A New Book on Overeating Suggests It’s Not Our Fault
KESSLER WARNS THAT OUR CRAVING FOR FAT, SUGAR AND SALT WILL BE OUR UNDOING.
Perhaps the book of the year on diet and health, deservedly, is The End of Overeating: Taking Control of the Insatiable American Appetite by David Kessler, a board-certified medical doctor and the former commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) under the first Bush and Clinton administrations.
Dr. Kessler lends his considerable intellect and access to probing the conundrum of our time: Why have obesity rates skyrocketed over the past two decades? He sees it as a confluence of human instinct – specifically, because our species is wired to crave fat, sugar and salt – with a food industry that is hyperefficient at delivering those three things in thousands of ways. Even (and especially) our poorest populations can afford to eat the junk food that is abundantly more available than apples in gas station convenience stores, grocery stores, fast-food restaurants and workplace and elementary school vending machines. No one in America goes hungry, even if we’re malnourished and our cravings are never fully satiated.
Some say this diet leads to hair loss, which is a debatable point. But it arguably contributes to weight gain and concomitant health deterioration.
A departure from processed foods is key to our recovery.
Seen through the lens of this analysis – particularly its focus on fat, sugar and salt – the answer to our weight problems looks almost simple: Get away from processed foods and migrate to fruits and vegetables, lean proteins, unprocessed carbohydrates. But of course we’ve heard all that before. What’s new here?
While at the FDA, Kessler was successful in shifting both national policy and consumer behavior on two very large components of health and commerce. One was the design, congressional passage and implementation of the 1990 Nutrition Labeling and Education Act, which has standardized our knowledge of food products through the Nutrition Facts graphic, seen on almost all edible packaged goods. The other is how we regard tobacco as an industry that is enormously responsible for sickness and death, not as an agricultural product that needs government protection and subsidies. Out of office but free to pursue any cause, Kessler is now focused on Big Food.
Kessler personalizes the issue by revealing his own struggles with weight. He loves chocolate-covered pretzels (a salt-and-sugar combination, he notes) and can’t eat just one. The stimuli to his orbitofrontal cortex causes him to always want more, something that almost everyone shares – and a fact that food product designers understand very, very well. He offers tricks for averting that instinct, which primarily boils down to basic behavior modification: Avoid being around those foods that flip your switches and develop associations with better-for-you foods, for example.
Public policy can’t change individual eating habits.
Public policy can “play a role,” Kessler told the Wall Street Journal, but he says the responsibility for change rests largely on individuals.
Okay, so it’s our instinct to eat these things (fat, salt and sugar) that make us overweight. Can we overcome these forces?
I myself have worked on both sides of this equation. Early in my career I was a low-level public relations professional in the food industry (McDonald’s Corporation’s public relations firm, Golin-Harris, and the NutraSweet Company, promoting their failed fat substitute Simplesse, and Equal sweetener). Vocational interests subsequently took me to health and fitness endeavors because I was steadfastly interested in nutrition and exercise. Today I follow a diet that is heavily based in fruits and vegetables, legumes and nuts with a modest amount of animal products (eggs, fish, chicken and very occasionally pork and red meat). You would be hard pressed to find a processed snack food in my house.
My journey included an unwillingness to forgo certain, occasional indulgences: pizza, ice cream, beer, quesadillas. If a bowl of potato chips or buttered popcorn were in front of me, I would eat the whole thing.
Concerned about an inability to control myself around salty snacks, quite like those described in Kessler’s book, I did what I called my “Pringles experiment.” Because that particular product comes in a container that neatly closes, I set out to eat just one chip per day over a course of about a month. I succeeded – I took one chip into my mouth and savored it, almost like a communion wafer, as I prepared each evening’s dinner. I allowed the chip to melt in my mouth – most overprocessed foods don’t require chewing, as there is virtually no plant fiber remaining. Kessler observes that the aftertaste of many processed foods is unremarkable, which I noticed in my experiment.
This convinced me that I had the willpower to restrict myself if I approached food consciously. The experience also taught me to savor foods, to slow down at eating anything, to fully appreciate food flavors and textures. This applies as much to caviar, garden tomatoes and dark chocolate as to movie theater popcorn.
Can you do your own Pringles experiment? Dr. Kessler thinks you should try.