Science books written in plain language that use relevant comparisons for describing complex science-y things that inform me whilst still not demeaning my intelligence? Count me in! Welcome to The End of Overeating: Taking Control of the Insatiable American Appetite by David Kessler.
This book caught my eye because I had referred to an interview with David Kessler in a previous post. I liked his comments about how we need to eat to satiate ourselves rather than stimulate, and had attempted to incorporate those ideas into my own meals.
Kessler breaks down the science of over-eating, start first with who overeats. The answer? Everyone. Well, not everyone. But everyone has the potential to. Due to the nature of how processed food is made, how we psychologically can see food as reward, and how food is marketed to us, we are all at risk for overeating. Some people obviously are more prone to the addiction of food – just as some people are predisposed to be addicted to anything. The important thing to note is overeating is not simply a problem for people who are overweight. People who are socially “slender” or “healthy-looking” can also be struggling with over-eating.
Before I get too much farther, I suppose I should define what over-eating really is. As I understand it, over-eating is not only the act of eating too much in one sitting, but the act of fixating on food in a way that is distracting from other thought processes and the feeling of not having control over having “just one bite” of something, or “just one” of something. Over eating is both a habit that we have formed as a means for coping with something that is promoted via the foods offered to us, and is rooted in our memory because of fond feelings we have surrounding food. *
So next up, Kessler dissects what it is we tend to overeat. The food industry has developed “hyper-palatable” foods – in other words, foods that break down easily as we chew, food that changes texture and flavor as we chew, and always, food that are layered in sugar, salt and fat. Think about chain restaurants like Chili’s or The Cheesecake Factory. They are easy examples of places that serve these layered hyper-palatable foods. The Cheesecake Factory has an appetizer that is deep-fried macaroni and cheese. We’ve got a starch covered in cheese and salt, then dipped in a batter. Likely, this is deep-fried and then frozen and shipped to each location, where they are deep fried again before serving. Oh, and they’re served with a salty, fatty dipping sauce. So we’ve got fat on salt on fat on salt on fat. Yum?
These layered, hyper-palatable foods are really easy and fun to eat because they are engineered that way. This engineering means we rarely know exactly what these foods are made of and all the steps in their preparation. Ignorance is not bliss here…in fact, ignorance is complexly hidden calories. Even coffee and salads are not immune to this. Espresso drinks are made with whole milk unless otherwise stated, and places like Starbucks offer a million ways to sweeten your beverage. A Caramel Macchiato has milk, syrup, and caramel sauce. Fat with sugar and then more sugar and fat on top. Kessler refers to the lettuce in salads as “a fat-carrying mechanism.” Basically, even a salad is a marketing tool to make us think we’re being healthy.
And it gets worse (sigh, of course. Why can’t it get awesome? Like, hey, if you overeat, you will magically be transported onto a hot-air balloon! Yeah baby!). Once you have been overeating, it becomes a habit. And then that habit if furthered by cues – by our culture of eating. Kessler points out that Americans are primed to eat at any time, whether we need to or not, whether we are hungry or not. Food marketing indicates that we can eat anytime, not simply at breakfast, lunch and dinner. There’s happy hour, Taco Bell’s famous fourth meal, and a food court at the mall that continually beckon us. All this marketing, combined with the fact that we usually have positive memories associated with certain foods which makes our dopamine levels drive our desire, leave us feeling trapped. ** We are being conditioned to overeat.
Kessler spends the last third of his book discussing the theory behind treating overeating, and then outlining suggestions for overcoming overeating. By being aware of our overeating, we can begin engaging in competing behaviors and reformulating habitual thoughts. And all of this requires support from a community – in whatever fashion that works for you. Friends and family are well-meaning, but can often fail to see the need for you to change especially if they are locked in the same habits as you.
Finally, Kessler helps build what he calls “Food Rehab.” He structures the essential changes that need to be made in order to stop the habit of overeating. By “replacing chaos with structure,” planning meals, adjusting portion sizes, staying away from places and people who cue you, and adhering to a rigorous thought process of “Just say no” (in other words, not bargaining with yourself when it comes to food), Kessler offers a way to rethink the way we think before we eat.
My opinion of this book? Fantastic, and a must-read for anyone remotely interested in nutrition, who has ever felt out of control about their eating habits, who habitually leaves a meal thinking they ate too much, who cares about health in America, who educates children or adults in any way, who uses food as a reward, or who is ready to change.
Stay tuned for a discussion of how I think this book can change how I personally deal with food.
* Imagine that a dish of M&M’s is placed in front of you (or a dish of anything that you find incredibly appealing). You may try to eat just one, but eventually, you know the whole dish will be gone. The entire time, you bargain with yourself that you’re going to stop eating, or that this is the last one. You try not looking at the dish, but you cannot ignore the candies in front of you. In fact, even if you are in a meeting, you keep looking at the M&M’s, thinking about them, and are being distracted by their presence. This is overeating.
** Interestingly, have you ever noticed that if you’ve caught the stomach flu, whatever you ate prior to being sick tends to lose its appeal? I still cannot eat Otter Pops, microwave popcorn, or chocolate milk because of this. But in overeaters, even when they have made themselves feel horrible physically from overeating hyper-palatable foods, they still do not stop eating those foods.