A Nation Addicted to Food

4 questions for David A. Kessler, M.D., author of The End of Overeating

As someone who has struggled with weight his entire life, David A. Kessler, M.D., wanted to know why chocolate chip cookies had such power over him, why he ate when he wasn’t hungry—and what he could do about it. So seven years ago the physician and former FDA commissioner set out to discover what drives us to eat too much. He talked to neurobiologists, psychologists and food-industry insiders. In a new book, The End of Overeating (Rodale), Kessler shares what he found.

What contributes to Americans’ overeating?

The food industry creates foods that hijack our brains. They have fat, sugar and salt, which are highly stimulating. They condition us so that even the sights and smells associated with them activate your brain [in ways that make you want food]. In controlled individuals the brain activity stops when they start ingesting the food, but in some people it doesn’t shut off when the food is gone.

How can we break this cycle?

Changing how people look at food is essential. Look at the public-health success with tobacco. We didn’t change the product. But we changed how people perceive it. Now people look at tobacco and say, “That’s really disgusting.” Tobacco is easy because you can live without it, but you can’t live without food. So you have to cool down the stimulus. You have to retrain yourself to respond to food differently.

Can you give a personal example?

It used to be that if you put a huge plate of fries in front of me, I would eat it. Now I look at that huge plate of fries and say, “I don’t want that.” Sure, it will taste good, but in 20 minutes I’m going to feel lousy. For me, food has to be rewarding, it has to be pleasureable. But it also has to be nutritious, it has to satiate. It can’t just be fat on sugar on fat—that’s stimulating, but isn’t going to satiate.

How can public policy make a difference?

Restaurants should list the calorie counts of all foods they serve. Food products should convey prominently on their labels the ­percentage of added sugars, refined carbohydrates and fats they contain. People also need to hear repeatedly that selling, serving and eating food layered and loaded with sugar, fat and salt has unhealthy consequences. And food marketing should be monitored and exposed.

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