I started David Kessler’s book, The End of Overeating, and here’s what I’ve gleaned so far. Food causes daunting struggles for millions of people. Just tune into Oprah, Dr. Phil, The Biggest Loser – you get the idea. Kessler relates a personal experiment where he set out a plate of chocolate chip cookies where he could see them, but tried not to eat them. All afternoon the cookies tempted him. He’d find himself reaching for them without even knowing it. He finally was able to resist, felt triumphed, and then promptly succumbed to buying a cookie when he stopped for coffee. I haven’t gotten very far into the book yet, but I’ve found out one thing pretty quickly: it will be hard to read this book about people being taunted by food, without feeling taunted by food myself. Kessler’s writing about cookies makes me want cookies. Kessler’s writing about chips makes me want chips. Reading this book could be hazardous to my health and weight. Yet, in the interest of science, illumination, and not wasting the $15.99, I must forge on. But it’s not going to be easy.
The Amazon box arrived today, with David Kessler’s paperback, The End of Overeating. From the back cover:
“Drawn from the latest brain science as well as interviews with top physicians and food industry insiders, The End of Overeating uncovers the food industry’s aggressive marketing tactics and reveals shocking facts about how we lost control over food — and what we can do to get it back” Can’t wait to start reading. I’ll keep you posted.
Fact: For most people, food is plentiful in our country. It is not always the best food for us, but in general, it’s out there. Except in remote areas, Americans are bombarded with opportunities to buy food through fast food restaurants with drive-up windows, convenience stores, gas stations, grocery stores, restaurants and vending machines.
Fact: Obesity is a rising problem in America, which brings with it long-term health problems, the most prominent being type-two diabetes mellitus.
Fact: David Kessler and many others have found that certain foods that are high in fat, sugar and salt, trigger an addictive food cycle, that makes it difficult for people to avoid eating those foods, or to eat them in moderate amounts.
So what do we do about it? How do we break the cycle that frees us from overeating or eating the wrong kinds of food? We know it’s not easy. David Kessler wrote a whole book about it, after an arduous quest to find his answers. The plethora of other diet and weight loss solutions available through books, videos, weight loss centers and online programs tell us that many are trying but not all are succeeding. With obesity rising towards epidemic proportions in our country, it seems that Americans are losing the battle.
Where to start? Here’s some tips that may work.
Identify your food triggers. Kessler did this by diving into the dumpster behind a restaurant to find the ingredient list for the food served there that he found addictive. Hopefully most of us will not have to go to that extreme. Think about what foods you crave when you’re stressed, lonely and depressed, and what restaurants you frequent at those times, what foods you just can’t pass us adding to your grocery cart, and what foods you eat even when you’re not hungry. This will give you a pretty good start. What’s next – never eat these foods again? Avoid driving by your favorite restaurant (and all the signs advertising it too?) Probably not practical solutions and likely will lead to a sense of deprivation. Try something moderate instead – keep your favorite can’t-resist-food out of sight on a high shelf, and allow yourself one day a week to indulge it. In a restaurant, share the favorite dessert with someone else, or ask the server to remove it after you’ve eaten half. (Seems wasteful I know, but these are desperate times.) Try chewing gum or brushing your teeth after you’ve allowed yourself an indulgent taste of your addictive food. Take one bite and throw the rest away. Only allow yourself to eat your addictive food in the presence of others, which makes it less likely that you’ll over-indulge. All of this takes planning, motivation and some self pep-talks. You may need to start a reward system for yourself, whether it be new shoes, a day off, etc. Find something to replace the pleasurable sensation that you get from your addictive food. The trick is to not replace it with something worse, like alcohol, tobacco, or online gambling.
If you’re able to exercise and not already doing it, start. Many people find walking a good way to start. Start slow and increase gradually according to your own ability. If you can’t walk but have access to a gym, an alternative is a seated machine called a Nustep – the user sits in a comfortable chair with feet extended onto pedals, and hands on handles, sort of combination stair-climber and recumbent bike motion. Add weight lifting on alternate days, or use resistance bands at home if you can’t get to a gym. (More exercise tips in previous posts in the “exercise and fitness” category.) Exercise, in addition to helping with weight loss and maintaining bone mass, can provide a sense of well-being similar to what one gets from eating pleasurable foods. In fact, some excessive exercisers have found this to be so true that they become “addicted” to exercise. Something to discuss at another time.
Find a buddy. If you partner with someone else who is working to avoid addictive foods and improve weight, having an ally can be a life-saver. You can encourage each other and hold each other accountable. Can’t find a buddy? Try an online program, attend a class, or meet with a dietician.
Avoid fast food restaurants – probably the biggest source of addictive foods. This takes planning. Pack a lunch to take to work. If you miss going out with your coworkers, limit yourself to one lunch out per week. Bring food along when you’re traveling. After my recent bad experience eating Subway food while traveling, (see “Do you want a gallon of soda with that?”) my husband and I planned ahead on our next road trip. We knew we’d be on the road at lunch time, so on the way out of town, stopped at a grocery store and picked up salads, snacks and water. No fast-food debacle and about half the cost of a fast-food meal.
Avoid check-out impulse buys. The latte when you run into the gas station. The gallon of popcorn at a movie. The candy bar in the check out line. The pretzel at the mall. Make a rule for yourself – only buy what you originally went into the store to buy.
Avoid diet soda. For many people, the artificial sweetener in diet soda triggers an addictive food cycle, that
leads to overeating other foods. If you’re a big consumer of diet soda, you’ll probably have to cut back gradually. The worst idea ever? The invention of Diet Coke. It seems to be the biggest culprit because it has the great Coke taste, few calories, addictive caffeine, and is the drink of choice of celebrities. If you’re old enough, think back to a time before diet soda was invented – aka the 1950’s and 60’s. Do you remember seeing so many overweight people back then?
Get help. If you find yourself frequently treating feelings of sadness and loneliness by eating pleasurable foods, consult your health care provider. You may have an underlying depression that would be better treated medically or cognitively (talk therapy).
What else? Share what works for you.
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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?
- Eat to Lose: 10 No-Fail Ways to Shed Pounds (lifescript.com)