I used to know someone in college who was far skinnier than he wanted to be and would lose weight if he didn’t make an effort to keep it on. We would go out for lunch sometimes and he would say, “I don’t really want one, but I guess I should have a milkshake, too.” Sigh. Like most of us, I’ve never had that problem and have struggled with maintaining a healthy weight my whole adult life. This is not to make light of the problems underweight people but, given the statistics on overweight Americans, I’m guessing most of us relate better to my situation than my friend’s.
Two of the largest selling book genres are cookbooks and diet books, which, taken together, attest to our enormous interest in food. There are currently thousands of food books in print so it’s hard to imagine anyone having anything new to say on the subject of eating. The End of Overeating by David Kessler, M.D. manages to approach an issue that’s dear to our hearts, not to mention our stomachs, with a fresh perspective. The book’s genesis was in a simple question that Dr. Kessler had: Why do we eat what we don’t want to eat? Dr. Kessler was the former FDA Commissioner who oversaw the redesigned food label (the food pyramid) and took on the tobacco industry so he was well-connected in many fields when he decided to go in search of an answer to his query.
The End of Overeating begins by describing the mechanism through which food captures our attention. The reward center of our brain lights up when we encounter food with a high reinforcing value. Sugar, fat and salt are reinforcing foods, meaning an animal will work harder to get them than foods without those ingredients. We then produce dopamine, which motivates us to seek these foods out next time in anticipation of the reward. As David Foster Wallace colloquially put it, “But then so how come I can’t stop, if I want to stop, is the thing.”
One reason we have trouble stopping is that the food industry uses its knowledge of our biology to give us a more pleasurable experience, which usually means eating things we can’t resist. For example, Chili’s popular Boneless Shanghai Wings are made of deboned chicken (quick to eat), which is injected with a water and salt solution (the water makes it easy to chew), battered, breaded (the breading contains salt and sugar), deep-fried, and covered with ginger-citrus sauce (mostly sugar along with more salt). Accompanying the chicken is a creamy wasabi ranch dressing, which is made from mayonnaise and contains additional salt, fat and sugar. And this is only an appetizer. As a food consultant said, “(This dish) is the quintessential example of how to cram as much hedonics as you can into one dish.”
The food industry also knows that the allure of the basic building blocks of sugar, fat and salt can be strengthened by adding factors such as variety (multiple flavors like chocolate with a caramel swirl), multiple sensory stimuli (such as smooth and crunchy together or hot fudge on cold ice cream), and emotional connections (such as the ‘fun’ atmosphere in restaurant ads). Dr. Kessler concludes that, “Rewarding foods are rewiring our brains. As they do, we become more sensitive to the cues that lead us to anticipate rewarding foods.” This makes it harder and harder over time to resist foods when we’re walking by a bakery, sitting in a meeting with muffins, or even possessing the knowledge that there are cookies in the house. Overcoming our resistance is why our ice cream, which used to be offered in vanilla, chocolate or strawberry fifty years ago, have now exploded into flavors like Ben and Jerry’s Everything But The… which contains chocolate and vanilla ice creams, Heath® bar chunks, white chocolate chunks, peanut butter cups, and chocolate-covered almonds.
After some sleuthing in the food industry, Dr. Kessler states, “I began to develop an overarching theory about eating for reward: Chronic exposure to highly palatable foods changes our brains, conditioning us to seek continued stimulation.” This sounds a lot like addiction (in fact, dopamine is the same chemical released when using cocaine). Dr. Kessler continues, “Conditioned hypereating works the same way as other ‘stimulus-response’ disorders in which reward is involved, such as compulsive gambling and substance abuse. Such disorders are characterized by a high degree of sensitivity to sensory stimuli, and they typically lead to a perceived loss of control, an inability to feel satisfied, and obsessive thinking.” Dr. Kessler found that most overweight people and many normal weight people had obsessive thoughts of food. This rings true for at least some people because Overeaters Anonymous is an organization based on the twelve-step recovery model of addiction that helps members with what they term ‘compulsive eating’.
So now that we understand the problem, what is the solution? The End of Overeating outlines several steps we can take to reprogram our brains to have a healthy relationship with food. The first is to change our emotional connections with food. We have developed simplistic associations of certain foods with comfort and pleasure, which leads us to overeat (e.g., cherry pie tastes good). By using more complex thoughts, we can push ourselves away from something so it no longer seems desirable and other things seem desirable instead (e.g., cherry pie is full of fat and sugar and I’m going to feel good if I skip it and bad if I eat it). This conscious thought will help make it easier over time to change your habitual thoughts.
Another change we can make is planning our eating. Replacing the impulsive act of eating with a thoughtful act will help us behave in accordance with our true values and give us structure that will help support us. Understanding our triggers gives us more control as well. One of my favorite takeaways from the book is the realistic assessment of my own behavior. If I know that every time I think I’m going to have just a few crackers I really end up eating more than I want, I can stop myself from taking the first bite because I will no longer believe my thought that I’m just going to have a few. This technique can be coupled with avoiding traps, such as sitting far from the muffins in a meeting. Another technique is to make rules, such as not allowing yourself to eat between meals (behavior the svelte French consider bizarre).
But also: remember to enjoy your food. Sit down with your family and have a meal. Treat it like the special occasion it is and you can quickly change your relationship to your food.