Ever wonder why you can’t eat just one potato chip? A single slice of pizza? How about a solitary bite of cheesecake or a lone chicken wing? David A. Kessler, 57, a Harvard-trained doctor, lawyer, former Yale Medical School dean and one-time commissioner of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, believes he has found the answer.
Regular exposure to palatable foods rich in salt, sugar and fat can change the way our brains work, Kessler says in his new book, The End of Overeating (see book excerpt). Famous for taking on Big Tobacco and mandating nutrition labels on grocery-store food, Kessler spent the past seven years interviewing physicians, scientists and food industry executives—and uncovered a vicious cycle. Humans are naturally wired to focus on the greatest stimulation in their environment. And when it comes to food, dishes high in fat, salt and sugar—the ones so popular on the American food-scape—fit the description.
The thought of such foods travels straight to the reward center of the brain, releasing dopamine, the chemical associated with pleasure. Eating foods you crave releases other chemicals, opioids, which provide emotional satisfaction. Over time, these neural pathways are strengthened, and soon enough the whiff, even the mention, of a favorite food sets the cycle in motion. Suddenly, it’s a habit—we don’t know when to stop—something Kessler calls “conditioned hypereating.” It’s an addiction, and as with all addictions, we want, even need, more of our favorite foods to gain the same satisfaction. Give someone a bag of chips, and soon, voila! The bag is empty, proving the slogan “Betcha can’t eat just one.”
Q. You write that the giant food corporations and chain restaurants—Big Food, as you call it—are aware of this cycle and use chemicals and fake food products to create alluring fatty, salty, sweet dishes.
A. They know sugar, fat and salt stimulate. They know people will come back for more of these kinds of foods. Now we know the neuroscience behind it.
Q. Is this book a way to get the ball rolling to regulate the industry?
A. My goal is to change the way Americans look at food—to get to the point where you know that what you’re eating is layered and loaded. Pick any appetizer in an American restaurant. Take Buffalo wings. The fatty part of the chicken is deep-fried in the manufacturing plant and fried again in the restaurant. The red sauce is sugar and fat and the cream sauce is fat and salt. So Buffalo wings are fat on fat on fat on sugar on fat and salt.
Q. Do you believe this kind of awareness will help America’s collective weight problem?
A. If you know your chicken is being bathed in sugar and fat and salt, and you know it has as many calories as a plate of nachos, and you know it’s only going to stimulate you to eat more, that’s a place to start.
Q. So Big Food is the culprit here?
A. The business plans of major food companies have been sugar, fat, salt on every corner, distributed everywhere to eat at any time. But we’ve also made eating acceptable everywhere, at all times. Social norms are very important.
Now we know that our brains are being stimulated—by sugar, fat and salt—and reacting excessively. Up until now, no one had explained that. We hadn’t explained that it’s more than just a willpower issue. But just because your brain is being activated and stimulated doesn’t mean you can’t do something about it.
Q. OK, then how do we recognize if food is controlling us?
A. Ask yourself: “Do I have a hard time resisting highly palatable foods that are high in fat, sugar or salt? Do I rarely feel full? Once I start eating, do I have a hard time stopping? Do I think about food?” You will tell me right away if you have one of those characteristics. Either you instantly say, “Yes, that’s me,” or “No, I have no idea what you’re talking about,” or “I have some of it.”