The former FDA commissioner, David Kessler, published a book last year, entitled “The End of Overeating.” I finally just got around to reading it, and I didn’t really put it down, except to eat and well, go to my job. It is a fascinating read and delves into the science of how the brain is hardwired to crave foods high in sugar, fat and salt, and how difficult it is to resist eating “just one potato chip” or stop consuming a second time around. I have seen Dr. Kessler speak about his battle against the tobacco industry, in 2004 at the Doris Duke Clinical Research Fellows retreat. I wrote about it here. If you ever have a chance to see him speak, do so. He is really engaging and passionate about the public health work that he is known for. He approaches the idea of overeating and the role of food industry in this book with just as much verve as he did in taking down tobacco.
Back to the book. The Washington Post summarizes the science in which the books goes into in comprehensive detail: “Highly palatable” foods — those containing fat, sugar and salt — stimulate the brain to release dopamine, the neurotransmitter associated with the pleasure center, he found. 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.
Food industry knows this brain behavior and has done a great job at ensuring that the foods the brain craves are available, and in large amounts, anytime, anywhere. As industry says, “give them choices.” The blame however should not fall solely on industry. Not every person reacts the same way to the cravings of delicious junk food. Kessler encourages those who are addicted to the overeating of salt, fat and sugar to take it back. This craving for food is compared to drug addiction and going to rehab, is a lifelong recovery process and sometimes, a struggle.
After reading the book, it really made me want to be healthier and not “give in” to the industrialized foods that are fat, on fat, on sugar, on salt, on fat basically, and to take control of what goes into my body. To give people the choice of what they want to eat is fine. But are we really making the choices, or is someone else?