Thursday, June 18, 2009

David Kessler in Salon

Salon has an interview with David Kessler, former head of the FDA, about his new book "The End of Overeating." He talks in the interview about what (in his view) causes people to overeat, which is basically just conditioning based on our experiences of eating rich food. For instance, he says,

In people who have a hard time controlling their eating, their brain circuits remain elevated and activated until all the food is gone. Then the next time you get cued, you do it again. Every time you engage in this cycle you strengthen the neural circuits. The anticipation gets strengthened. It's in part because of ambivalence. Do you ever have an internal dialogue? "Boy, that would taste great. No, I shouldn't have it. I really want that. And I shouldn't do it."

That sort of ambivalence increases the reward value of the food. It increases the anxiety, it increases the arousal, it keeps it in working memory. We're wired to focus on the most salient stimuli in our environment. For some people it could be alcohol or illegal drugs or nicotine or sex or gambling. For many of us it's food.

He seems to be at least a partial advocate of rules-based eating:

The question is, how have [some people] stayed lean? For many of them the fact is, they're in torment. It's a constant struggle. Others have laid down new learning, and that's made it easier. They develop rules for themselves that they follow. Then, you're not constantly eating in a chaotic, disorganized way. You're not constantly being cued. Your brain's not being constantly activated. But those rules have to be unambiguous, and they're not easy to follow.

In the end, they have what's called a critical perceptual shift. They look at food differently. How do you really cool a stimulus? How do you decrease the anticipation of the food, the power of the food to activate, to grab attention? The answer to that is you view the stimulus differently.

Some people -- and I'm not advocating it -- become vegetarian. That makes it easier. They look at animal fats and proteins and say, "I don't want that." Some people look at food and say, "That's highly processed, I don't want that. I want real food." Some people look at large portions and say, "I don't want that, that looks disgusting."
I find that my no-grains diet is working pretty beautifully. I'm not sure yet whether it will have the desired results (weight loss), but it's definitely making controlling my eating pretty easy. Aside from occasional, brief, intense cravings, I'm not finding it difficult not to eat grains or potatoes. I just don't eat them. There's no wiggle room, no way to start eating the plate of fries Kessler talks about, and so no problem not eating the entire plateful.

My current "rule" is that I can eat grains/starches reasonably freely for one meal per week, I can eat them if no other food is available and I need to eat (which may come into play when, for instance, I visit my vegetarian relatives, who always cook at home), and on geniune special occasions (like cake at a birthday party). "I especially want french fries right now" is not a special occasion.

Anyway, in the usual way that people enjoy information that confirms what they already thought or were doing, I enjoyed the interview.


susan said...

I have this book on reserve at the library and I'm looking forward to reading it. I read an excerpt at Amazon. The problem with obesity and overweight really didn't start being a problem until the 80s. I'm interested in his take on why it happened. And, hopefully, there is a solution to the problem.

Tam said...

I started reading it on my Kindle last night. It's been enjoyable so far. I haven't learned much that I didn't already know (or at least think) - like that companies engineer food to be as craving-inducingly delicious as possible - but the focus on the details has been pretty fun. I'll be curious to see if the part of the book with behavioral recommendations is useful.

Sally said...

I went to the grocery store (Wal-Mart) tonight for the first time in...gods, months. I could not believe how many NEW hyper-palatable foods were available. I'm sure some of these are just replacing failed products, but in any event, I was struck by the number of new ones.

One thing that I do when faced with these kinds of foods (ice cream sandwich covered in granola! fruit-filled pancakes! Sonic's new Bundt cake sundaes! Jason's Deli gingerbread muffins with calories into other dimensions!) is to think "I don't eat hyper-palatable foods." I don't know that I'd go so far as to say that it's a rule (let alone a strict one) but it is a way of talking to myself about them that seems to work a lot of the time.

Would love to hear more on this book from both of you as you read it.

keatonk said...

Don't forget what Kessler says (since the 80's)- we are wired to accept the availability of foods 24/7 and that it is socially acceptable to eat 24/7 - instead of our previously acceptable 3 meals a day with an occasional dessert. Fat, sugar, salt - is used to make this 'want' wired within us. Also the processed foods are actually near non-foods and more like baby foods that require little chewing. Satiation doesn't happen. We're hooked on the fat, sugar, salt routine. He also says ... like tobacco which was sooo acceptable socially in the past.