We live in a world of salted caramel hot chocolates, cheesy bacon cheeseburgers, and artichoke and spinach dip containing very little artichoke or spinach. These and other irresistible modern-day fare have three things in common: sugar, fat, and salt. David Kessler, MD, former commissioner of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, says in his book The End of Overeating that food companies prey on our biological addictions to those three food components in the same way tobacco companies have exploited the addictive properties of nicotine.
The food industry's manipulative tactics were recently brought to the forefront with the publication of New York Times reporter Michael Moss's new book Salt Sugar Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us, in which he follows food industry execs who, as far back as 1999, knew—and willfully ignored—the role their foods were playing in the burgeoning obesity epidemic.
And Dr. Kessler says things aren't getting any better a decade later. Multilayered, multisensory, "hyperpalatable" foods, as he calls them, continue to prey on our biological need for sugar, fat, and salt, flooding our brains with pleasure but our bellies with empty, unsatisfying calories that only leave us wanting more.
Dr. Kessler sat down with Rodale News to offer his insight and advice on how to navigate sugar-, fat- and salt-flooded minefields.
Rodale News: In researching your book, what did you find to be the most egregious example of a food company preying on people's addictions to sugar, fat, and salt?
David Kessler: To me, the biggest offenders are those who use foods consumers consider healthy, such as vegetables or chicken, as delivery devices for sugar, fat, and salt. For example, spinach dip that's primarily mayonnaise and sour cream, grilled chicken that's been loaded with sugar, fat, and salt, and breakfast cereals that contain multiple forms of sugar so that "sugar" does not have to be listed as the first ingredient on the food label. And, of course, a recurring problem is the food industry's marketing of huge portions to the point where that is what consumers expect. The industry has learned how to stimulate our appetites in a highly profitable way.
Read an Excerpt of The End of Overeating
Do you think it's telling that the largest food company in the U.S. (Kraft) is owned by a tobacco company (Philip Morris)—both in industries accused of two of the most dire public health crises of the day?
Knowing how to engineer consumer products to create artificial demand is very profitable. The consequences seem not to be an issue for many businesses.
How can people take control over the perpetual flood of sugar, fat, and salt in food?
We can't control the flood itself, but we can be more aware of the cues and triggers that come with that flood. We need to be more aware of the effect of our living in a food carnival, where huge portions of foods loaded and layered with sugar, fat, and salt are on every street corner and are available 24/7.
You write about the fact that obesity and overeating can't be attributed solely to lack of willpower, which runs contrary to a lot of people's ideas on weight control. What do you think are the biggest factors in obesity, and how much do you believe that personal behavior plays a role in controlling how much we weigh?
The biggest factor contributing to overeating (and the resulting overweight and obesity) is a combination of how our brains work and the heightened availability of hyperpalatable foods. When we eat thinking we will be satisfied and instead are stimulated to eat even more, the cards are stacked against us. When we know what we're eating and why, we can start to take control over our personal behavior.
What do you view as the solution: more government regulation, self-imposed rules…?
The solution will come from the food movement—consumers demanding that providers market foods that satisfy rather than stimulate, that are not huge portions loaded and layered with sugar, fat, and salt. We should be educated to understand how we are triggered to eat more sugar, fat, and salt by eating sugar, fat, and salt and to recognize how our environment cues us to eat.
The 15 Most Pointless Foods in Your Supermarket
So, how can you cope? Here's Dr. Kessler's advice:
• Know what's driving you to eat. "The next time you're eating, try to figure out the cue," Dr. Kessler says. Are you eating to satisfy a craving, or simply because you're getting stressed? The more you learn to recognize what's driving the urge to eat, the better equipped you are to quell the urge or satisfy it with a healthier food.
• Avoid the stimuli. Once you know what's stimulating you to eat, you can avoid it, Dr. Kessler says. One way to do that is to eat in a structured setting. Sit down at a table at normal meal hours, rather than eat a sandwich as you walk down the street or drink a meal-replacement shake in the car on the way to work. The setting helps eliminate mindless eating habits that cause you to eat more food than you really need.
• Eat real food. There's little hidden salt in an apple, or added fat on a plate of farm-fresh vegetables. The less processed food you eat, and the more produce and whole grains you add, the less room you'll have for those bacon cheeseburgers or deep-fried onions. Shop at local farmer's markets for the best, freshest deals, and choose organic food, which is free of toxic chemicals and grown with a lighter impact on the planet.