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Overeating for Fun and Profit

August 20, 2011

David Aaron Kessler (spot the parents who were Elvis fans?) served as commissioner of the US Food and Drug Administration for 7 years in the 90’s; he’s also a paediatrician and has been the dean of a couple of medical schools in the states.  His 2009 book ‘The End of Overeating‘ (or ‘Here’s why lots of people are getting obese all of a sudden’ to give it its pretend title that I just made up) starts by noting that there was an unexpected increase in people’s weights around 1988 onwards, especially already large people getting larger – the rest of the book is him exploring why.

Ok so, why are we overeating, David?
Very basically, it’s the Food Industry’s fault.  Modern food manufacturers have cottoned on to the fact that people like to eat salt, sugar and fat in specific amounts and proportions, the higher the better up to a point where food is ultra-yummy (or, to use his word, ‘hyperpalatable’).  The more we eat hyperpalatable food the more we want of it, thus driving us to buy more and generate profit for the Food Industry.  Our neurons get conditioned to expect this high sugar, salt and fat food and the Food Industry meanwhile places a whole load of advertising designed to trigger the ‘need’ we now have to seek it out.

Kessler’s clever; he’s done the research and found the science to back up everything he says.  He also brings it to a personal level, talking about his own struggle with chocolate chip cookies and interviewing people (of various weights and sizes) while they sit looking at bowls of M&Ms and trying not to eat them.

Rather than immediately list out a whole lot of stuff that’s in the book, I’m going to make some personal observations and invite those of you who are of my generation (in your 40’s) or older to join in by thinking of your own long-term memories of food variety and availability.

I grew up on home cooking with food bought from the butcher and grocer with some vegetables grown in the back garden.  We ate cake* when my mum went through the process of making one, invariably with me and my sister standing bowl-side wanting to scrape up any unused icing at the end.  We had treats but I recall they had their time, place and limits.  We had home-made chips on some occasions.  At the dinner table we drank water.  I remember being offered mashed up banana and oranges already-peeled in a bowl as snacks; sometimes tinned, sliced peaches as dessert – occasionally jelly.  Going out to a restaurant was a rare and fairly major event.  Any family members reading this are entirely welcome to comment on the accuracy of the above.

Around the UK at that time I expect there was some variation depending on where people lived and how much money they had but still there wasn’t the massive variety of food choices that I notice now.  Let’s say I’m at work and going out for my lunchbreak, say it’s payday and I can eat where I like; I head for the main street and there are at least 6 or 7 different restaurants and cafés I could choose from without walking too far.  Several fast-food chicken places and a McDonalds, a greasy spoon, 2 Thai places (one posh, one budget), an all-you-can-eat Chinese place, a Japanese place where the portion sizes are hefty, Subway, Starbux and also a vegetarian Indian restaurant where the plate of food you’re served is always bigger than your head.  I could go into a store and buy a sandwich or a salad but look! I’ll make such a saving if I get the fizzy drink and the crisps as well as part of the meal deal, it seems a waste of money not to.  Packed lunches are obviously the way to go if I want to avoid an excess of fat, sugar and salt or if I just want to avoid being given more food than my body needs and heading back to work in a food coma.  So let’s move on…

I’m sure the supermarket shopping experience has changed some too, from when I first used to shop in them.  I tend to walk down every aisle regardless of whether I need anything from that aisle (this is mostly to do with my sense of direction, or complete lack of it) so I see everything.  There’s a lot of choice these days and in the produce section I’m glad of it – I can get a bag of carrots or just grab 3 or 4 if that’s all I need, also no washing and shredding up of lettuce because that’s been done for me and if I want to make a stir-fry I can choose any number of pre-packaged arrangements of prepared veg.  I prefer to cook from scratch but I can save myself a whole load of time buying ‘ready meals’ and pre-prepared meal components.  What’s in them?  If the company producing them wants them to sell then they’ll have as much fat, sugar and salt as can be got away with alongside some misleading information on the packet about how healthy they are.  Don’t even get me started on breakfast cereals – pretty much an entire aisle of chocolate frosted sugar bombs with some porridge oats and posh muesli at the end if you’re eagle-eyed enough to spot them.  Home-baking?  If you managed to pass the aisle with the plastic cartons of cookies and rice-crispie cakes and you’re keen to D.I.Y. you can get a few basic ingredients but next to these are cake-making kits that take out all of the effort and they’re in brightly coloured packets with food porn pictures on the front (a quick note: food porn is this and not that other thing you were just thinking).  Pre-prepared food indeed takes out all the effort and, according to research Mr Kessler cites, puts in more fat, sugar and salt.  One last thing about supermarkets… remember I go down every aisle so I notice.  Junk food wanders, it does not stay put in its aisle and so you cannot avoid encountering it.  You could be looking for sardines, ketchup or a new toaster and suddenly be accosted by a vertical rack of Cadbury’s chocolate buttons or Jelly Belly jelly beans placed strategically to catch you out.

What can we do, David, to get back to eating healthily?
The book’s final chapter is called Food Rehab.  It lists some really useful stuff, even if was so academically-worded in places I nearly threw the book at the wall.

  • Understand that overeating does not equal absence of willpower; we’ve got into a cycle of being triggered to seek out the bad ‘hyperpalatable’ food (e.g. by adverts), then feeling the urge to go get and eat that food which then rewards us with the sugar, salt and fat ratio and content we’ve now been conditioned to regularly enjoy.  We’re in a cycle of addiction.
  • Dieting makes us feel deprived; at the end of a ‘diet’ we’re going to head right back to the bad food (i.e. Don’t Diet!)
  • Start by planning your eating in ‘just right’ quantities so that you’re filling yourself up with the right amount to be getting hungry for the next time you eat – work out when you’re going to have breakfast, lunch, dinner and any snacks and don’t deviate from that plan.  Initially, don’t include any pre-prepared food high in sugar, salt and fat – but eat things that you enjoy and that satisfy you so you’re not feeling deprived.  Kessler mentions foods that are high in fibre are more satisfying and keep you full for longer also foods that are ‘intact’ as in ‘designed by nature rather than processed by industry’ (a gazillion veggie cookery books will tell you the same).
  • If you catch yourself having an urge for doughnuts etc. use a lil’ bit of D.I.Y. cognitive behaviour therapy to help overcome it.  Condition yourself to just say NO, to immediately start thinking about something else or go do some exercise.  Also think about how eating that food will make you feel afterwards and maybe train yourself to have that as your immediate response when you get the urge (or when you walk past KFC).

As with the other books I review on this blog, I read The End of Overeating some time ago and just did a skim-read before writing up.  Hence, the next thing I’m about to say may well be in the book or it might not be but, from my own experience, the less you eat then the nicer healthy foods taste and the more icky bad foods start to taste.  Perhaps that’s the start of reversing my conditioned overeating of ‘hyperpalatable’ food when I notice that?

A further reading suggestion – I won’t be reviewing it as I no longer own a copy but Allen Carr’s book about how to not overeat also has useful stuff about learning to eat the right amounts.  Downside is his egomania, but arm yourself with a marker pen or some tippex and you could end up with something well worth reading.

* An endnote – my mum’s chocolate cake rules and, cliché though it may be, so does her apple pie

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4 Comments
  1. Emmy Mallow permalink

    Really interesting piece and it certainly ties in with my own experience.

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