Why you Can’t Just say No. A book review of Kessler’s “The End of Overeating”

David Kessler. 2010. 

The End of Overeating. Taking control of the insatiable American appetite.

David Kessler was a commissioner at the FDA under two administrations, and a dean of the medical schools at Yale and the University of California, San Francisco.

Kestler wrote “The End of Overeating”, because he was frustrated with his lack of willpower to lose weight.  He figured out why his willpower wasn’t working by interviewing scientists, food industry insiders, a great deal of research, and infiltrating industry conferences on topics such as How to Make Food Irresistible.

Kessler calls the processed and restaurant food we eat “adult baby food”, because you can woof it down in 10 bites on average, and food manufacturers know this – they want to sell more by cramming as much as possible down your throat to make more money.  Food used to take about 25 chews per bite before you could swallow.

I was thinking about that when eating goat at a barbecue recently – it took about 30 chews a bite. Chewing takes time and gives your stomach a lot longer to say to your brain “Hey, I’m full”.   I felt quite full after eating a small amount of goat.

Food you can chew in just ten bites is full of fat, which also gives food texture, flavor, and aroma that’s hard to resist.  In addition to fat, the food industry removes chews by getting rid of fiber, gristle, bran, and chops food into tiny bits drenched in high-fat dressing.  Meat is made soft by “pre-chewing it” from soaking in marinades, and then spun and tumbled to pull the marinade deep into the muscle.  Suddenly you’ve eaten a thousand calories before you know it.

If the food industry could like to fill you up like a car at a gas station, they’d do it. The only thing stopping that is that people don’t want to drink pizza.

Welcome to the world of industrialized food, where chicken is pumped up with 40% water, battered, breaded, and frozen at the manufacturing facility. Then it’s shipped to the restaurant, where it’s deep fried.  The 40% water is replaced with fat.  The customer who ordered chicken breast because it’s healthier than red meat, is impressed  with the  soft and tender piece of chicken breast, more so than could be made at home, and happy with the generous (40% fat) portion as well.  Tiny bits of spinach cling to the surface, assuring the customer of having made a healthy choice.

Bu that’s not all – there’s almost certainly way too much salt and sugar embedded in the chicken dish as well.  Chapter 3, “Sugar, Fat and Salt make us eat more Sugar, Fat and Salt”, says it all.

From day one, even newborns like sweet food.  When you buy processed food or eat out, you’re basically being served fatty, sugary, and salty food infused with sugar, fat, and salt, and topped with fatty, sugary, salty sauces.  If you think I’m kidding, the book is laden with examples in Chapter 4, and throughout the book.  Hopefully it will outrage you enough that you won’t be tempted by many dishes or the restaurant chains he mentions, and will read labels at the grocery store more carefully.

Added fat is how the food industry keeps you coming back for more.

Fat gives food texture, body, crunch, creaminess, merges flavors, releases flavor-enhancing chemicals, lubricates food making it easier to swallow, and lingers as a pleasurable aftertaste.

Chemicals are then added to exaggerate smell, taste, texture, and colors.

Finally, millions of dollars are spent testing this Frankenfood on people to be sure the chemicals, sugar, fat, and salt are balanced correctly.

The food industry knows you don’t like chemicals, so a chocolate drink will have cocoa in the ingredients list, even though there is very little cocoa and nearly all of the chocolate smell and flavor comes from the added chemicals.   Fruit can be faked with chemical flavored fillings.

Often you don’t know you’re eating fat and sugar.  Kessler asked Gail Civille, who runs tasting test panels, where fat, sugar, and salt might be hidden that you wouldn’t  expect it.  She said bread and crackers have quite a bit more than people realize.

I always read the list of ingredients on labels, and have seen many types of sugar listed.  Kessler explains this is because sugar would have to be listed as the first ingredient if only one sugar were used, but each type of sugar is treated as a separate ingredient, so even though sugar is the main substance, it isn’t first on the list.

The most upsetting part of this book are the rat studies that make it seem it’s impossible to get out of the fattening sticky trap – for example rats will work for food high in fat and sugar even when they’re not hungry.  Rats will eat whatever quantity they’re given, similar to the super-sized portions we’re served.

A speaker at a food conference likened some of the highly processed food we eat to cocaine and heroin speedballs.  This isn’t too far from the truth – scientists have observed an opiate food reward cycle.  Food high in fat, sugar, and salt can change the circuitry of our brains, and alter our habits to the point where we’re stuffing ourselves without any awareness of doing so., and habits are very hard to break!

On a botany field trip, we kept seeing the Frito Lay slogan plastered on vans.  It became the joke of trip, all of us shouting “Food for the fun of it!” at the campfire, restaurant or Frito Lay truck sighting.  What a great metaphor for why so many of us are obese — food is sold to us as fun and entertainment.

They also make products they call “Premium snacking” items, because they know many people reward themselves with junk food, often to lower stress.  The industry also knows the five factors that make food irresistible, how to add excitement and novelty to tempt you, and what packaging to use to get your attention. They can layer spices and sugar,  balance crunchiness and creaminess, and bitter and salty flavors into multi-sensory food you can’t resist.

Restaurants no longer cook food – they assemble it.  Food is not fresh and healthy, it arrives pre-cooked and chopped. Garlic and onions are powdered, tomatoes dehydrated, and fresh spices are now oil extracts.

The push to serve healthier food doesn’t daunt the food industry a bit, in fact they see it as a way to make more money, plus show they care about you.   Kessler wonders if people are actually buying healthier choices.

In chapter 29 Kessler summarizes his thoughts about food that’s no longer like anything our ancestors ate.  The food industry pushes highly palatable combinations of sugar, fat, salt, and chemicals that condition us to seek more.  He calls this “conditioned hyper-eating” because we automatically woof the widely available food down and can’t control ourselves.  Some people are more vulnerable to this cycle than others.

Eventually he comes to the part of the book on how to lose weight.  But to do so, you really have to read the entire book, because you need to understand the whole cycle so you can’t be so easily manipulated, and be grossed out enough over the way food is prepared that you don’t want to eat it.    He also explains why most diets don’t work.

And even then, don’t expect it to be easy.  Here are just a few of his many ideas about how to lose weight that have worked for me.  First, break the habit of walking into the kitchen when you come home.  Second make rules – “I do not eat French fries”, or “I only eat dessert on Fridays”. Third, after you’ve served yourself food, put half of it on another plate.  Wait 30 minutes. You’ll be amazed at how much less food you need to eat to feel full.  If it doesn’t work and you’re still hungry, try removing a quarter of your food the next night.  You can probably remove some food and feel full half an hour later.

Kessler thinks that counting calories or weighing food is impractical, and takes too much time.  It’s better to pay attention to how much you eat and how long it takes before you get hungry again.  A meal should last about four hours, a snack about two hours.

Think ahead about how you’ll handle tempting situations.  Visualize not eating the cookies, potato chips, or whatever it is that you can’t resist.  Try to eat food made from raw ingredients at home as much as possible.

In the end, if you don’t get exercise, it will be hard to keep weight off.  Exercise acts as a substitute reward and enhances your moods positively.  It can change your self-image too, into one where you see yourself as a healthy, athletic person who can say no, and get rid of your old bad habits.

I thought this book was fun to read, and the dark side of how  industrial food is altered chemically and changes your brain was as scary as any horror novel. The science and psychology of food is critical to understanding how to lose weight when we’re surrounded by so much temptation.


About Alice

I've milled and baked with whole grains for many years, because whole grains are delicious, and white flour is missing the nutrition that protects you from cancer, stroke, heart disease, diabetes and many other diseases. Plus it's a good emergency food.
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