‘Craveable’: Does the food industry play with our heads?

Tom Marcinko @ 17-05-2009

big-boy1Trying to write an optimistic science fiction story for a change has led to some fascinating research avenues. If we want to give our poor put-upon planet a bit of a break, wouldn’t it make sense to change the way we eat? Think of the fuel we could save, the waste we could cut back on…

Not so fast, though. Former U.S. Food & Drug Administration commissioner (under Clinton and W.) and pediatrician David Kessler says one of the reasons Americans overeat is because the food industry, not unlike tobacco before it, is messing with our minds.

At first glance, that sounds obvious, given the myriad of junk-food choices and the constant blare of advertisement. Kessler digs deeper, though, in his new book The End of Overeating:

“The food the industry is selling is much more powerful than we realized,” he said. “I used to think I ate to feel full. Now I know, we have the science that shows, we’re eating to stimulate ourselves. And so the question is what are we going to do about it?”

In good dramatic fashion, Kessler says it’s partly his fault: when he headed the FDA he won battles for better labeling of processed foods, but didn’t push much for labels in restaurants.

His own dumpster-diving research (note to Hollywood: this book needs to be a movie) led him to the conclusion that not only are seemingly healthy menu choices like grilled chicken or spinach dip larded with “fat on fat on salt on sugar on fat on fat,” but that they are more or less deliberately designed to goad you brain into craving more, even when your stomach has had more than enough. He estimates that 15% of the U.S. population is vulnerable to “conditioned overeating.”

(And everytime I visit another country I see more U.S.-based food chains — sorry about that, but I’m guessing this is not just an issue for my own country.)

Willpower, yes; government oversight, maybe, says Kessler. Far better to change the way we look at food – to break the emotional association with good times. Perceptions have changed for the better before this, he points out: consider shifting attitudes towards cigarettes, driving without a seat belt, or drunk driving.

By now some readers are thinking “That’s obvious,” or rolling their eyes at the prospect of more nanny-statism. (I did both.) Skepticism is healthy, too. For starters, I’d like to know more about the neuroscience of those “reward circuits.” Here’s a taste, though:

Yale University neuroscientist Dana Small had hypereaters smell chocolate and taste a chocolate milkshake inside a brain-scanning MRI machine. Rather than getting used to the aroma, as is normal, hypereaters found the smell more tantalizing with time. And drinking the milkshake didn’t satisfy. The reward-anticipating region of their brains stayed switched on, so that another brain area couldn’t say, “Enough!”

You can hear some NPR interviews with Kessler here, there, and everywhere.

[Image: Iconic US diner mascot Big Boy by Patrick Powers]


Passive housing

Tom James @ 18-02-2009

passive_houseA fascinating article here at Physorg on American versions of German “passive houses” – houses that maintain a comfortable temperature in cold climates without the need for active heating systems:

Because there is no furnace, the rooms are quiet. The only sound in the kitchen is the hum of a refrigerator, which along with other appliances, helps supply heat to the airtight 2,300-square-foot Batavia, Ill., home.

Katrin Klingenberg, founder of the institute in Urbana, Ill., said that typically, passive-house owners use 10 percent of the energy used in a standard home.

More info on passive housing can be found here.

[image from popaver on flickr]


Greening cities from the top down

Jeremy Eades @ 12-11-2007

One thing about cities in Midwestern US – they can be ugly.  Skyscrapers look nice in a skyline, but they block sunlight and take forever to walk around their drab exteriors.  Not to mention in some places like Chicago, there aren’t nearby parks to eat lunch at easily because those spaces are taken up by monolithic city buildings.  That was my impression when I spent time downtown four years ago for a job interview.

Now, though, the drones have a more psychologically friendly place to have lunch – in the garden on top of their building.  Chicago’s now planted 2.3 million square feet of rooftop gardens.  Other notables are Washington, DC, New York City and Phoenix.  And it’s not just for people’s sanity.  These gardens mitigate the heat radiated by the roof in summer, and retain heat in winter.  In addition, they help control runoff from storms, decrease costs for heating and cooling, and provide a haven for wildlife.  The downside?  The initial cost which, even though it can be offset through lower utility expenses, raises the price tag, something that would make any developer flinch.  Fortunately, a new article in BioScience(subscription required) states that improvements in cost-benefit analyses might allay those concerns.

For those of you that are curious, the photos is of the under-construction California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco.  An illustration of the finished building and more info on it can be seen here.

(image via kqedquest)