Big Food: What to do about hypereating

Tom Marcinko @ 21-05-2009

lolHere’s an optimistic vision of the future, from the last page of The End of Overeating by former US Food & Drug Administration commissioner David A. Kessler, MD (available here and elsewhere; reviewed here; author interview by Stephen Colbert here.)

A change in perspective cannot be imposed with mandates, but must evolve as a social consensus. The goal is not to vilify all food and those who serve it, but to change our thinking about big food, those huge portions of layered and loaded food with little nutritional value. We need to look differently at the people and the places that serve it. When their power to manipulate our behavior becomes fully transparent, cues will lose their capacity to entice. Instead of expecting food to be served at every social and business occasion, we’ll realize that many offers of food outside mealtimes do not serve anyone’s interest.

In the future, new social norms and values will emerge, and food choices, offered in smaller portion sizes, will seem ‘right’ to us. That will be what we come to expect, and that will be what we want.

So, yes, as research for my optimstic sf story, I broke down, bought, and read this book, which is short, readable, and provocative.

Kessler’s thesis is that since the 80s, millions of Americans have been on a binge of conditioned hypereating, brought about by a food industry that knows how to get people to keep chowing down even when they’ve eaten more than enough. They do it with marketing, focus grouping, advertising, and even such childishly simple methods as making food easier to chew and swallow.

Kessler cites enough neuroscience data from human and animal experiments to put together a working hypothesis of marketing-driven food addiction. Among other things, the industry excels at creating tastes, textures, situations, and associations that rewire the brain to want more and more of certain kinds of foods. For example,

…[A]n animal that eats a combination of sucrose, chocolate, and alcohol releases the greatest levels of dopamine [a brain chemical associated with “attentional bias.”].

Not surprisingly, these foods have layers of sugar, salt, and fats — often in repeating geological layers. It’s akin to the tobacco industry’s striving to make cigarettes even more addictive. The food merchants seem to accomplish their goals more by trial and error than through pure research, but the result is plain for all to see: A serious obesity problem with, at the very least, a larger health care bill attached.

People need to take responsibility, and Kessler lays out some steps that will probably spawn a lot of self-help books (some of us can use the help). He simply asks that people watch how they feel when exposed to food or come-ons to the same, and alter their behavior accordingly. And maybe do what the French, he says, do, or at least used to do: Take your time at the table, and don’t eat between meals. Old-fashioned, and easier said than done.

He has policy suggestions, too. Some of them ought to be adopted for the sheer entertainment value of the outrage and resistance they’re likely to provoke.

  • Restaurants should list calorie counts, “by mandate, if they’re not willing to do so voluntarily.
  • Food package labels should contain percentages of added sugars, refined carbs, and fats.
  • Public education should focus a jaundiced eye on “big food.”
  • And my personal favorite: Marketing should be monitored and exposed.

Our greatest gift to future generations … would be to find a way to prevent the cue-urge-reward-habit cycle from ever taking hold.

There’s optimism for you. And there’s got to be some way to turn this into a story.

[I Can Haz Cheezburger?, due to sheer lack of willpower]

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2 Responses to “Big Food: What to do about hypereating”

  1. Screen Sleuth says:

    I agree that companies need to step up and take their share of the responsibility for their “food engineering”.

  2. TomMarcinko says:

    Dr. Kessler made some major inroads against big tobacco, so I wouldn’t be surprised if we hear a lot more about this in times to come.

    The book has an anecdote about him trying to ask a waiter at a Chili’s (chain restaurant in the US) what was in his order. Not a secret recipe or anything, just “what is in this?” The poor waiter was not allowed to say.