Is the Food Industry Playing with our Brains? New book by former FDA commissioner David Kessler examines neuroscience of overeating

In his new best-selling book titled The End of Overeating: Taking Control of the Insatiable American Appetite, David Kessler, M.D., former U.S. Food and Drug Administration Commissioner, presents research on the newest discoveries of neuroscience related to appetite and eating, as well as the insights he learned from top food industry executives that resulted in his theory on overeating.

It’s no longer news to point out that Americans are gaining weight and most public health folks have heard the alarming projection that if current trends continue, by 2015, 75% of American adults will be overweight and 41% will be obese1 And it’s also no news that many Americans are trying to lose weight. We  spend nearly $60 billion annually on weight loss products and diets 2. This year Weight Watchers stands to earn a $1.58 billion in revenue (excluding sales of food products), and Jenny Craig will earn nearly $610 million 2. Unfortunately, most dieters return to their initial weight within three to five years 3, suggesting that more dieting isn’t going to solve America’s obesity problem.

In his new book The End of Overeating: Taking Control of the Insatiable American Appetite David A. Kessler, M.D., a physician and lawyer who served as Commissioner of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) from November 1990 until March 1997, brings a fresh perspective to the obesity problem.  He argues that it is not faulty metabolism or lack of will power that causes people to eat too much or fail at dieting but rather complex brain functions that lead to “conditioned hypereating.” Acording to Kessler, environmental cues trigger biological drives for foods high in fat, sugar and salt  and eventually overwhelm the mechanisms that controlled overeating in earlier eras when unhealthy food was less promoted and less available.

Having spent many years at the FDA synthesizing research on the addictive powers of tobacco, Kessler turned his attention to high fat, salt and sugar foods, which,  after tobacco, are the second leading killer of Americans.   His new book is the result of seven years of research, and last month it emerged on the top-ten bestsellers list for non-fiction in the New York Times Book Review. In his book, Dr. Kessler presents research on the newest discoveries of neuroscience related to appetite and eating, as well as the insights he learned from his interviews with food industry executives.

Hyperpalatable foods engineered by industrial chefs and conditioned overeating

In essence, Dr. Kessler maintains that foods high in fat, salt and sugar alter brain chemistry in a way that compels people to overeat.  While these foods have always been “salient” to humans, the modern food industry has taken advantage of this phenomenon.  Kessler describes how industrial chefs have engineered “hyperpalatable” foods that are layered in fat, sugar and salt to trigger a release of the neurotransmitter dopamine, resulting in “conditioned hypereating.” He profiles engineered foods from some of the most popular brand manufacturers, chain restaurants, and fast food restaurants, including the Cinnamon Crunch Bagel at Panera (430 calories, 8g fat, 430mg sodium), and the Sowthwestern Eggrolls (910 calories, 57g fat, 1960mg sodium) and Boneless Shanghai Wings (1260 calories, 71g fat, 3030mg sodium) from the nation’s second-largest restaurant chain Chili’s Grill and Bar. Dr. Kessler said he estimates that approximately 70 million Americans are affected by hypereating4, and he maintains that  what “the food the industry is selling is much more powerful than we realized.” 5

Advertising: “The emotional gloss”

When  hyperpalatable foods are combined with modern-day marketing and advertising (“the emotional gloss,” as Dr. Kessler puts it), the result is changed social norms that make it acceptable for Americans to eat foods daily that used to be considered occasional treats.  According to Dr. Kessler, “We took down all these barriers; now you can eat anytime, anywhere.  It’s socially acceptable.  We have this constant stimulation, and we’re no longer eating for nutrition.  We took fat, sugar, and salt, made it very appealing, put it on every corner, and made it socially acceptable.” 6 While some have argued that advertising serves an important function in informing consumers about products, Dr. Kessler’s research reveals that food advertisements in fact serve as cues to induce people to eat these engineered, unhealthy foods4. Constant bombarding by advertisements that link these foods to fun and good times makes it more difficult for people to address their overeating.5

Dr. Kessler’s inspiration for the book

In interviews, Dr. Kessler describes his inspiration for the book as well as his own struggles with overeating.  Before he wrote the book, he said that he didn’t know the causes of overeating, but that he knew it “wasn’t just a matter of diet and exercise.” 6 Kessler says his inspiration came seven years ago when he was watching a woman on The Oprah Winfrey Show 5, 6 who in tears, described how she could not control her eating.  He said, “I was sitting there trying to listen as a doctor, but I could also relate to what she was talking about from my own experience.  I needed to understand what was driving her behavior.6

Solutions to the overeating epidemic

This book promises to be highly influential in changing the way that Americans view the practices of the food industry as well as the epidemic of overeating. In an interview with a Huffington Post reporter, Kessler summarized the basic premise of his theory, “Now, we know that highly palatable foods – sugar, fat, salt – are highly reinforcing and can activate the reward center of the brain.  For many people that activation is sustained when they’re cued.  They have such a hard time controlling their eating because they’re constantly being bombarded …For decades the food industry was able to argue, ‘We’re just giving consumers what they want.’ Now we know that giving them highly salient stimuli is activating their brains.” 4

Dr. Kessler says that his book is not meant to be a policy prescription.  Instead, he wants to explain why people  have such a difficult time with overeating. 6 Based on his tobacco experience at the FDA, Dr. Kessler has noted that there are many parallels between problems associated with food and tobacco  industry practices. Both industries manipulate consumer behavior to sell products that are harmful to health.5 He maintains that while government has a role to play, many of the great public health successes have come from changes in the way people perceive the product.4 He states, “We did this with cigarettes. It used to be sexy and glamorous but now people look at it and say, ‘That’s not my friend, that’s not something I want.’ We need to make a cognitive shift as a country and change the way we look at food.” 5

References

1 Wang Y, Beydoun MA. The obesity epidemic in the United States – gender, age, socioeconomic, racial/ethnic, and geographic characteristics: a systematic review and meta-regression analysis. Epidemiologic Reviews. 2007;29:6-28. Available at: http://epirev.oxfordjournals.org/cgi/content/abstract/29/1/6

2 Miley M. New Year, new round of diet programs. Advertising Age. January 12, 2009.

3 Wadden TA, Phelan S. Behavioral assessment of the obese patient.  In: Wadden Ta, Stunkard AJ, eds.  Handbook of Obesity Treatment. New York: Guilford Press, 2002:186-226.

4 McCready L. Interview with Dr. David Kessler, author of The End of Overeating, on why we can’t stop eating. The Huffington Post. May 6, 2009. Available at: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/louise-mccready/d-kessler-author-of-emthe_b_195676.html.

5 Layton L. Crave man: David Kessler know that some foods are hard to resist; now he knows why. The Washington Post. April 27, 2009. Available at: http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2009/04/26/AR2009042602711.html.

6 Hobson K. David Kessler on why we’re prone to eating too much. U.S. News & World Report. May 4, 2009. http://health.usnews.com/blogs/on-fitness/2009/05/04/david-kessler-on-why-were-prone-to-eating-too-much.html.

 

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