Monday, August 17, 2009

Review: The End of Overeating, part 1

I first heard of The End of Overeating at a party as I was scarfing down cookies. A friend was reading it, and she told me it was about how certain foods actually change our brain chemistry. I don't recall her looking pointedly at my plate, but it would not have been inappropriate.*

When I checked it out of the library, the circulation assistant exclaimed, "They put the wrong cover on that book!" Well, no, they didn't, at least not for me: I couldn't look at those pictures without strongly coveting the carrot cake. (The carrots would make nice snacks for my dogs.)

Dr. Kessler's point exactly.

When we eat certain combinations of sugar and fat, or salt and fat, or sugar and salt and fat, Kessler says, our endorphins go wild ("I feel good!") and our dopamine levels rise up and induce us to race back to the cupboard for more. Alas, the more we eat of these "hyper-palatable" foods, the more we want. Unlike, say, apples or whole-wheat bread or broiled salmon, which satisfy hunger and leave us feeling full, foods like ice cream and chocolate-chip cookies and potato chips leave us craving more and more. Some people gorge on such foods until they puke. Others just eat them until their waistlines disappear and their extra chins emerge.

Kessler, who has a medical degree from Harvard and a law degree from Chicago, was commissioner of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration from 1990 to 1997. During his career, he has noticed a big change. "In 1960, when weight was still relatively stable in America, women ages twenty to twenty-nine averaged about 128 pounds," he writes. "By 2000, the average weight of women in that age group had reached 157."

What happened--did we suddenly grow taller? Not so much. The Center for Disease Control reports that "the average height of a woman 20-74 years increased from slightly over 5'3" in 1960 to 5'4" in 2002"--not nearly enough to support nearly 30 pounds of additional weight.

Kessler partly blames the increase in American heft on "larger portion sizes, more chain restaurants, more neighborhood food outlets, and a culture that promotes more out-of-home eating," and he discusses all of those contributing factors in detail in part 2. Did you know, for example, that Starbucks' strawberries & crème frappuccino with whipped cream contains "more calories than a personal-size pepperoni pizza, and more sweetness than six scoops of ice cream"? (With my consciousness newly raised, I checked online before eating at Famous Dave's a couple of weeks ago. I learned that their rather small corn meal muffins--surely a harmless accessory--have 600 calories apiece. Yikes.)

But although the section on the food industry is interesting and revealing, that sort of exposé has been adequately done elsewhere, and it is not Kessler's focus. His main point is that if we have conditioned ourselves to overeat, it is possible to recondition ourselves to eat sensibly. It isn't easy--after all, in response to our choices, our brains have changed--but it can be done. And he offers a program for doing it.

Later this week I'm going to critique his program in some detail. For now, I'll just say that what he suggests is true, helpful, and insufficient. If you eat as he suggests, you will reprogram yourself and you will lose weight. But will you ever smile again?

(Click to go to part 2 of this review.)


*Some friends have implied that I, being long and lean, have no business reading books on overeating. Kessler points out, however, that conditioned overeating is not the exclusive province of well-rounded people: "Some 50 percent of obese participants [in the Reno Diet Heart Study] and 30 percent of overweight participants demonstrated the features of conditioned hypereating, as did 17 percent of those who were lean." I, alas, am in that select group.


Heidi said...

But if you are an overeater to no ill effect, why should you care?

LaVonne Neff said...

Good question, Heidi. I'm a "conditioned hypereater" who has deconditioned some but not all triggers. When I overeat, I don't feel good, my bad cholesterol goes up, and I outgrow my jeans.