Monday, June 22, 2009

The End of Overeating

I've finished David Kessler's book "The End of Overeating." It was a pretty short and easy read, and aside from a bit of annoyance over a misdefinition of "heritability", I don't have much to say against it. I guess I'm not sure whether his ideas justified an entire book, as opposed to perhaps a long magazine article.

I did get something new out of it. I had already believed that people are getting fatter because we live in this environment that is full of food engineered to be as delicious as possible that can be obtained and consumed 24/7. I think that's kind of a no-brainer if you have thought about the issue at all. Part of this is the market at work - companies have been motivated to learn how to make tastier and tastier food, while our health is none of their concern - and part is a change in social mores such that snacking anytime, any place no longer seems gauche or inappropriate. (According to Kessler, snacks in America used to be something only children got. And in France, people still don't eat outside of mealtimes.)

But what I hadn't really "gotten" before - although I'd thought of it obliquely from time to time - is the way that these "hyper-palatable" foods act sort of like drugs in setting up a cue/reward/craving cycle. Instead of having a normal relationship to food, a lot of us think about some of our favorite foods all the time, and obsess over them. Plain, enjoyable foods don't trigger these kinds of responses, but the kind of layered/loaded extravaganza foods that are marketed to us do.

I remember as a kid, I used to fantasize about everyone else disappearing from the world. I still think about that sometimes, but as a kid, the first thing I did in this fantasy was go to McDonald's and eat all the french fries I wanted.

On vacations, I am always really interested in what we're going to eat for meals. It's probably the most interesting aspect of most vacations for me.

I moved away from Houston almost 9 years ago and I still obsess over some of the restaurants there.

These are not healthy ways to feel about food. After all, I live in an environment of plenty, and unless the world changes, I should never be threatened with starvation. (Even if my life radically changes for the worse, there are food stamps, food banks, etc., to help me out.) I don't obsess over air or water, so why should I obsess over food?

Kessler doesn't really recommend a "diet" per se (in fact, like most sensible folks, he's into the idea that you're changing your habits forever, not going on some kind of "plan" of limited duration), but the last parts of the book do have recommendations about how to eat better and (possibly) overcome what he calls "conditioned hypereating."

His recommendations aren't very systematic, but they boil down to strictly avoiding hyper-palatable foods (at least while you get them under control), finding healthy foods that are satisfying and enjoyable in appropriate quantities, using rules/planning to guide your eating, not engaging in will power struggles over food with yourself (i.e., using rules to avoid the "I want that / I shouldn't eat that / But I want it / But that's bad" type of inner dialogue), and developing negative attitudes towards hyper-palatable foods (viewing them as the enemy and something you're tricked into wanting, similar to how our view of cigarettes has changed).

I found the advice realistic...maybe too realistic. It did instill the good idea of mentally focusing on changing my relationship to food in this way that would be very positive, but it basically made me feel much more pessimistic about being able to do it. When I finished the book I was pretty much ready to give up on the whole thing and just be fat and food-obsessed instead.

Anyway, I'm basically in favor of the book - I think it raises important issues and has basically sound advice about them. And it was interesting to read.


Sally said...

It sounds like I am pretty much doing what he recommends already.

Sally said...

Oh, and one thing about the "addiction" idea - I've never really understood the position many people take that you can't treat food as an addiction because "you have to eat." You have to eat *something* but you certainly do not have to eat specific foods that fuck you up - I don't seen why a person cannot treat e.g. ice cream as an addictive substance and avoid it entirely.

Tam said...

As you pointed out, you can abstain from specific foods just as you can abstain from alcohol or heroin. I think what makes it harder is that foods are really on a continuum of addictiveness (not clear cut the way that alcohol / not alcohol is), and cutting out too many of them can cause problematic feelings of deprivation.