By Barbara Berkeley
For the past week or so, I’ve been reading David Kessler’s book called "The End of Overeating." Kessler is a doctor and the former director of the FDA. By his written admission, he is also a person who has had his own problems with food.
Most of the book exposes the endless effort and expense that industry devotes to creating food products that can’t be resisted. The brazen nature of this effort is pretty shocking, even to me. Kessler interviews a number of industry consultants who describe completely purposeful efforts to create “hyper-palatable” foods that will be addictive and irresistible. Doing this takes a whole lot of time, consultants, focus groups and so on. But success is worth it. Create a tastier, crunchier, fattier, sweeter food and it will be a money maker. The author himself can’t resist ordering some of these foods (just for scientific purposes of course) and describing their consumption with an almost lascivious attention to detail. There are points where this book approaches soft porn for food addicts.
The last couple of chapters of the book detail ways in which overeaters can brainwash themselves into food avoidance. After the stunning descriptions of engineered foods and their extremely attractive and addictive nature, these familiar techniques seem pretty weak. What power can our poor attempts at thought-control have over zillions of dollars spent to defeat us? Kessler advises that we plan all meals, that we limit portion sizes, eat foods that occur in nature, avoid sugars and starches, eat foods we like, mentally rehearse food situations, understand our food triggers, limit our exposure to food, disable cravings by “thought stopping” (I love this one! Have you ever figured out how to stop your thoughts???), and exercise. All of this is pretty standard stuff. Not one of us would disagree with any of it.
But what is missing from Dr. Kessler’s book is any significant outrage. Why is it that we consumers are the ones who wind up bearing the burden of control? A small section toward the end of the book suggests that “we” must learn to redefine food and the people who make it. If we change the way we look at bad foods, Kessler suggests, and start to look at them as we now look at tobacco, society can change. The problem with the comparison of food and cigarettes is that the tobacco industry has always been a miniscule force when compared to the behemoth food industry.
An article in one of this month’s medical journals echoed similar themes to those laid out in Kessler’s book. “Recently,” it states, “there has been growing support for the idea that we can train our appetites to match our energy expenditure, overcoming physiologic and environmental urges to eat.” The article then goes on to poll various obesity experts and asks, “Can human beings retrain their appetite? If so, how?”
Here are their answers:
Expert 1: We eat too much because food is pleasurable. To make something like broccoli pleasurable “you’re going to want to have broccoli in a pleasurable experience---maybe raw broccoli as you watch your favorite TV program, or when you are having dinner parties. You make small changes that, in time, can condition your appetite.”
Comment: Somehow, I don’t think that eating broccoli while watching American Idol will do much to armor someone against an entire world of hyperstimulating food.
Expert 2: “How do we prevent people from going to food? It’s quite simple: If people have no access to food, then that will retrain their appetite. But, of course, that’s not realistic. So, people have to find ways to get themselves away from food. One option is just to go to bed, if you can fall asleep. However, the best way….is to do exercise. Very strenuous exercise like jogging or running significantly cuts your appetite. I suggest that people introduce exercise at the time in their day that they think they are going to be hungry.”
Comment: Go to bed? At 11 am??? Exercise, yes. But contrary to what this expert says, exercise makes many people hungry. And how many times a day can you exercise? This solution presupposes that you’re only hungry once daily.
Expert 3: “Understand the difference between appetite and hunger. Appetite is primarily psychological; hunger, physical….Appetite can be retrained by recognizing the difference between appetite and true hunger and learning to manage our emotions in more healthful ways.”
Comment: This line of reasoning has always been completely lost on me. Hunger occurs when signals deploy in your brain which convey powerful messages to gut peptides and a variety of hormones. Your mouth waters, you get ready to eat. You feel hungry. Whether this chain is set off by food deprivation (you’re really, truly hungry) or a steaming bowl of pasta on TV (hunger stimulated by sight) it’s still hunger. For me, there is no true or false.
All of these suggestions, all of these tricks, tips and machinations are in the service of giving us strategies to battle a food giant run amok. Worse, they suggest that our own weaknesses are to blame for the problem. I am completely bewildered by the fact that the responsibility of the food industry continues to be ignored. Its role in creating our current environment is so huge, so all-encompassing, that its invisibility in this discussion is almost incomprehensible.
Articles and books (including mine) suggest myriad ways for you to do the hard work of kicking food. Clean all the food out of your house. Stay out of contact with food. Change your thoughts. Get hypnotized. Exercise until your knee cartilage falls to shreds. Get therapy. Change your stress level. Become a better person. Buy a journal and write, write, write. Record every shred of every morsel that passes your lips.
I’m not suggesting that these are bad strategies, but we need them mainly because those who produce our food have not asked to be responsible for its effects. Until society gets mad about that, nothing will change. Very few individuals (you being the exceptions, dear readers) are strong enough to oppose the mass behaviors of an entire culture.
Perhaps our little community is far more important than we believed. Like a snowball picking up size as it rolls, our tiny individual voices have the potential to become big and booming. Once we get the volume, I hope we can direct it outward. Time to stop yelling at ourselves and bemoaning our weaknesses. Time to fix our sights on those who are drowning us, our children and our nations’ health in a salty, fatty, sweet sea of food.