The Urge to Over Eat

Yesterday’s Globe had an interview with Dr. David Kessler, a former FDA commissioner who has just written a book called “The End of Overeating.” Kessler maintains that America’s obesity epidemic is caused primarily by two things: (1) humans have an “innate drive to eat sugar, salt, and fat” and (2) the food industry has taken advantage of that drive by making highly processed foods that are packed with those three substances. Foods in their natural state – think fruits and vegetables – are more difficult to chew and digest, so we’re less likely to eat more of them than we need. Processed foods – think baked goods and candy – are easy to chew, easy to swallow, and quick to digest. Before we realize we are full, we’ve already consumed more of them.

Kessler isn’t advocating the creation of a food police force; he just wants people to be aware of the science involved. With that knowledge, and a with a greater awareness of the composition of what we’re eating, we’re more likely to make better food choices. He says will power is not enough and exercise, while vitally important to a healthy life, is not the answer to overeating. When you consider that a 300 calorie candy bar takes 2 minutes to eat but 60 minutes of brisk walking to burn off, you understand why. As I see it, Kessler is telling us that when we are more aware of what we eat, we’ll chose foods that are healthier and we’ll eat smaller portions, something that’s tough to do when bombarded by advertising-aided, inexpensive, tasty, and addictive processed foods.

One Response to The Urge to Over Eat

  1. Andrew says:

    Dr. Kessler hit a lot of great public health points, but there is some interesting molecular biology that’s been discovered in recent years that he didn’t have the time or space to get into.

    We now know that heredity is not based solely on genes. In other words, a mother can pass on information to a fetus by means other than genes. This is known as epigenetics.

    One of the interesting discoveries of recent years has been an explanation for why diabetes and obesity have become such a problem in traditional societies that have recently adopted western foods.

    Basically, a fetus is given information on what it should “expect” to be its nutritional environment when it’s born. So, what the mother has eaten through her whole life will, in a sense, “program” the fetus to expect a similar diet. Except the effect is multi-generational; the fetus’ “expectation” is informed also by his grandmother’s diet until the point she gave birth to the fetus’ mother. This is true for the great-grandmother and so on for a few generations.

    So it would take several generations (perhaps 100 years? perhaps more?) for individuals to adjust to our current diet, assuming the diet does not change in that time period. Which brings us to the rather flippant rules of thumb: if your grandparents (or perhaps in my case, great-grandparents) didn’t eat it, it’s not food; if it has the same name in multiple languages (ie, “big mac”) it’s not food; if it has ingredients you can’t pronounce, it’s not food.

    Ideally, the human diet is basically as described here (not exactly your traditional food pyramid):

    An enlarged PDF of that food pyramid can be found here: