Neuroscience of junk-food cravings, researched in a Chili's dumpster

David A Kessler, author of The End of Overeating: Taking Control of the Insatiable American Appetite, is a doctor and lawyer, med school dean and former FDA commissioner. He's also someone whose weight has yo-yoed back and forth all his life, someone who is plagued with insatiable junk-food cravings. His new book -- grounded in research that included dumpster-diving chain restaurants to read the ingredient labels on the foods whose makeup they wouldn't discuss, tries to answer the neurological question of why we crave shitty junk food:
The labels showed the foods were bathed in salt, fat and sugars, beyond what a diner might expect by reading the menu, Kessler said. The ingredient list for Southwestern Eggrolls mentioned salt eight different times; sugars showed up five times. The "egg rolls," which are deep-fried in fat, contain chicken that has been chopped up like meatloaf to give it a "melt in the mouth" quality that also makes it faster to eat. By the time a diner has finished this appetizer, she has consumed 910 calories, 57 grams of fat and 1,960 milligrams of sodium.

Instead of satisfying hunger, the salt-fat-sugar combination will stimulate that diner's brain to crave more, Kessler said. For many, the come-on offered by Lay's Potato Chips -- "Betcha can't eat just one" -- is scientifically accurate. And the food industry manipulates this neurological response, designing foods to induce people to eat more than they should or even want, Kessler found...

"The food the industry is selling is much more powerful than we realized," he said. "I used to think I ate to feel full. Now I know, we have the science that shows, we're eating to stimulate ourselves. And so the question is what are we going to do about it?"

Crave Man

The End of Overeating: Taking Control of the Insatiable American Appetite (via Bioephemera)


  1. Cook at more more often. It’s a recession – save money and eat food that’s good for you at the same time. Even better – join a local CSA program. Cook in bulk.

    You know, that sort of thing.

  2. #1 – That would be all well and good if one didn’t take cooking lessons from Emeril Lagasse, who is the world’s leading proponent of pork fat, or Paula Deen, who measures butter by the stick (kind of like how we Upstate NY’ers measure snow by the foot). As a matter of fact, just turn off Food Network altogether; you’ll be better off.

  3. Yes, manufactured foods are optimized to make you want to eat more of them. That makes evolutionary sense, not for humans, but for the machinery that makes said foods.
    I for one welcome our old junkFood overlords.

  4. This concept was old news to me, but it’s still a concept that I feel needs to be propagated. I like to check out the nutritional info for major restaurant chains online before ever stepping into the establishments. That way I can go with a plan and minimize my calorie and fat intake. But after reading this article, It makes me wonder whether or not those provided numbers are entirely truthful. I know for a fact that certain smaller chain restaurants in my area (Alberta) don’t provide nutritional info at all. I actually contacted one particular chain to ask whether or not it would be provided. The reply I got was that they were currently having all their menu items tested and would provide the list in the future. But that was well over a year ago and when I was there a few weeks ago there was still no nutritional info posted. Perhaps the requirements are different in this country than in the U.S. But, overall, I wonder how closely its regulated for accuracy or truthfulness.

  5. Takuan – I remember something about the link to stomach cancer caused by a high intake of salted and smoke-cured products that would make one want to avoid such things. In quantity.

  6. I just want to put into writing my immediate response to reading the ingredients in a product I have unfortunately masticated and digested before:


    That is all.

  7. If you want to learn how to cook at home, you need know only two people: Julia Child and Jacques Pepin.

    They won’t teach you every little thing, but they’ll take you a very long way. You can score Julia and Jacques vids at your local library. 100% worth your time.

    srsly. I’m not just being rhetorical: this is sincere good advice.

  8. # 4 – Even with the Emeril advice, it’s still healthier than the upscale fastfood at a Chilli’s.

  9. I dunno. I also love food, but have a hard time feeling sorry for the person who shovels it in at McDonalds, fails to adequately exercise, and then whines about how they cant lose the weight.

    I had a 20 oz steak this weekend, but realize that during the week, I’m gonna have to suck it up and do an extra few miles. Otherwise, I’m going to have to buy new pants. But it was worth it :-)

  10. I like to be hungry at work- I think our instincts are sharper when we’re hungry. When yer belly is full, your metabolism says you’ve achieved what you need for today (nutritionally, anyway), and it downshifts into ‘chillin’ mode.
    If I do eat in the morning, I avoid meat. I don’t need that lump of flesh rotting in my gut all day.
    Eat your meat in the evening, and digest it while you sleep. That’ll be two cents.

  11. McDonalds. Dropping a sledge hammer the craving buttons on out hunter-gatherer brains since 1959.

    But seriously, did we really expect anything different from the food industry? Once they worked out the magic formula (salt+sugar+fat) they are going to ride it for all it’s worth.

    Ultimately it is our own personal decisions to take it or leave it. We are not slaves to our genes.

    What I think is more problematic, is that vast swaths of the population have no access to anything but this low grade, fat/sugar/salt enriched food. It’s ironic but the heavily processed food is far less expensive than fresh food straight out of a farm.

  12. There is a blood test every overweight person approaching middle age or beyond should request and it’s A1C (aye one c). It is a measure of your blood glucose over the past 90 days. A result of 6 or higher indicates you’re pre-diabetic. Much higher and you are diabetic.
    The only relief is diet and exercise. Forget the gym. If you can program 2 miles of walking a day that will work. Best split into a mile in the morning and a mile in the afternoon.
    Simple sugars and starches give you a sugar spike right now. If you are insulin resistant your blood glucose will take a long time to settle down. That’s where the exercise comes in.
    Your doctor may suggest a diabeties class. If so, take it. It could save your life.

  13. Takky-
    Wasn’t that Akroyd? “Oh, I’ve gone and cut myself. In a way I’m glad this happened…”
    Bloody mess.

  14. The agro-industrial complex is pretty creepy, indeed. I highly recommend Marion Nestle’s books, especially What To Eat. As a nutritionist, she breaks down the contents of an average supermarket and finds what is food and what isn’t (hint; margarine isn’t food, butter is). Michael Pollan’s books The Omnivore’s Dilemma and In Defense of Food are also highly informative and entertaining reads on the politics and mechanics of our food systems. Finally, if I had to depend on one generalized/easy cookbook, it would be Alice Waters’ The Art of Simple Food.

    Free your stomach, and your ass will follow.

  15. I always try to consider how I would feel if my dog were to somehow eat my meal. I think it’s a decent yardstick. If I feel guilty about the idea of him scarfing something down, if I think it would make him sick, I try not to eat it. Not that I feed my dog human food.. it’s a rhetorical, and of course, he smokes like a chimney anyway.

  16. I’d like to second that Michael Pollan is absolutely required reading.

    Also the watching Food Network for recipes? Wha? Like watching MTV for relationship advice – don’t bother.

  17. Although I haven’t had an opportunity to study this with any legitimacy, I have discovered what an incredible hold these food can have.
    Five years ago I was diagnosed with kidney disease and between a specialist and a naturopath my diet quickly became rather limited. I was forced to give up (almost entirely) salt, sugar, meat, dairy, coffee and alcohol. For the first couple of months I was incredibly depressed. I felt awful. Everything tasted like cardboard. I hated eating and grocery shopping had me in tears.
    It seemed like once I had detoxed from years of eating a lot of crap everything actually started tasting like food again. I stopped feeling like crap and I actually starting feeling better than I had in ages.
    Getting past the craving for all the sugar and salt is hard, but totally worth it.

  18. I went on a bit of a food reading binge a few years back. I was interested in food as well as how it is marketed.

    I recommend Marion Nestle’s book “Food Politics: How the Food Industry Influences Nutrition, and Health” – I believe it was in this book that I learnt that the official food pyramid is very much influenced by food lobby groups – you don’t need that much red meat.

    I also recommend Kelly Brownell and Katherine Battle Horgen’s “Food Fight: The Inside Story of The Food Industry, America’s Obesity Crisis, and What We Can Do About It”.

    In New Zealand our new right-wing government repealed recently implemented rules to withdraw unhealthy foods from school shops (most kids in NZ schools bring lunch from home, but many buy lunch regularly and even more buy sweets etc). The percentage of schools selling high fat and sugar foods increased (duh). The reason they took away the rule – parents are responsible for what kids eat, it is not the responsibility of the school to “interfere”. *sigh*

  19. #23 – A comparison of the dietary needs of humans vs. canines would be interesting. Although I am NOT suggesting we all start eating Alpo, I suspect what’s good for your dog is probably good for you.

    Now cats (I have three) are a different matter. Unlike dogs, they’re obligate carnivores, which means dog food is seriously lacking in protein, and will cause your cats problems.

  20. Who considers McDonalds actual food anyway? Technically it has nutrient content, and you consume it orally, but the same is true of ice cream, Guinness and Skittles – and it’s just as stupid to try to subsist on it as would be any of those things.

    In summary: McDonalds is a sometimes food!

  21. @28

    If I remember correctly most canines require a fairly high level of fat in their diet, especially if they are in the wild. You also have to think most animals, like dogs, poop fairly quickly after eating… (indicating a short digestive track).

    I also love when people go off and condemn real foods like butter. ZOMG it’s butter, it’s SO bad 4 U… Good grief, butter has been around 10x longer than factory made margarine. The same thing with milk. Whole vs skim, really it’s about 40 calories or so and a couple grams of fat.

    My grandfather has consumed this stuff most of his life, eggs, bacon, butter, grits, fat back, and even lard. He’s 93 and still kicking.

    There is a reason why some cooks use only real ingredients, the taste. Ever make Hollandaise sauce with margarine? It’s certainly different than if made with real butter. Or pastry? Or home made ice cream with skim milk? If you are serious about learning the facts about food and cooking check out the book On Food and Cooking by Harold Mcgee. Right next to Alton Brown it’s the written word.

  22. I wonder how the prolonged cohabitation of humans/dogs has influenced the foods that their bodies are able to process. I wonder if they have eveolved around our consumption habits a bit. Really, I just think it’s interesting, though, that people will munch down a ton of junk food, but freak out if their dog was to have a bite (obviously don’t condone feeding a dog junk food). If you care what goes into your dog’s body, why not your own? Shit, my boss

  23. yea #31

    I always thought MSG was addictive and that was why I couldn’t stop eating all those Doritos.

    Did I mention that I really like MSG? Plus, the crystals look really really neat.

  24. I’m with #31 desiredusername and #33 skr. I’d rather take all of my Sodium in the form of MSG. :)

    Stop eating meat. Kill all farm animals. And we will no longer have swine-flu, bird-flu, BSE, etc. Steam everything (no fat).

    I have a serious question though. I live in an area where the staple food is rice. Given that rice is nearly 100% pure starch, and that it has a higher glycaemic index than table sugar. Would it be OK to replace all the rice in my daily diet with sugar?

  25. What are we going to do about it?

    Stimulate the brain directly.

    Feeling hungry? Zap. Craving chicken? Zap.

    In this coming world, we would all eat a bland tasteless paste that contains all the nutrients we need. It comes in giant 20kg bags of powder that you mix with hot water. There’s only 1 kind, but it costs $1 per bag. Using our own personal portable brain zapping device, it would taste like anything you want it to be.

  26. @#4: That is preposterous. Cooking shows teach you how to cook. The problem is not and never has been cooking. It has been eating shit like what the author found in the Chili’s dumpster.

    All this nonsense about “don’t use oil,” “don’t use lard,” “butter is bad”… We didn’t have serious weight problems until we gave up our traditional diets (i.e. home-cooked, delicious foods) for packaged or restaurant crap. For millenia, we have been safely eating lard and butter without everyone turning into lard and butter.

    Cook at home. Don’t eat packaged/processed shit. Make your food by hand, and you can make it brain-explodingly delicious and still not get fat. Also, you will find that you don’t eat things like fried chicken very often. Why? It’s frickin’ hard to make. Your own laziness will keep you healthy and fit.

    All that being said, Chili’s is my favorite American chain store. That doesn’t mean I eat there every day though.

  27. @36:

    All this nonsense about “don’t use oil,” “don’t use lard,” “butter is bad”… We didn’t have serious weight problems until we gave up our traditional diets (i.e. home-cooked, delicious foods) for packaged or restaurant crap. For millenia, we have been safely eating lard and butter without everyone turning into lard and butter.

    Indeed, not to mention that for example geese lard is 70 % unsaturated fatty acids. Even saturated fatty acids aren’t created the same – some are bad others harmless as recent research in Germany has shown. Even transfatty acids aren’t all bad – there are many natural ones that are harmless.

    Just make sure you don’t overeat and eat a diverse diet and you should be ok, regardless what you eat, even junk food now and then isn’t a problem if you keep that simple thing in mind.

  28. I was going to beg forgiveness on the Food Network solely because of Good Eats, but I see someone beat me to the punch.

    I love you, Alton Brown.

  29. Alton Brown! He’s the one saving grace for the Food Network. Informative, entertaining and tasty treats! This dude knows his stuff.

    He also is the only reason I watch Iron Chef (occasionally).

  30. Question: How bad is it to eat like shit as long as you’re exercising and are able to maintain a healthy exterior? I mean, I begin to wonder what my insides look like….. I realized I could eat pretty much whatever I wanted due to the frequency and duration of my workouts but God forbid if I ever get injured, I’ll blow up like a balloon. Now I’m hooked on the fast foods and now I know why!!!

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