Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Why We Eat too Much

There is a really excellent story in the Science Section of today's New York Times which you can read here: http://www.nytimes.com/2009/06/23/health/23well.html?ref=health.

Former Food and Drug Administration head, Dr. David A Kessler, wrote a book called "The End of Overeating," were he explains how the food industry creates foods in a way that taps into our brain circuitry and stimulates our desire for more. In other words, the food industry formulate their product in such a way that we can't help ourselves but to overindulge. After all, the more we eat, the bigger the food industry's profits.

This part of the article is particularly interesting:

"When it comes to stimulating our brains, Dr. Kessler noted, individual ingredients aren’t particularly potent. But by combining fats, sugar and salt in innumerable ways, food makers have essentially tapped into the brain’s reward system, creating a feedback loop that stimulates our desire to eat and leaves us wanting more and more even when we’re full.

Dr. Kessler isn’t convinced that food makers fully understand the neuroscience of the forces they have unleashed, but food companies certainly understand human behavior, taste preferences and desire. In fact, he offers descriptions of how restaurants and food makers manipulate ingredients to reach the aptly named “bliss point.” Foods that contain too little or too much sugar, fat or salt are either bland or overwhelming. But food scientists work hard to reach the precise point at which we derive the greatest pleasure from fat, sugar and salt.

The result is that chain restaurants like Chili’s cook up “hyper-palatable food that requires little chewing and goes down easily,” he notes. And Dr. Kessler reports that the Snickers bar, for instance, is “extraordinarily well engineered.” As we chew it, the sugar dissolves, the fat melts and the caramel traps the peanuts so the entire combination of flavors is blissfully experienced in the mouth at the same time. "

This is interesting as well:

"One of his main messages is that overeating is not due to an absence of willpower, but a biological challenge made more difficult by the overstimulating food environment that surrounds us. “Conditioned hypereating” is a chronic problem that is made worse by dieting and needs to be managed rather than cured, he said. And while lapses are inevitable, Dr. Kessler outlines several strategies that address the behavioral, cognitive and nutritional factors that fuel overeating.

Planned and structured eating and understanding your personal food triggers are essential. In addition, educating yourself about food can help alter your perceptions about what types of food are desirable. Just as many of us now find cigarettes repulsive, Dr. Kessler argues that we can also undergo similar “perceptual shifts” about large portion sizes and processed foods. For instance, he notes that when people who once loved to eat steak become vegetarians, they typically begin to view animal protein as disgusting."

I find Kessler's research fascinating, and can't wait to read his book. I actually just finished reading Michael Pollan's "In Defense of Food" and he makes somewhat of the same claims, although Kessler's seem much more scientifically based.

I actually "withdrew" from eating any kind of processed, pre-packaged foods a few years ago when I wanted to lose weight, and never went back. That's how I lost 40 pounds and kept it off.

And, as Kessler notes, at this point I not only don't crave processed foods, but like the vegetarian with the steak, I'm sort of repulsed by them.

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