Monday, June 21, 2010

Cravings and Processed Food Woo Woo

David Kessler wrote an interesting book last year called The End of Overeating, in which he examined the nature of the food industry in America today and how it might contribute to overeating and obesity. Kessler's book takes up where Fast Food Nation left off - Fast Food Nation will make you never want to eat at a fast food restaurant again, (and also, since reading it I've used as much sterile technique as I can in handling industrial beef and chicken in my own kitchen.) The End of Overeating examines many of the menu items and advertising for our favorite chain restaurants (Chilis, TGI Fridays, those sorts of places), noting that most of the food is purposefully made "hyperpalatable" with generous heapings of fat, salt, and sugar. He contends that this combination short-circuits our appetite regulatory system, so we eat more and more, and begin gaining weight, when weight gain has been such an unusual problem historically for the human species.

I agree that the types of food (particularly wheat, sugar, vegetable oils, and other highly refined carbohydrates) seem to drive us into addictive behaviors when it comes to eating (and as I mentioned in the Wheat and Schizophrenia post, there is some biological evidence that gluten and beta casein A1 activate opiate receptors). All the pretty, pretty advertising with those short ribs dripping in sugar and doesn't help get the message across that those short ribs (or really, the sugary sauce) should be a special treat, rather than a daily indulgence. But at the heart of the idea that the industry is manipulating our food and our eating is still that idea that we are weak, that we are gluttons, and if only we could get ourselves in hand, we wouldn't be fat. That the food industry is playing to our weakness and leading us along the path to disease and obesity.

We aren't weak. And guess what, if you are obese, it is not because you are a glutton. It really is your glands (if one can use 'glands' in a broad sense to encompass the hormonal environment and appetite regulatory systems). Really. And the only way that obesity is genetic is that some people will be more vulnerable to the hormonal impact of all the trashy food we eat that is not actually, truly, fit for human consumption. Stick to whole, real food and ditch the wheat, vegetable oil, and sugar (and if you are obese, cut down your carbohydrates in general), and you don't have to worry about bowing to food industry's every whim.

"Naturally" skinny folks - even you (unless you are extremely lucky) will slowly, inevitably put on visceral fat over the years on a Western diet. Half the people who die of heart attacks aren't obese. At least those of us who tend to put on a bit of fat have an early warning sign and, perhaps, a bit more motivation to get cracking on cleaning up our foods.

But there is that little niggling fact that there are addictive qualities to processed modern foods. And when you are newly breaking the habit, or if you are feeling emotionally overwhelmed, it can be easy to slip back into the happy world of drippy sugar sauce and shiny, shiny glazed doughnuts.

The End Of Overeating's most interesting message, I think, is in the idea of "food rehab." He recommends the most effective behavioral method around (and an ancient method designed to keep us from eating poisonous things!) for conquering cravings - disgust. What has helped for me is a reading/educational program (hardly sexy - it's not a 5 day diet or a juice fast - it's a reading/educational program!). Fast Food Nation, Michael Pollan's books, Food Inc., The End of Overeating, Good Calories, Bad Calories, and The Unhealthy Truth will get you hopping mad, and sickened. When you get the idea drilled into your head that processed sugar/vegetable oil bombs are actually poison, and that little bit of bile rises to the back of the throat when you think about eating them, the cravings ain't so bad. Read about The Lady's Brunch Burger, preferably after you have eaten a large, satisfying meal. If you are the kind who gets fired up about corporate conspiracy and the government's seeming lack of protection of our interests (for example, our health), then these books are the books for you.

And if you are the kind of person who must have what you "cannot" have, remember, the paleo way of eating is not about being a martyr. It's about eating food we're evolved to eat most of the time to hopefully reduce the risks of western disease. It doesn't mean you can never have a shiny, shiny glazed doughnut again. It will throw your hormones out of whack for a bit, and if you are trying to lose fat, it will slow the process down. But in the whole scheme of the million calories we consume over the year, that Sunday morning doughnut is not such a big deal. Don't be surprised, however, if it doesn't appeal to you after a while. And that's okay too.

(And now a little side rant about what the nutritional guidelines have done to our food - all those sad skinless chicken breasts and "lite" vegetable oil dressings... they made real food the enemy, when it has nurtured and sustained us for thousands of generations. Science is a powerful tool, but if you don't have common sense, it will lead you very far astray.)

Off to have a square of chocolate now. Remember, chocolate is a vegetable (70% cacao and higher, that is).


  1. Emily,

    The blaming of individuals for their lack of self control is very much the same approach as used by Big Tobacco and Big Alcohol. If only people would show more restraint & moderation, then there wouldn't be the problems that there are with these drugs (ignoring the addictive nature of nicotine and the fact that alcohol knocks out your judgement areas in your brain first).

    This is a great read if you are interested:

    The Perils of Ignoring History: Big Tobacco
    Played Dirty and Millions Died. How
    Similar Is Big Food?

  2. Thanks for the link! Many of my patients have been told that they would be fine if they just tried harder, or weren't so lazy, or whatever it is. I firmly believe in personal responsibility and hard work, but at the same time, at a societal level, we have to set up incentives and stack the deck so that personal responsibility and hard work have a better chance of being successful. And we have to be honest about the consequences of brain dysfunction and addiction, and from a public health level promote treatment strategies that will stand a chance at success before we give up and say that people have put on weight because they are gluttonous sloths and make such baseless, unhelpful moral judgments. Some people are lazy. I meet very few of them, myself. It's certainly not 60% of the adult population and 30% of the kids in the USA.

  3. I think there are plenty of gluttonous sloths... but the question has to be asked, were that always that way? Or has something in their environment-genetic interface turned them that way.

    It's a chicken and egg argument. Do you eat rubbish foods & not exercise because you are a gluttonous sloth, or do the readily accessible foods that we are often encouraged to eat turn the susceptible into gluttonous sloths and feed off the perpetual cycle from there?

    There is sufficent work being done now to suggest that this 'state' might be embedded in the hard wiring of people pre-conception (see work done by Peter Gluckman - 'Mismatch'). If this is the case, we aint seen nothing yet!


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