The End of Overeating by David Kessler
The initial chapters examine the role that sugar, fat and salt play in our consumption desires and how the food industry tries to hit all three with each bite of a product. While much of this was review, I found it quite useful to have it nicely laid out. For example, I have often said that when people say that they like broccoli what they really like is the cheese they put on it. In the book there is a line which basically says that many people like broccoli but what they are really being drawn to is the oil and fat of toppings on it. I like how this guy thinks.
An interesting finding that was presented was that access to food is sufficient to increase weight and throw off our homeostatic mechanisms. While obvious in retrospect, it was thought that the body’s self-regulatory mechanism would adjust to having too little or too much food. But when there is too much food continually available, these mechanisms cannot compensate and weight will increase. Similarly, I liked how he discussed the fact that what may start off as intentional behaviour becomes a habit. As in, in the middle of the afternoon I will treat myself with a cookie. If you engage in this behaviour enough, then it is likely you will start automatically seeking a cookie and perhaps not even notice that you eat one everyday (People often underreport how much they eat).
Kessler also shares some knowledge from food analysts. The first notable tidbit was that often manufacturers will use different sources of sugar so they don’t have to list sugar as the primary ingredient (even though it is cumulatively). Secondly, the notion of ‘layering’ - sugar, fat or salt is layered to increase flavour and motivation for greater consumption. I found it interesting to hear many pub foods described as “sugar on salt on fat on fat…”
The End of Overeating briefly examines the food industry and discusses the business imperative to make us eat more. Products like soft drinks or French fries (well, most products) can be increased in amount for a small marginal cost, but people are will to pay a price that is far higher than that marginal cost. Consequently, it is just logical to provide more food. Additionally, many restaurants like Chillies or Cinnabun market themselves as entertainment or as a respite from daily pressures. In this way, food is serving other goals, often to our detriment.
I found it both disconcerting and yet reasonable to learn that much restaurant food is “pre-chewed.” Often, the meat will be pierced with needles or undergo other treatments to make it easier for the customer to chew. The easier it is, the more you’ll eat (but they have to be careful because people do want to chew as least a little). Another one of the messages is that little in food is what it seems as the synthetic production of flavours and smells can create many illusory dishes.
Kessler discusses the French “paradox” and states that the most likely explanation is portion size, not genetics, type of fat, stress or red wine. Some evidence supporting this is that surveys of restaurants in France and U.S. found that in the U.S. portions were 25% larger in Pizza Hut and local bistros and Chinese eateries. In Europe, there are fewer environmental cues to suggest eating and there is a more overt meal structure, with no snacking.
The latter chapters of the book were even better because they examined the neurological and behavioural aspects of food consumption. The food industry attempts to manipulate the reward pathways and create associations and reinforcement ‘learning.’ This isn’t too difficult (or surprising) as food is its own reward. As I mentioned before, habit takes over from intention, and once patterns are ingrained in your lower brain, it is hard to undue them or understand why you engage in certain actions. After a delicious piece of food which has made us feel good, we then want more reward and are seeking the next ‘wow’ arousal experience; dopamine is released and there is layer upon layer of ‘reinforcement learning’ as you more easily notice the cues that signal reward, creating a greater urge to pursue and consume. As there is more and more delay in the actual, initial feeling of satisfaction from food, more barricades to repetitive behaviour have been toppled.
It is difficult because food truly does make you feel better. There is a spiral of wanting that easily develops due to the sensory and emotional associations with food. Despite this, Kessler does offer useful guidelines for those eating more than they desire. Primarily, do not engage in a battle of wills with your desire and your restraint. Instead, develop a series of rules, included If-Then scenarios, to enforce you eating goals. Basically, don’t be around fattening food or people who eat fattening food in front of you, and avoid routes or locations where you will be tempted by food cues.
In summation, great book! The End of Eating is accessible, informative and helpful. Go read it and think about if you are eating for reward or eating for hunger.*
*acknowledging that, evolutionarily, if hunger did not exist as a motivating factor and eating, or the reduction of hunger, was not reduced by food, we would not be able to survive (as we are).