I saw a poster on the subway with the title “Cut the Junk,” with a chocolate donut making the “C”, a hamburger on a bun making the “e” and potato chips making the “u” in Junk – a very attractive plea to all of us to stop eating too much junk food. Around a cartoon of an obese man swigging what looked like popcorn was the message “Eating too much fried fatty and fast food can bring on obesity, diabetes and heart disease.” You’re asked to call 311 or go to some New York City web site for more information. It makes sense that this is part of the mayor’s push about too high a ratio of calories to people in New York City. Of course, he’s right and it reminded me of something I had looked into a few years ago that I thought would be timely to edit and publish again.
I’ve been a bit heavy from time to time but never had a big problem with food. However, if there is Philadelphia Cream Cheese in the refrigerator, I can’t resist it. I’ll pile it on anything around and even just eat it straight off a knife. I love that stuff and even as I try to stop, I can’t without running away from the kitchen and even out of the house. When I was a little kid, my grandmother used to make an Eastern European treat – cream cheese cookies. I can still taste them – soft on the inside and crunch on the outside. Had my brain become wired in some way? Am I addicted to cream cheese? That’s ridiculous, or is it?
I don’t recommend reading all of David Kessler’s book “The End of Overeating – Taking Control of the Insatiable American Appetite;” the book is a bit “overweight.” However, it is worth picking up for its central message that overeating and the obesity overeating leads to belong to the category of addiction. Dr. Kessler is a distinguished medical doctor, who was dean of medical schools and even commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration of the United States during the presidency of George H. W. Bush and Bill Clinton. He leaves no doubt that he is right about food addiction associated with the corporate driven methods of the fast food industry. It’s all about making fat, sugar and salt with the right combination of chewable, melt-in-your-mouth presentable deliciousness.
Here are a couple of things from Dr. Kessler’s book. There’s a reward center in the brain, the “far lateral hypothalamus.” A hungry animal, let alone a well fed animal, under normal circumstances, won’t put up with an electric shock to get some food. However, stimulation of the far lateral hypothalamus will cause a well fed animal to eat even if a painful shock comes along with the food. That part of the brain, the hypothalamus, is supposed to maintain something called homeostasis to keep the body’s functions, including weight, on a steady course. Yet this homeostasis function can be overcome as shown by experiments in which an animal will not stop eating if this region of the brain is stimulated. Well, it’s certainly not possible to send electrical currents into our brains as we walk down the street past a fast food outlet, but industry has discovered that our brain’s homeostasis mechanism can be overcome by foods that are rich in fat, sugar and salt in certain combinations presented in certain ways. The word is palatability and you get a dose of it in most of the foods in these restaurants and in much of processed foods bought in supermarkets and Kessler makes a convincing case that we would not be hungry beyond our caloric needs if our homeostasis mechanism was not overcome.
Scientific studies show that animals are willing to work just about as hard for food with fat, sugar and salt as for cocaine. The science shows that the neurons in our brains activated by palatable foods, fat, sugar and salt, are part of the opiod circuitry, the brain’s primary pleasure center – the place where addiction to morphine and heroine take their effect.
To paraphrase Kessler, many of us can not control our responses to highly palatable foods because our brains have been changed by the foods we eat. The book is full of undeniable information showing how the fast food industry, if you get it in a restaurant or elsewhere, is designing food for palatability, that is for increased profits derived from our eating more.
Human beings didn’t evolve with easy access to fat, sugar and salt. Kessler tells us that early human diets contained only about 10% fat. In addition, sugar came mostly from fruits, while salt has not always been easily available, as it is now, and in fact has been an historical form of currency.
My dear long gone grandmother meant no harm but she probably hard wired my brain for those sweet crusty cream cheese cookies, which even now I long for. Many kids, and we adults, are longing for all that sugar, fat and salt. Too many of us grab as much as we can leading to what the Canadian Parliamentary Information and Research Service calls an epidemic of obesity, which agrees with reports from the United States Center for Disease Control. Furthermore, obesity leads to bad health, which is why Dr. Kessler, who played a large role in fighting the tobacco industry, is now applying his considerable talents to fighting the food industry.
Kessler’s advice for us in this fight is to follow Alcoholic Anonymous. They say don’t take that first drink. It’s that first bite of that palatable combination of fat, sugar and salt that makes it so hard to stop, that makes it so easy to overeat.