End of Overeating: the science of junk-food cravings

Yesterday, I picked up David A Kessler's The End of Overeating: Taking Control of the Insatiable American Appetite, a book I've been interested in since I wrote about it here last week, and plowed through it on a short flight. It's a quick read, partly because of the short chapters, and partly because it runs a little to repetition, but for all that, it's a fascinating read.

Kessler delves into the psychology and neuroscience of our junk-food cravings, seeking an explanation to the conundrum of the person whose "will-power" is strong on many fronts, but who finds it hard to resist unhealthy foods (I class myself among those people). He concludes that we're extremely susceptible to reward-conditioning when the reward consists of foods that combine fat, sugar and salt, and that the food industry has evolved to deliver extremely efficient, super-sized portions of fat-sugar-salt bombs in a variety of satisfying textures and presentations.

I think that most of us already knew this, but it's fascinating nevertheless, as Kessler talks with food scientists at various industrial food concerns and discovers the techniques by which these highly palatable food-substances are derived, refined and delivered. For example, Chili's "Southwestern Eggrolls" deep-fry their tortillas, "driving down its water content from 40 percent to five percent and replaces the rest with fat." And "at the Grande Luxe Cafe in Las Vegas, double-baked mashed potatoes are wrapped in fried spring rolls and served with cheese and bacon. Listed as an appetizer, they come eight to a serving. That's a simple carbohydrate loaded with fat, then surrounded by layers of salt on fat on salt on fat."

It's not just salt, fat and sugar — it's also a highly engineered eating experience ("eatertainment") (ugh): "When you eat a Snickers bar, the chocolate, the caramel, the nougat, and the peanuts all disappear at the same time. You're not getting all this buildup of stuff in your mouth." Processed food is a kind of "adult baby food," with the fiber and gristle removed for easier chewing and swallowing. This food is "light, white and easy to swallow," losing its "innate ability to satisfy."

All this stuff barrels along well in the manner of a great pop-sci book, the kind of thing that gives you a new lens for seeing some important aspect of your life through, until he gets to the conclusion, a set of recommendations for breaking the conditioned responses we develop to crappy food. Having set up an exciting new framework for understanding our relationship to food, all Kessler offers by way of resisting junk food is a kind of Weight Watchers: be mindful about what you eat, avoid temptation, don't give in a little lest you give in a lot, and so on. This is approximately the same eating advice I've heard for decades, and while it works, it's hard, and harder still to sustain. Anyone who's devoted more than a few hours to the question of controlling weight and eating has encountered and tried this advice — and chances are, they've failed at it.

Still, this seems to set the stage for some good brain-hacks — understanding bad eating as a set of conditioned habits gives us a framework for applying other techniques from the realm of habit-breaking to modifying eating.

The End of Overeating: Taking Control of the Insatiable American Appetite