I always wondered why, when I enter a fast food restaurant determined to order a salad rather than a burger and fries, in the end, I always end up ordering the burger and fries. That phenomenon and more is explained in David Kessler’s book, The End of Overeating. Here is an excerpt from a WaPo article about Kessler’s research.
David A. Kessler, Harvard-trained doctor, lawyer, medical school dean and former commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration researched part of The End of Overeating by diving into dumpsters behind restaurants to look for the nutritional labels of menu items high in fat, salt and sugar.
Kessler, 57, sees parallels between the tobacco and food industries. Both are manipulating consumer behavior to sell products that can harm health, he said.
“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.
The key to stopping the cycle is to rewire the brain’s response to food — not easy in a culture where unhealthy food and snacks are cheap and plentiful, portions are huge and consumers are bombarded by advertising that links these foods to fun and good times, he said.
Deprivation only heightens the way the brain values the food, which is why dieting doesn’t work, he said.
What’s needed is a perceptual shift, Kessler said. “We did this with cigarettes,” he said. “It used to be sexy and glamorous but now people look at it and say, ‘That’s not my friend, that’s not something I want.’ We need to make a cognitive shift as a country and change the way we look at food. Instead of viewing that huge plate of nachos and fries as a guilty pleasure, we have to . . . look at it and say, ‘That’s not going to make me feel good. In fact, that’s disgusting.’ ”
Whether government ought to exercise tougher controls over the food industry is going to be the next great debate, especially since much of the advertising is aimed at children, Kessler said.
“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?”
(click here to read the entire article)