American’s Love Affair With Food: David Kessler


Potato chips

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David Kessler, MD, former head of the FDA, had a nagging question: why do Americans continue to crave foods such as potato chips and candy bars, long after they feel full? This question had nagged at Kessler both personally and professionally. Despite being an accomplished professional, having attained both a medical and a law degree, Kessler was as helpless as many of us are when it came to controlling his weight. He admits to yo-yoing between 160 to 230 pounds repeatedly, and owning pants in a wide range of sizes. Kessler was ready to get to the bottom of what made himself, and millions of others seemingly powerless to control their eating and weight.

Through interviews with scientists, psychologists, food industry experts and his own scientific studies, Kessler finally found the answer. Kessler found a brain connection between eating foods high in salt, fat and sugar, with the release of the pleasure chemical dopamine in the brain.

As Kessler puts it: “Highly palatable” foods — those containing fat, sugar and salt — stimulate the brain to release dopamine, the neurotransmitter associated with the pleasure center. In time, the brain gets wired so that dopamine pathways light up at the mere suggestion of the food, such as driving past a fast-food restaurant, and the urge to eat the food grows insistent. Once the food is eaten, the brain releases opioids, which bring emotional relief. Together, dopamine and opioids create a pathway that can activate every time a person is reminded about the particular food. This happens regardless of whether the person is hungry.”

In other words, Kessler has found that for many people, foods high in fat, sugar and salt are a virtual Pavlovian trigger that reinforces overeating, and eating the wrong kinds of food, to maintain the pleasurable emotional experience of exposing one’s brain to the addictive effects of dopamine and opioids (narcotic-like chemicals.) Kessler purports that while not all persons are affected by food in this way, a great number are.

Food industry experts apparently have been onto this for some time. In the same way that tobacco industry experts discovered that adding more nicotine to cigarettes make them more addictive and keeps more people smoking and buying their products, the food industry has made more and more foods high in fat, sugar and salt, to perpetuate this addictive cycle.

Kessler’s answer? Train the brain to rewire it to break the addictive response cycle. Kessler advocates rather than eliminating all foods with fat, salt and sugar, which leads to a sensation of deprivation, to controlling portions and eating those delectable foods in small amounts. Kessler advocates adding intense regular exercise as well, a notion familiar to regular readers of this blog. 

While Kessler does not give away all his secrets, as he’s hoping we’ll read his book The End of Overeating, he does share some personal tips on his weight loss and exercise journey that many will find inspiring. To read the full interview, go to http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2009/04/26/AR2009042602711_3.html

I confess that I have not read Kessler’s book yet, (which is due out in paperback soon) but was intrigued enough to put it in my Amazon wish list (I’m waiting for the paperback). I suspect that Kessler’s theory on what makes us overeat is spot on and will resonate with many. Americans in particular may find they need to go to extremes as Kessler did, to attain the success , even to the point of changing their morning commute to avoid passing certain restaurants or signs that trigger the addictive food cycle.

 Next: Would you like a gallon of soda with that?

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3 thoughts on “American’s Love Affair With Food: David Kessler

  1. I’ve managed to lose about 20 lbs since last summer. I definitely agree that there are foods that we need to look out for. For me, it was probably pizza. I’d lose a couple pounds a week, eat a pizza on Sunday, and work it off again. It’s been a struggle to break that and, for me, forming a community has been key. We’ll see how long I can keep the pounds off now. Thanksgiving and the holiday season are coming.
    Ryan

    • Thanks for reading. Congratulations on your weight loss success. Just from talking with my patients, I see the folks who need to lose 10-20 pounds often struggle more than those who need to lose 50. I hope you get through the holidays unscathed!

  2. Pingback: My doctor’s office thinks I’m fat | Huffygirl's Blog

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