Archive for July, 2009

Ending overeating

July 7, 2009

Kessler overeating

A very important new book (The End of Overeating: Taking Control of the Insatiable American Appetite by David Kessler) accurately describes major factors contributing to the obesity epidemic: cleverly formulated manufactured food designed to seduce us into overeating, addictive ingredients (salt, sugar and fat) which act like nicotine in cigarettes to keep us coming back for more, a profit driven system of marketing and government subsidies which works against our best interests, and the loss of boundaries limiting when and how much we eat. It is indeed frightening to think that a 2-year-old’s appetite “knows” to shut down when enough calories have been consumed, but by the time that child is four (in our culture) there is often a loss of that self-control mechanism.

Kessler’s solutions include re-training our minds to devalue unhealthy processed foods loaded with the Big Three (salt, sugar, fat); reforming our policies and practices which encourage this vicious cycle; and doing much more to educate people as to what they are consuming (such as requiring nutritional information in restaurants).

I agree with all this, but take issue with some of the concepts Kessler promotes. My main complaint is he oversimplifies the issue of food containing salt, sugar and fat by using an addiction model. Too much of these ingredients is indeed unhealthy, but a simple addiction model will not work.

Another problem is his use of the term “real food” (see NPR interview) which is a vague concept, at best. Many seemingly real foods contain salt, sugar and fat (either naturally, or because of the way they are produced), and not all “manufactured” foods are bad (e.g., some fish farmed in a sustainable way are better for us than some “wild-caught” fish). I can buy a chicken that has been doctored with added salt and fat, or I can buy one (usually smaller and more expensive) which has been grown almost organically. To the average consumer, both seem “real.” Also, I can buy “sea salt” and “unrefined real sugar” and think I am getting something healthier than standard table salt and corn syrup, but the bottom line (sodium and calories) may be exactly the same.

Finally, he promotes a black vs. white dichotomy between a disease-like state we cannot directly control (“conditioned hypereating”) and old fashioned willpower, telling us “it is not our fault” that we overeat. Fault, per se, may not be the issue; rather, we should learn ways to increase our resistance to external cues and marketing, educate ourselves about nutrition and portion size, and practice coping skills to enhance self-regulation. I have written about this at length elsewhere.