Why does a chocolate chip cookie hold one person completely captive while another person doesn’t even notice it’s there?
Why does someone continually choose to eat a food that consciously they know is going to make them feel awful tomorrow?
How can we eat, eat, eat and still want more?
Dr. David A. Kessler attempts to answer these questions, and many more, in his book The End of Overeating: Taking Control of the Insatiable American Appetite.
The End of Overeating is a fascinating dissection of how food affects the brain and how those who want you to buy their products choose to manipulate those effects. Dr. Kessler takes us through the food industries manipulation of fat, salt and sugar in our foods and breaks down many scientific studies that explain why those 3 elements drive us to eat more and, sadly, weigh more.
After reviewing the literature, conducting his own studies and consulting with numerous experts in nutrition and psychology, Dr. Kessler puts forth a new condition known as conditioned hypereating. As he states, “conditioned” because the behavior becomes an automatic response to the easy and high availability of overly processed foods and “hyper” because it is excessive and not driven by hunger, but other motivational forces.
My former unhealthy self knew this cycle well. Eating most days was about anything but hunger. It was an attempt to find comfort, to relieve the stress and unhappiness in my life with the momentary pleasure of a whole box of macaroni and cheese or a huge takeout container of “Springfield Style” cashew chicken. After it was all gone I would feel tired and disgusted at the amount of food I had just eaten. The next day, I would see my sad shape in the mirror and become even more unsatisfied with myself. Exhausted after work, I would search out that momentary feeling of happiness from fatty and carb laden foods.
As a personal trainer, I also see what Dr. Kessler is describing day in and day out. People come to me who seem almost powerless against food, particularly sweet, fried or salty foods. They can’t have it in the house because it will keep them up at night with no relief. They feel they have no choice but to eat it. They can’t have just one bite because one bite will become the whole package. When they succumb, their cycle of guilt and shame begins the process anew. They come to me proclaiming they are weak and have no willpower.
Yet they aren’t weak. I wasn’t weak either. I hear my clients describing the great deal of time and effort they spend trying to manage their food intake, to stay away from the foods that drive them to distraction. Their willpower is not just fighting food, but their brains and biological urges that were designed for a different time, a time when our survival depended on taking advantage of food when it was there. Dr. Kessler offers hope and a plan. It’s not about willpower, he writes, but about breaking the cue-habit-urge-reward cycle. Food rehab, so to speak.
Rehabilitation is an excellent way to put it. The tools Dr. Kessler describes are rooted in time tested theories and practices from psychology and addiction treatment. They can work, if you want them to. I had to hit rock bottom to really want to change. If you’ve reached that point, where change is the only option, I highly recommend this book.