Book Review: The End of Overeating
Last week in the UK a new documentary series started on the BBC. The first episode, “The Men Who Made Us Fat”, aired as part of a three week programme which aims to uncover the root causes of the obesity epidemic.
Coincidentally last week I published my review of “Why Women Need Fat”. The programme included a high level review of many of the details in that book, including the fascinating history behind the adoption of the “low fat heart healthy” diet recommendations in the 1970s. It seemed timely therefore to also publish my review of David Kessler’s “The End of Overeating”.
I read this book in 2011 based on a recommendation from Twitter. I was intrigued as David Kessler is a former head of the US Food and Drug Administration - the food regulators in the US. Once upon a time I used to read letters from my congressman’s constituents asking for FDA intervention in supplement labelling and chemical disclosures in food. So reading a book by the former head of the FDA appealed to me.
I didn’t breeze through this book in one sitting - I think I carried it with me for quite a few long haul flights, reading it section by section, and then digesting its key messages. My key takeaway? Similar to “Why Women Need Fat”, it has to be that making meals yourself, with clean whole foods, is the only surefire way to eat SAFELY. Yep, you read that correctly. Safely. The book spends a lot of time explaining in normal language the neuroscience of eating - and the changes that eating can cause to the brain, triggered by foods and eating patterns and behaviours. Eating safely is about a lot more than just knowing what is in your food!
As with last week, I will extract some quotes that stayed with me, and intersperse the piece with some of my thoughts.
“Where traditional cuisine is meant to satisfy, American industrial food is meant to stimulate.”
Through a combination of fat, sugar and salt, industrialised processed foods encourage eating. Kessler details the science and neuroscience behind the use of these three substances in food manufacturing - including a pretty stimulating analysis of Cinnabon and why those cinnamon roles are so more-ish!
Industrial food designers strive, through laboratories, to create foods that are “sense-sational”—
“The goal is to create foods that satisfy all the senses, hot and cooling, spicy and sweet, crunchy and creamy, bitter and salty work together, with enticing aromas, to create a multi sensory experience and flavour utopia.”
Using examples of Snickers bars and Cool Ranch Doritos, Kessler explains how companies design foods that we just can’t put down, foods that trigger our brains to turn off the satiation centres so that we consume more and more.
Touching on evolution and developmental psychology, we learn how the human brain is designed to remember salient pleasureful experiences, and to seek out and maximise these experiences - particularly with regard to food. The constant repeated behaviours trigger habits - and in the case of industrialised foods, this has resulted in the habit or tendency to overeat.
After exploring these behaviours and triggers Kessler then shows us how not everyone responds the same way. I could relate to this point - I do not overeat habitually, but there are certain foods that “trigger” me to eat far more than I normally would. Thanksgiving dinner and pizza, for example. Both of my examples fit Kessler’s analysis perfectly - Thanksgiving triggers a “happy memory” zone for me, so I indulge in the foods seeking the same pleasure and satisfaction as years gone by. And for me, pizza is THE perfect combination of fat, carbohydrate, salt and flavours - it triggers that “sense-sational” response in me. It was interesting reading about the neuroscience behind these behaviours.
Kessler suggests ways that we can “unlearn” overeating:
1. Develop awareness
2. Engage in competing behaviours and change your habits
3. Formulate thoughts that quiet those that you are seeking to change
4. Find a system of support - no change is easy to make, and having someone around who can help will make the process easier.
In addition to the habit-breaking-and-forming advice, Kessler discusses diets. And in particular he advocates going on “Food Rehab” rather than dieting - forcing us to change the ways in which we view food. He says that working on the book changed his point of view - I think that is probably one of the reasons to read books like this, to change perspectives about food and eating, thus propelling us closer to a clean and wholesome way of eating.
The Food Rehab advocated seems similar to a 12-step type of programme. Kessler very openly states that changing our relationship with food is not a “one-size-fits-all” approach, but needs tailor made thinking.
The steps to getting it right can include:
- getting “meal plans” which tell you what, when and how much to eat. This eliminates any mental struggles a person might have, and leaves no room for deviation.
- figuring out appropriate quantities of food to eat
- thinking in advance of the meals and snacks that will be consumed
- choosing satisfying foods (for example sugary foods will lead to a person feeling hungry again after only an hour)
- choosing foods that you enjoy
As many people know, I am not a fan of strict “meal plans” as I think they do not necessarily *teach* healthy eating or impart *life skills*. I don’t like plans that merely tell a person what is “on or off limits”. I can see how plans can create an environment to learn about foods, portions, and preparation - meal plans clearly serve a segment of the population and a purpose. I think that planning is only a small - very small according to Kessler - part of the picture.
Kessler provides some guidelines for altering overeating behaviours:
- Figure out what leads to overeating
- Refuse everything you can’t control
- Have an alternate plan
- Limit your exposure
- Remember the stakes
- Direct your attention elsewhere
- Learn active resistance
It seems that Kessler believes that ending overeating and changing our relationship with food is as much a mental process as a process of learning about food, ingredients and cooking. The steps outlined in the book are like therapy. Our relationship with eating has changed due to the advent of industrialised food, and now when things go out of control a professional process of de-conditioning needs to be implemented. Obesity, as he present it, is a condition that needs support from all angles - not just learning to cook or control our personal desires, but we need to seek help from nutritionists, counsellors, support groups, friends and family.
Kessler ends the book by bringing things back to both personal level and a call for action on a political level:
“We must face the reality that until we fundamentally alter our eating behaviour, we will continue to squander billions of dollars on ineffective schemes. The sooner we create and implement a framework that promotes prevention and treatment strategies that work, the sooner we will regain control over our minds and bodies. And then things can begin to change.”
It made me wonder what letters my former congressman (he is now the Governor of the State of Hawaii) gets today on food issues…