(Click to start with part 1 of this review.)
I've learned to recognize overeating in restaurants all over America. It's not hard, because people who have been conditioned to overeat behave distinctively. They attack their food with a special kind of gusto. I've seen them lift their forks, readying the next bite before they've swallowed the previous one, and I've watched as they reach across the table to spear a companion's french fries or the last morsel of someone else's dessert. Certain foods seem to exert a magical pull on them, and they rarely leave any on their plates.
As I watch this kind of impulsive behavior, I suspect a battle may be taking place in their heads, the struggle between "I want" and "I shouldn't," between "I'm in charge" and "I can't control this." In this struggle lies one of the most consequential battles we face to protect our health. (ix)
So begins former FDA commissioner David A. Kessler's The End of Overeating: Taking Control of the Insatiable American Appetite. After describing how our brains rewire themselves in response to tantalizing concoctions of sugar, fat, and salt, he shows how the food industry offers us more and more of the taste combinations we crave, to the point of completely changing our eating habits. "For most of human history," he writes, "we survived on unadorned animal and vegetable products. Now we eat mostly optimized and potent foods that bear little resemblance to what exists in nature" (137).
In part 3, "Conditioned Hypereating Emerges," Kessler shows how certain foods stimulate the brain circuits that are active in addiction, how our eating behavior sets up powerful stimulus-response loops, how "focusing single-mindedly on not eating eventually pushes us to eat more" (156), how conditioned hypereating is dramatically increasing among preschoolers, and how
a breakdown in meal structure, with the distinction between meals and snacks increasingly blurred, ... promotes increased consumption and, ultimately, conditioned hypereating. It becomes a self-perpetuating cycle, with conditioned hypereating spurring a further breakdown in meal structure as out-of-control eaters pursue every opportunity to consume food. (174)
Then what can a conditioned hypereater do (I ask, my mouth full of salted peanuts)? In part 4, "The Theory of Treatment," Kessler offers a behavioral response:
- Be aware of the cues. "Intervention begins with the knowledge that we have a moment of choice--but only a moment--to recognize what is about to happen and do something else instead" (182).
- Substitute competing behaviors for habitual responses. "To compete successfully with old habits, this competing behavior needs to be planned before you encounter a cue. You need to know exactly how to respond when your brain receives an unwanted invitation" (187).
- Change the way you talk to yourself about food. "Instead of 'That pint of chocolate ice cream looks really good to me; I'll have just a few bites,' we can say to ourselves, 'I know that I can't have one bite, because it will lead to twenty'" (187).
- Get yourself a good support system--though "if your support system does not reinforce your goals, you're better off going it alone" (189). (Click here for an interesting article about how friends influence teens' eating.)
- Make up rules to guide your behavior. "Setting rules helps us make the steps of habit reversal real. Rules provide structure, preparing us for encounters with tempting stimuli and redirecting our attention elsewhere" (190).
- Change your emotional response to food stimuli. "When you perceive hyperpalatable food as negative--and place that recognition in your working memory so you can access it quickly--you're better equipped to interfere with the automatic response and make healthier food choices" (201).
Kessler warns that, although we can change our behavior, "our vulnerability to the stimuli doesn't simply disappear. We never fully unlearn earlier responses" (182). Still, we can create new habits in place of old, gradually diminishing the old habits' insistence. We can learn to eat in a way that satisfies hunger, makes us feel good, and is thoroughly enjoyable.
In Part 5, "Food Rehab," Kessler makes an important observation: "The only eating plan that will work for you is one built around the personal likes and dislikes you have accumulated over a lifetime" (214). Apparently my lifetime likes and dislikes differ markedly from Kessler's: his sample meals sound like what most people call diets, and he pays insufficient attention to the joy and beauty and delight that really good food evokes.
I like Kessler's analysis of America's overeating problem, and I like his discussions of brain chemistry and behavioral conditioning. I'm finding it very helpful, when nearly seduced by the image of going downstairs and eating coffee ice cream right out of the carton, to say to myself: "Hey, wait. Eating ice cream won't satisfy this craving you're feeling right now. It will just make you want more. And more. So if you start eating it, either you'll stop while you're ahead and feel even more frustrated because you still want more, or you'll keep on eating and eating until it's all gone--and you know how bad you'll feel if you do that. So why not just go across the hall to the bathroom and get a glass of water instead ..."
Actually, I've condensed that whole message into "Ice cream, no. Water, yes." It seems to be working.
But I don't much like Kessler's frugal eating plans. Food is more than fuel. So I'm going to add another installment to this review later this week and describe my own easy-to-follow, riotously colorful, abundantly delectable way of eating. Hey, I like it. But if you don't, Dr. Kessler gives you permission to make up your own plan.
Click to go to part 4 of this review.