Written by Michael Kulla
Why do Americans spend billions on weight-loss schemes, only to have most diets fail over the log run? David A. Kessler thinks has the answer, Kessler, a physician, lawyer and former commissioner of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration from 1990 to 1997 says that “Sugar, fat and salt are hijacking the brains of millions … by activating their neural circuits.” During his reign with the FDA, Nutrition Facts labels were overhauled and redesigned on most foods, and the tobacco industry was tackled.
Kessler authored The End of Overeating; Taking Control of the Insatiable American Appetite. Here is some information from an interview with him in Nutrition Action (Jul/Aug, 2009), the health letter for Science in the Public Interest.
Dr, Kessler says he got his information from meeting with top scientists, physicians and food industry insiders.
Since about 1980, rates of obesity have tripled to roughly 18% for children and 34% for adults. That includes 33% of white, 39% of hispanic and 44% of black adults. Combining overweight and obesity, we’re talking about a third of all kids and two-thirds of all adults.
Those billions of extra pounds translate into more diabetes, more high blood pressure, more heart attacks, arthritis and so on, Kessler notes.
The food industry, he says, puts the onus on the consumer. No one is asked to eat junk food, they say. As for kids, parents should just feed them health diets. Problem solved.
Unfortunately, the personal responsibility rap aint working. And it wont work in an environment that makes it so, so easy to over-eat and under-exercise, and lets junk food be marketed at will,
An obvious question is why do certain foods hold so much sway over us? Kessler believes science has the answer to this question. In animal studies , if you make sugary foods available, they’ll work hard to get it. Introduce fat to the sugar and they’ll work even harder. The same applies to humans, he says.
The food industry understands that sugar, salt and fat drive consumption, Kessler opines. They’ve layer and loaded it into foods. They understand the combinations that create optimal effect. They know the bliss points – how much sugar, fat and salt is just enough and not too much to keep people coming back. To sugar, fat and salt they add texture, color temperature, “mouth feel”, outward appearance and smell. To cap it off, they give it “sex appeal” through display advertising, evoking a series of pleasurable emotions such as happy moments picnicking with smiling friends.
You could be walking down the street and start thinking about chocolate-covered pretzels because nine months ago you bought them on the same street. You didn’t remember it but the street was a trigger that stimulates your brain.
Kessler says that we have the knowledge that dopamine could spike and stay elevated in response to drugs such as cocaine, but it ,was thought that this process was far less with food. But the more multi-sensory you make foods the more reinforcing it becomes. An example is ice cream. It combines sugar, fat and cold. Add to it chocolate and peanut butter bars, crumpled cookies and hot fudge – a cycle of cue-activation-arousal-release. We get cues from a cornucopia of sight, sound, smell, time of day, location and more, he observes. So why don’t diets usually work? Depravation increases the reward value of food. We lose weight, but the old circuitry is still there, as are the old triggers.
If you give two or three year olds more calories in a meal, they eat less in the next meal, They compensate. But if they get exposed to sugar, fat and salt regularly for a few years, they will lose their ability to compensate. Translation: they’re hooked.
Are we hopelessly habituated? No, we don’t have to be, and I tell you why in a follow-up piece: Getting Unhooked from Certain Foods.