Wednesday, August 19, 2009

ArtsPaper Books: Ex-FDA chief lays out map of our flabby discontent



By Bill Williams

After remaining stable for generations, Americans’ body weight suddenly began to spiral upward in recent decades. The average weight for women in their 20s soared from 128 pounds in 1960 to 157 pounds in 2000.

Those numbers are included in The End of Overeating, David A. Kessler’s fascinating new book exploring the causes of weight gain along with strategies to take off the pounds, which have led to an explosion of diabetes cases and other serious illnesses.

Kessler has excellent credentials. He led the U.S. Food and Drug Administration under Presidents George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton; he is perhaps best remembered for his aggressive campaign against Big Tobacco.

The shift toward excess food consumption coincided with shrewd strategies by restaurant chains. Half of today’s food dollars are spent in restaurants. Marketers found they could make food more appealing by stuffing it with fat, sugar and salt in enticing combinations. In a little more than three decades, per-capita consumption of fat and oils jumped from 53 to 86 pounds.

“Fat helps flavors merge and meld, creating a smooth sensation as it brings disparate ingredients together in a symphonic whole,” Kessler writes.

Panera Bread offers fancy bagels larded with sugar, fat and salt. Burger King’s breakfast sandwich features four eggs, four strips of bacon and four slices of cheese. Hardee’s Monster Thickburger, with 1,420 calories, is stuffed with bacon, cheese, mayonnaise and butter. Starbucks’ Strawberries & Crème Frappuccino comes with whipped cream and 18 teaspoons of sugar.

Foods high in sugar, fat and salt rewire the brain, the author says, making it more likely that customers will return again and again.

Kessler compares the allure of restaurant food to addictions involving drugs, alcohol and gambling, and cites studies involving animals and humans to bolster his point.

Marketers test foods to create combinations that will turn eating into an irresistible experience. Advertising pushes the theme that hard-working, stressed people deserve the treats they crave. Restaurants offer all-you-can-eat specials, supersize portions and processed foods that go down quickly and easily.

“By eliminating the need to chew, modern food processing techniques allow us to eat faster,” Kessler says. “Refined food simply melts in the mouth.” Kessler rejects the common notion that eating in moderation is simply a matter of willpower.

Although he notes the correlation between overeating and various other addictions, he fails to make the obvious point that no one has to drink alcohol, use drugs, gamble or smoke to stay alive, which is not the case with food.

Changing any ingrained habit, including what we eat, is difficult. Kessler recommends that people adopt sensible meal plans and stick to them. Just as eating junk food is a habit, eating nutritious food can become a substitute habit. He advocates consuming high-fiber or complex carbohydrates, such as whole grains and vegetables, combined with protein and a small amount of fat.

Kessler also advocates listing calorie counts on restaurant menus, showing the percentage of added sugars, refined carbohydrates and fats on all food products, and conducting more public education.

These are useful points, yet everything must begin with an individual’s decision to change, just as with any addiction or habit.

The End of Overeating reflects considerable research. Kessler interviewed scores of scientists and physicians, and he lists every one of them (more than 160) in the back of the book. At times the book bogs down in jargon, such as “asymmetrical selection pressure,” and references that might interest scientists, but are likely to bore general readers.

Kessler acknowledges his personal interest in food addiction. “For much of my life,” he writes, “sugar, fat and salt held remarkable sway over my behavior. I have lost weight, gained it back, and lost it again – over and over and over.”

I wish that Kessler had gone into greater detail about his own struggle, but perhaps that is a subject for another book. Another sequel might be a book with more practical diet tips and less theory.

Bill Williams is a freelance writer in West Hartford, Conn., and a former editorial writer for The Hartford Courant. He is a member of the National Book Critics Circle.

THE END OF OVEREATING: Taking Control of the Insatiable American Appetite, by David A. Kessler, M.D.; 320 pp., Rodale; $25.95.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I only wish he had spoken out more when he was FDA chief...it's easy to make these points now, for bucks. But it's always good to bring these points to public consciousness. Thanks, Bill!