The End of Overeating by David A. Kessler, MD
Like a lot of people, I have some mild issues with food. I’ve luckily never been out of the healthy weight range for my height, and during the last few years, I’ve really started exercising and trying to eat better. But there are a few foods that I absolutely cannot encounter, because I know bad things will happen. I will hork down meringues and Trader Joe’s Gummy Tummy Penguins like nobody’s business. I have decided to do the sensible thing and have ceased purchasing them. I’m not sure where I picked up the recommendation for The End of Overeating, but I added it to the list because I wanted to know more about how we eat and, hopefully, use it to help me make better and better choices with food.
In The End of Overeating, Dr. David A. Kessler examines the power food can have over people, the biological reasons food, especially modern food, holds sway, how the food industry manipulates it, and what you can do to stop it. It is, I admit, aimed more towards people who have what Kessler refers to as “conditioned hypereating” (essentially overeating so habitual it’s second nature), but it’s useful to everyone. As Kessler puts it, eating is obviously necessary for survival, but eating the wrong things can be deadly.
While I hate to paint anyone into a corner, Kessler’s work definitely reflects the mind of a doctor. It’s exceedingly well organized, with bite-sized chapters that never drag and would actually be perfect in audiobook form. Kessler provides dozens of medical studies to back himself up. It can also be quite dry. While Kessler livens things up by talking about his own struggles with food as well as those of people that he knows, when it gets a bit technical, he dries up a little. However, Kessler is very good at explaining things. He never goes into anything too complicated and makes sure to conclude with an analog or a metaphor to make sure we’re all on the same page. It’s not annoying; it actually feels sort of caring, like a professor making sure their students are all on the same page.
Kessler calmly makes his way through the main sections of the book to explain why certain foods have a hold on people, how the food industry exploits it, how it becomes conditioned hypereating, and, of course, how to deal with it. I found The End of Overeating intellectually fascinating. While I knew that sugar, fat, and salt are all bad for you and naturally, humans love it, I had no idea of the specific brain chemistry that makes such foods want you to eat more, instead of feeling satiated. It’s all, Kessler argues, based around the reward center of the brain and forming habits. If we eat a doughnut to make ourselves feel better (emotional eating), we start to connect doughnuts with a reward. Thus, we are motivated to continue to eat doughnuts, to the point where just being in the usual circumstances we eat a doughnut in make us anxious for the reward. After we do this often enough, we form a habit. And habits are very hard to break. Quite simply, to quote from the book, “rewarding foods are rewiring our brains”. It’s that simple.
Reading Fast Food Nation gave me some idea of how the food industry serves up some ridiculously unhealthy foods, but it was limited to fast food. Kessler, with the help of an anonymous industry insider, details just how dishes at restaurants are proportionally skewed to make more money and what combinations of sugar, fat, and salt entice the customer. As much as I love Panda Express’ Orange Chicken, I think I might have to abandon it after reading about how it’s actually made–it’s preprocessed in a warehouse somewhere and fried at the location. And that’s a common practice. Kessler also discusses how the American food industry loves to take foreign food and add sugar, fat, and salt to it, especially Chinese food. (An exasperated Chinese chef states at one point that Hunan food isn’t sweet at all.) Kessler interviews people working in the food industry who add flavors via chemicals (an especially chilling thought), as well as the people who try and market “indulgence” towards us. While I’m very aware of the occasionally ridiculous portion sizes available in the States, I had no idea that somewhere out there, there’s a slice of chocolate cake you can buy that is at least 2,000 calories, which is more than I eat in a single day.
Kessler’s focus, when dealing with treatment towards the end, is on conditioned hypereating–people whose eating habits have been rewired so thoroughly that they cannot help themselves. While most of his suggestions are useful for people who don’t have conditioned hypereating, such as an eating schedule and no snacking, he talks a lot about trying to condition yourself against your bad habits. I was a bit perturbed by his suggestion to post an unflattering picture of yourself on your fridge, which smacks a little too much of fat-shaming to me than actually trying to help people who have conditioned hypereating, which Kessler seems very keen on avoiding. Kessler recommends shifting how you look at food via reinforcement. After reading The End of Overeating, I’m definitely going to look at food- especially sugary, fatty, and salty food- a lot differently.
Bottom line: A fascinating but often dry look at how food can hold sway over people, how the food industry exploits it, conditioned hypereating (habitual overeating, essentially), and what you can do to combat it and gain control. If you eat in America, you need to read this; you won’t look at food the same way again.
I rented this book from the public library.