Avoiding the pitfalls of overeating

June 8, 2009 12:00:00 AM PDT
If you struggle with your weight, or just can't seem to stop eating, you'll want to take note of the advice of Dr. Daivd Kessler, author of "The End of Overeating: Taking Control of the Insatiable American Appetite" and former head of the U.S. Food & Drug Administration.

Buy the book on Amazon: The End of Overeating

THE ISSUE:

As we all know, obesity is one of the biggest health problems facing America today.

Up until now, we've thought it was just an issue of willpower but now we have the science to prove that the food industry is hijacking our bodies and our brains.

The key to this is the diabolical trifecta of sugar, fat, and salt. The food industry layers these ingredients, designing foods that actually have the capacity to change the way our brains work.

The food industry creates foods that set off a chain reaction in our minds and bodies that prompt us to crave these highly manipulated food products. As a result, we become wired to want these foods all the time. Each time we say "yes," our ability to say "no" the next time is significantly reduced.

Not only do we want to eat these foods all the time, but we want to eat too much of them. The food industry intentionally creates "adult baby food"-products with little fiber, making them easy to eat quickly with little chewing required. As a result, we don't stop eating, even when we know we should-because we don't feel full.

To ensure that you become hooked, the industry spends a lot of money researching consumer behavior, from determining "how many times you chew per minute" to developing sophisticated technologies that will ensure that each bite has the exact proportion of fat, salt, and sugar and will look and taste the same each time you buy it.

Food was once meant to satisfy us but today's American industrial food is engineered to stimulate us to want more, buy more, and eat more.

I call this conditioned hypereating. And we have become nation of overeaters.

THE FOODS:

Many of the seemingly innocuous foods we consume in our day-to-day lives fall under the category of "hyperpalatable foods-they are loaded and/or layered with sugar, fat, and salt.

In addition to the usual suspects like fast food and baked goods, there are plenty of foods that seem innocent enough but are actually just as bad:

A margarita spiked grilled chicken platter from one of the leading casual dining restaurants may seem like a healthy choice but consider this:

The chicken was shipped frozen in 25lb bags filled with 50 of these pieces along with additives and preservatives like whey protein concentrate and modified tapioca starch.

The chicken has been tumbled in a mix of high-sugar, artificially flavored and colored syrup; sometimes this marinade has actually been injected into the chicken by hundred of needles.

The chicken is processed and tenderized in an industrial mixer (the kind used to mix cement) that breaks down the protein to the point where you barely have to chew the meat. Before you know it, you've wolfed down hundreds of calories.

Sushi in America is another example of hyperpalatable foods that appear to be healthy.

From supermarkets to high-end restaurants, sushi trendier in some parts of America than it is in Japan. But here it is loaded with fried tempura flakes (fat and salt), spicy mayonnaise (fat), and even cream cheese (fat).

Then there are the foods designed to entertain us and appeal to our emotions.

Now more than ever, food is a relatively inexpensive form of entertainment and indulgence. In a world where we are under stress, food is marketed to us as an "escape" or as a special indulgence that we "deserve."

Who doesn't like to go to a bar or restaurant after a hard day's work and enjoy a thick, crunchy, cheesy, piping hot pizza or a plate of sweet and spicy buffalo wings drenched in a cool, creamy sauce.

And nowadays, hyperpalatble food is everywhere-it's become impossible to avoid.

These foods are available any time, day or night-you can eat in your car, on the run, whenever.

Most work meetings and all social occasions are centered around food

Social mores once kept us from eating on the street or walking around our office munching-no more.

The distinction between meals and snacks has become blurred, breaking down the meal structure-we have become a nation of grazers that eat all day long.

Snacks used to be just for kids but now snacking is the norm among adults.

People have stopped looking to their bodies for cues and now eat for reward, NOT for nourishment.

THE SOLUTION:

We need to approach this problem like we did tobacco. We need to make a cognitive shift and change the way we look at food. Instead of viewing a plate of nachos or chicken fingers as a guilty pleasure, we should turn away in disgust.

The country needs a collective shift in cultural attitudes and to redefine our eating norms: essentially, we need a "Truth" campaign for the food industry-people need to understand that the food industry's practice of creating, selling and serving food layered and loaded with sugar, fat, and salt is hurting them and their families. Supporting this industry is in no one's best interest.

The food industry needs to be strictly monitored and regulated. We must demand comprehensive labeling on packaged foods and calorie counts on all menus at restaurants.

And deceptive food marketing practices need to be exposed.

People need to know that their minds and bodies are being manipulated, that their very physiology is being exploited for profit. Again, not unlike tobacco, these salty/sweet/fatty foods have been marketed to us as objects of desire by a profit-driven industry that understands the negative health impacts of their products, but continues to market them deceptively.

As individuals we can help ourselves by recognizing that Conditioned Hypereating is a chronic problem that needs to be managed, not completely cured. Lapses are to be expected. Overcoming overeating is a daily choice, and vigilance is key.

Set rules and make clear to yourself the negative consequences of breaking them. Eventually following the rule will become its own reward.

Swap out foods that contribute to conditioned hypereating with foods that don't, but that you still enjoy. This will vary for each individual.

Plan your eating and pay attention to everything you eat-understand and be aware of your behavior around food. Be especially aware of and avoid situations/environments that trigger the desire for certain foods; or certain foods that you know you have trouble consuming in moderation. And find support from people who care about you.

AMERICA NEEDS FOOD REHAB, NOW! WHY DO WE NEED FOOD REHAB?

We have become a nation of Conditioned Hypereaters.

Definition: Chronic exposure to highly palatable foods-those containing sugar, fat, salt, or any combination of these-actually changes the way our brain works. Their powerful drive conditions us to continually seek out more and more of these foods, significantly reducing our capacity to say "no." Why conditioned? Because it becomes automatic. Why hyper? Because the eating is excessive, driven by motivational forces we find incredibly difficult to control.

HOW DID WE BECOME THIS WAY?

What the Food Industry Has Done:

Fact: Foods high in sugar, fat, and salt make you want to eat more.

· The food industry KNOWS this and creates food that hit all of these points-sugar, fat, and salt are either loaded onto the core ingredient, layered on top, or both.

· The food industry has conditioned us to believe that "enhanced" products are better/more desirable. Why have just french fries-add bacon and cheese and sour cream?

· These layered, complex foods act like a cocaine speedball-ingesting food with differing stimulations and sedating effects creates a genuine rush.

· Food was once meant to satisfy but today's American industrial food is meant to stimulate?so that you want more, buy more, eat more?

What Our Society Has Done:

Fact: These foods have become impossible to avoid

· Highly desirable foods are now available any time, day or night-you can eat in your car, on the run, whenever.

· Most work meetings and all social occasions are centered around food

· Social mores once kept us from eating on the street or walking around our office munching-no more.

· The distinction between meals and snacks has become blurred, breaking down the meal structure-we are eating all day long.

· Snacks used to be just for kids but now snacking is the norm among adults.

· People have stopped looking to their bodies for cues and now just eat to satisfy their desire, NOT their hunger.

HOW CAN WE STOP THE OVEREATING CRISIS?

What YOU need to do:

· Realize and remind ourselves that we're being manipulated: not unlike tobacco, these salty/sweet/fatty foods have been marketed to us as objects of desire by a manipulative and profit-driven industry.

· Realize that Conditioned Hypereating is a problem that needs to be managed, not completely cured-lapses are to be expected.

· Set rules: When you set a rule, you've got context for avoiding the forbidden behavior-rules make clear the negative consequences of giving in to your impulses and vice versa. Without context or motivation, there's no reason to hold back. Soon, following your rules becomes its own reward.

· Substitute rewards: swap out foods that contribute to conditioned hypereating with foods that don't, but that you still enjoy. This will vary for each individual.

· Plan your eating and pay attention to everything you eat-understand and be aware of your behavior around food.

· Find support from people who care.

What SOCIETY needs to do:

· Shift attitudes and redefine norms: we need a "Truth" campaign for the food industry-people need to repeatedly hear that selling, serving, and eating food layered and loaded with sugar, fat, and salt has negative & unhealthy consequences.

· Monitor, regulate, and expose food marketing.

· Demand comprehensive labeling on packaged foods and calorie counts on all menus at restaurants.

· Rethink our ideas about the right time and place to eat-offers of food outside mealtime do not serve anyone's interest.

About Dr. David Kessler:
Dr. David Kessler, a pediatrician, has been the dean of the medical schools at Yale University and the University of California, San Francisco, where he currently is Professor of Pediatrics and Epidemiology and Biostatistics. He is a graduate of Amherst College, the University of Chicago Law School, and Harvard Medical School.


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