Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Americans - increasingly - justcan’t put down the fork.

The frustrating part is that will power alone won’t solve the problem, says Dr. David Kessler, former Food and Drug Administration commissioner and author of the recently released book “The End of Overeating: Taking Control of the Insatiable American Appetite.”

Willpower won’t do the trick because we’re up against forces - highly addictive foods, neurological drives and a savvy food industry - that dwarf our resolve. It’s like fighting a 21st-century war with sticks and rocks, hoping we can somehow will ourselves to victory.

“Hyperpalatable” is Dr. Kessler’s term for today’s ubiquitous, addictive foods that combine salt, fat and sugar for optimum taste. When food reaches this “bliss point,” it becomes even more stimulating and more addictive.

Our brains start encoding everything about the hyperpalatable food - say a chocolate-chip cookie - so that the next time we see or think about a chocolate-chip cookie, we almost can hear the crinkle of the cellophane wrap, feel the crunch of the first bite between our teeth and taste the intense explosion of chocolate, fat and sugar.

“The experience of the chocolate-chip cookie becomes multisensory,” Dr. Kessler says.

Multisensory and almost impossible to resist, as the thought of the cookie raises dopamine levels in the brain, which sends waves of anticipation through the body.

Stop! We know we’re not supposed to give in and have that high-calorie cookie. It’s not good for us.

“This creates tension and anxiety between our automatic drives and our cognitive process,” Dr. Kessler says.

The easiest way to get rid of the anxiety is just to give in and eat the cookie, because if we don’t, the multisensory anticipation probably will linger and fester, although giving in has its own set of negative consequences, including feelings of failure.

According to Dr. Kessler, the food industry has successfully tapped into and propelled our insatiable appetite for the perfect combination of salt, sugar and fat, creating more and more items that contain the most palatable levels of the three. Couple this with convincing, omnipresent marketing, and consumers get caught in the fat-salt-sugar grip.

Hyperpalatable food, Dr. Kessler says, is like any other salient stimuli, such as sex, drugs, tobacco and alcohol - highly addictive.

“As humans, we’re wired to focus attention on the most salient stimuli,” Dr. Kessler says, adding that their power to control the way we think and behave lies at the core of many of our most impulsive and obsessive behaviors.

But unlike other salient stimuli, food can’t just be cut out when it becomes addictive. We need it - albeit in smaller and healthier amounts - to survive.

There are short- and long-term solutions to the national epidemic of overeating, Dr. Kessler says.

In the long term, he says, the food industry needs to be held accountable and ultimately change its ways by producing food that’s nutrient-rich and low-calorie.

He also calls for American society to change its view on what is reasonable behavior as it relates to food - this can be compared to how society’s view on tobacco has changed through the decades; in the 1960s, for example, doctors often would smoke with their patients. What is a reasonable portion size? What is a reasonable number of meals per day? Is it reasonable to have a meal while driving or walking?

Dr. Kessler also says restaurants should list calorie counts for each dish on their menus so consumers can make more informed decisions.

In the short term, on a personal level, Dr. Kessler recommends taking note of hyperpalatable foods, how they are marketed and your reactions to them. He suggests substituting the sensory rewards hyperpalatable food provides by spending time with friends and family or exercising. Fatty, salty and sugary foods also can be replaced with foods that reward while not driving you to overeat.

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