End of Overeating: Food Rehab for obesity

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.

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12 Responses to “End of Overeating: Food Rehab for obesity”

  • Thanks for the article. It certainly sound like an informative and well-researched diet book. I ordered it and will let you know what I think. I hope it lives up to my expectations. I can tell you, I am so confused and so tired of these so-called gurus that don’t have the vaguest idea of what they are talking about. I also hope our government starts treating the obesity epidemic with greater urgency.

  • Thanks for this article. I don’t feel like such a loser anymore. I thought there must be something wrong with me, because you are describing my behavior as a carb addict to a tea, and it makes sense to me that this habit will have to be addressed pretty much like the smoking habit. I stopped smoking reading Alan Carr’s “How to stop smoking the easy way” and I am sure he brought out a book about weight loss as well? Is it any good?

  • I wish more people would read this book. Education, eduction, education! The better we understand the obesity problem in the States the better the solutions we will be able to come up with. Fast food and junk food must be the main culprits in our take-out besotted world. Ask any kid (and for that matter most adults) how often they have McDonald’s and more than half will probably tell you more than once a month! And that it is their favorite meal. Lose the junk food and the fast food and you will lose weight, and we may actually be able to fix the US health system!

  • I want this book. It makes absolutely perfect sense that junk food play a massive role in getting the Americans to the obese state they are in today. How many obese kids do you know that do not love a “happy meal” consisting of a McDonalds burger, fries and a coke! It is absolutely mind boggling that so many people just eat stuff really unhealthy for them, and don’t even try to understand what it will do to their health. Nice article. I am hoping this book will provide me with some ammunition in discussions with my own kids.

  • I liked the clear and rational explanation that this book provides for why so many of us are overweight. I think America must wake up and smell the roses. I even read an article the other day that stated that we must forget the battle of the bulge because we are genetically programmed to be fat! So what now, must we just give uip losing weight? I don’t think so. We are becoming a lazy, uncompetitive and unhealthy nation that must get a move on. This book in my humble opinion provides a great explanation for the weight problems of the majority of people. It is well thought through and deserves its place on any bookshelf.

  • I didn’t enjoy this book at all. I found it long winded and boring. I almost feel asleep while reading the book. But then I have never been one for science. All I want is a book that tells me what to eat and when so I can lose weight!

  • Great book! I am an ex-smoker and this approach to weight loss just makes so much sense! I tried every possible product and service you can imagine to stop smoking and nothing worked. Until I changed my mindset and actually started seeing cigarettes for the disgusting things they are. I think this book is just what many of us need to break the next unhealthy addiction. Processed food. What makes me mad though is that so many companies keep on getting away with damaging peoples’ health – knowingly. I think there will be quite a few class actions against some of the big companies in the food industry in future.

  • I thought I’d keep my comments to myself until I’ve read the book, and I am so glad I did. My initial instinct was also – not another one that provided us with excuses for not taking action on losing weight. But the book made perfect sense to me. It is obviously written by someone very knowledgeable in his subject area, and it is a great addition towards understanding the true causes of the American obesity epidemic. I also started losing some weight, LOL. I guess some mindset changes have taken place in my head already. I just don’t look at my favorite binge foods the same way anymore.

  • I understand Steve’s point about taking responsibility for your own actions, but I think it is nearsighted and naive to say fast food marketing, engineering, and restaurant placement haven’t played a role in making Americans heavier. I think it is important to remember that obesity and related health problems have sky-rocketed over the past 50 years, corresponding with the increase in fast food availability and consumption. Fast food is not just a convenience, it is a business, and food engineering that guarantees people will eat what they know to be bad for them is simply part of what makes that business so successful. The science of injecting foods with fat, sugar, and salt is the result of questionable ethics, and is a significant factor in the health of many Americans. If the government can require tobacco products to carry a warning label, why not do the same for fast foods?

  • Steve, you are unbelievably rude and offensive to many people. I bet you you have not been fat ever inn your life. One of those people lucky enough to be born with a fast metabolism, and probably one of very few that don’t have a predisposition to food addiction. Believe me when I say it is not nonsense. I am a disciplined person in every other facet of my life, but when it comes to weight loss and portion control with food, I really do have major problems. You have no right to shoot down in flames a perfectly valid theory just because it does not agree with your view of the world! This is a stunning book that opened my eyes, and I think it will help many people lose weight.

  • I am so fed up with all of these diet books nowadays that tries to blame something else for the obesity epidemic. Now you are not fat simply because you eat too much and get too little exercise…it is because the food industry and the advertising industry conspire to make you fat. Absolute nonsense. The word temptation is there because since the beginning of times, people were exposed to things they wanted but that may not always be good for you. If you are fat – just face up to it – you are overweight because you eat too much of the wrong things! Stop looking for excuses!

  • Thank you, thank you, thank you. For the first time I feel as if there may be something out there that explains why I just can’t stop eating. I have been feeling so low and so depressed because I start every day with the best of intentions and before you know it I am overeating! I don’t have to mention I am obese do I. I have been on just about every fad diet out there and every time I just put it all back on, with some extra as this article stated. I ordered this book and really hope that it will turn my life around because I am absolutely desperate to lose weight. If this does not work I will have to consider gastric band surgery!

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