more on The End of Overeating.

Comments (4)

  1. I haven’t read Dr. Kessler’s book, but I am familiar with this analysis. There seems to be plenty of evidence that the food industry, and especially the snack and fast food industry, is designed to “hook and keep us hooked” on oversized portions of salt, sugar, simple carbohydrates, and fat.
    However, I’ve become aware of a big silence in these kinds of arguments: a lack of attention to how high-end food purveyors — boutique grocery stores, gourmet coffee shops, artisinal bakers, find restaurants, natural juice makers, and the like — also cater to our desire for food as comfort and pleasure (more than fuel and nutrition). Who is pointing a finger at the $6 drinks at Starbucks (grande caramel macchiato with whipped cream) or the beautiful cupcakes at Magnolia or a 16 oz. bottle from Nantucket Nectars or the organic and yogurt-frosted granola bars at my local Whole Foods?
    If we single-out “junk” food as the sole culprit (and no one would disagree that Coke is empty calories), then we miss important aspects of the problem that cut across regional and class boundaries. All Americans, whether their tastes are low or high brow, have come to expect their food to be yummy and bountiful. (Why else the explosion in food literature? Food films? Gourmet cooking classes?) My own children, for example, would turn their nose up at what was my favorite brown bag lunch as a child: two hard-boiled eggs, a piece of bread, raw carrots, and an apple.
    I really have no solution. The problem seems almost intractable when you look at it this way. Regulating the food industry will only be a beginning. My hunch is that real change will begin at the elementary school level, and not just in poor school districts, but in well-funded ones, and that a home + school effort will be key.
    What Jamie Oliver is doing in Appalachia is provocative, if not a bit sensationalist. We should also keep our eye on what Alice Waters is doing in her Edible Schoolyard in Berkeley, or Yale University Dining Services’ experiments in sustainability.
    And, we should monitor and comment on *all* food sources, and not just the cheap ones.
     

  2. Jessica Apple
    jessica at

    Great point, Jane.  And I don’t know what the answer is either… elementary schools would be a good place to start nutrition education.  I guess I’m a lost cause , though, since while I do avoid almost all junk food, like your kids, I’d turn my nose up at your favorite brown bag lunch, too :).  I took peanut butter and honey sandwiches to school.  Chips.  And every so often my dad threw in a piece of seaweed, which I tried very hard to like.

  3. This book I guess it is not popular in the circles of food producers. It is true that food from a fast food restaurants is suspiciously sweet and salty at the same time. The conclusion is that a small group of people is making others addicted to the food they produce. It makes sense and that’s awful!

  4. This is a excellent discussion of Kessler’s book (and thanks for the link to my review of the book too!).
     
    I’m like Riva: once I’d read this book I looked at both restaurant food and processed food in a totally different way. For that I’m grateful to Dr. Kessler–thanks to his book, I now avoid entire categories of food that I know are “hyperpalatable,” as he puts it.
     
    However, for the sake of intellectual honesty, I think Kessler’s book and this debate about food companies misses an important element: At the end of the day it’s us, the consumers, who willingly eat this food. We are the ones who pick it up off the shelves, carry it to the checkout counter, fish money out of our pockets to pay for it, and then take it home and eat it.  We’re the ones who end up completing the circle. We owe it to ourselves to recognize that we have a lot more power in this arrangement than we may think.
     
    After all, should we expect food companies to only make food that tastes terrible… so we won’t buy it? 

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