Ever wondered why it is that when you open a pack of chocolate chip cookies you can’t stop until it is all gone? And then, while you are still eating; why are you already thinking about what else you have in your pantry? Dr David Kessler was watching an Oprah show on weight loss where one of the guests complained that she simply could not stop eating, and didn’t know why that was the case. Since Kessler didn’t know how to answer this question himself, he decided to launch a thorough investigation into why it is so hard to control compulsive overeating.
Dr David Kessler is a former commissioner of the US Food and Drug Administration under presidents George H. W. Bush and Bill Clinton. He is widely acknowledged for his role in the fight against tobacco companies, as well as for his efforts to bring about better food labeling. The End of Overeating: Taking Control of the Insatiable American Appetite was finally published earlier this year following a seven-year investigation, which involved numerous scientists, physicians, and food industry insiders. What surprised Kessler was that where he was expecting a journey into nutrition and endocrinology, he ended up inside the human brain and the food industry.
In “The End of Overeating” Kessler explains how the US obesity problem came about, and what can be done to get it under control. This easy to read book carefully explains in lay terms the science behind the current obesity epidemic. Kessler believes that modern foods (rich in fat, salt and sugar) are simply too palatable. These foods overstimulate the brain’s reward centers, all the while conditioning us to want more and more. The bottom-line? We simply eat too much and compulsive overeating becomes the norm. Many people literally get addicted to certain types of foods very much the same way as they get addicted to tobacco or drugs.
How does this happen? Well the first time you come in contact with these overly stimulating foods; you simply enjoy it, and your neural circuits are programmed to the pleasure of your new soon-to-be trigger foods. Every subsequent time you have these new food items, the original neural pathways are strengthened over and over again, until your behavior around food becomes what Dr Kessler refers to as conditioned and driven. Gradually, all your senses are tuned to your environment for cues that normally accompanies these foods, for example emotional state, location, time of day or time of year. These cues then become triggers for you to seek out more of these foods.
None of this is really new. The true cause of obesity is compulsive overeating, although we do not always want to face up to that. We all know that our bodies instinctively crave sugar, salt and fat, which in the hunter-gatherer days would have been scarce. Since it is abundant in modern times it becomes very difficult for us to distinguish hunger from habit, but we also know that we can learn the difference. Once we understand what is going on, we can change. We can develop strategies to change our habits, and with practice, become better and better at it.
It also comes as no surprise that manufacturers of processed foods and chain restaurants exploit our most basic human traits to create even more addictive foods. They are in business to make money after all; and they do so by creating visions and new norms in society for what is pleasurable, fashionable and socially acceptable. Foods are scientifically formulated specifically to stimulate the reward centers of the brain, and by making use of the ubiquitous media food manufacturers and distributors ensure that more and more triggers or cues are established in our minds every day.
Not all of us are equally susceptible to compulsive overeating, which also explains why a small percentage of our population never battle with their weight. For these people, food just doesn’t capture their interest. Their interest may be captured more by gambling, drinking, books, exercise or whatever. But for the vast majority of us, food is a major stimulus. It’s not only conditioned behavior. It’s the learning and motivational circuits of the brain being captured through ongoing conditioning processes. From an early age children are exposed to these foods high in saturated fat, salt and sugar. Most of these children have never been hungry a day in their lives. Yet for most of them, the battle has begun. Once those neuro-circuits are laid down, it’s there for life.
The other thing you may have noticed is that that chocolate chip cookie (or whatever – pick your poison) never actually taste as good as you expected it to. The reason for this is that the power of anticipation is incredibly strong, and overrides the pleasure (or not) that we actually get when consuming the food. So, what happens? You go back for more of course, because it is supposed to taste so nice. This is the real problem with being conditioned to respond to a particular cue. Once you are cued and you have activated that cue, it amplifies the reward value. It torments you. You want it more. You are now what David Kessler calls a conditioned hyper-eater.
In End of Overeating Kessler points out that the successes in the war on tobacco addiction were not achieved solely by regulation or legislation. Where smoking once was regarded as a socially acceptable, and even glamorous, habit – it is now vilified and exposed for the deadly, disgusting product it is. If we want to win the war on compulsive overeating, we will have to change our mindsets in a similar manner. As a society, we have to start recognizing all of these processed foods for what they are: dangerous to our own health, and that of our families.
In the final chapters of the The End of Overeating Kessler draws on his knowledge of neurology and psychology to explain how these destructive habits and triggers can be replaced through a conditioning process. The key is to make rules that govern what one can eat and when, in so doing, managing the old triggers and cues. The problem with most of the available diets are that they don’t change your habits and neural conditioning in the longer term; so as soon as you return to normal life, the old environment is back, along with all those triggers and cues that caused your weight problems in the first place.
Dr David Kessler’s solution is to condition your mind to recognize your personal trigger foods, and then rewire your brain to think differently about them. For you it may be chocolate covered pretzels, for me a hamburger with bacon and cheese. Whatever it is, see these trigger foods for what they are, and replace them with real, natural food. Kessler calls it food rehab. Although those old circuits in your brain are well established and will never completely die, you can make them fade and be overridden by new neural pathways for healthy eating.
So: out with the sugar sweetened drinks, the chocolate, the cake and the biscuits. If it is processed, you can be assured that it contains just the right amount of sugar, salt and fat to literally make you come back for more. See it for the evil it is and start eating healthy natural food that also triggers the reward centers in the brain, but not to such a degree that it overwhelms all of the other signals your body is trying to send you. We have the choice to cultivate and practice the skills to diminish the power of the food industry over our minds. In Dr Kessler’s words “The power to resist ultimately rests with us”.
In case you are still wondering, I loved David Kessler’s End of Overeating.