The End of Overeating

Between 1960 and 2002, the typical American adult gained an astounding 24 pounds.

Any guesses why?

David Kessler’s eye-opening book, The End of Overeating, offers a comprehensive explanation. According to Kessler, strong evidence suggests that this weight gain resulted primarily from overeating. Now you might think that the body’s homeostatic systems, which keep things pretty much in balance, would limit food consumption. Not necessarily.

Kessler documents in detail how the American food industry, including manufacturers and chain restaurants, has developed precise combinations of fat, sugar, and salt, along with exotic flavorings, that make foods hyperpalatable. Such foods have been designed to create intense sensory experiences and be readily available, easy to chew, and swallow. They are essentially irresistible. Super palatable foods help people suspend rational judgement and eat indulgently. As you might guess, restaurants and food manufacturers promote indulgent eating. Our biological systems that are designed to maintain energy balance get overwhelmed by easy access to foods with perfected combinations of fat, sugar, and salt.

But there’s even more to the story. It turns out that hyperpalatable foods rewire our brain, conditioning us to seek continued food-based stimulation. This stimulation leads to conditioned overeating over which you may feel you have little conscious control. Highly palatable foods stimulate the opioid circuitry, the body’s primary pleasure system. Food with complex stimuli (multiple tastes, odors, textures, and visuals) is highly associated with rewards in the brain’s orbitofrontal cortex. Salient foods focus our attention. A cue, such as pleasant food odors, triggers a dopamine-fueled urge, which leads us to food. Eating food leads to opioid release, which leads to more dopamine and opioid release that stimulates further eating. On top of that, many people feel compelled by stresses of modern life to indulge and are entitled to do so. And eating super palatable foods helps reduce stress in the short term.

The nature of American food has changed over the past several decades. Simplicity has given way to elaborately structured products that provide more layers, more sensory cues, more sensory stimuli, as well as more fat, sugar, and salt. Traditional cuisine is meant to satisfy, while modern American industrial food is meant to stimulate appetite.

Overeating can be regarded as a bad habit that needs to be changed. Kessler outlines four major components of habitat reversal: 1) Awareness, 2) Competing behaviors, 3) Competing thoughts, and 4) Support. Awareness refers to realizing situations that lead you to overeat. Once you’re aware, you have a moment of control just as the situation appears during which time you can reject the urge to eat. Competing behaviors refer to learning and developing alternative responses to food cues, plus planning new behaviors to avoid these cues. Competing thoughts include rewriting our cognitive script to one that helps us avoid eating. For example, you can think about the ugly body fat that you’ll put on from gorging on ice cream right out of the carton (see photo). Support includes enlisting family, friends, and colleagues to help you avoid situations that cue overeating.

Kessler proposes planned eating with four elements. 1) Replacing chaos with structure. The aim is to avoid salient stimuli in the environment, protect yourself from cues, and curb impulsive behavior that drives food reward. Initially, structure needs to be rigid to minimize the need for willpower, but can be relaxed later on. 2) Just-right eating. This refers to controlling portion size to leave you feeling satisfied but not stuffed. You need to develop a mental image of a suitable-sized meal. 3) Choose foods that satisfy. Foods high in protein and fiber tend to be more satisfying and are more slowly assimilated in the body than those high in sugar and refined carbs. Focus on lean protein, legumes, whole grains, fruits, and non-starchy veggies. 4) Eat foods that you enjoy. Learn to savor the experience of eating healthful foods so you don’t feel deprived.

I highly recommend The End of Overeating. If you feel that you can’t control your eating, reading this book will provide you with background information to understand the basis of overeating. More importantly, the book will arm you with practical suggestions that you can employ to get control over what you put in your mouth.

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