Monday, September 7, 2009

Review: The End of Overeating by David Kessler

"For most of human history we survived on unadorned animal and vegetable products. Now we eat mostly optimized and potent foods that bear little resemblance to what exists in nature."

Why is it impossible to eat just one Dorito? Why do we crave some foods and not others? Why is it easy for many of us to eat far beyond satiation--even though we know we're going to regret it? Why, in short, do we overeat?

These are the fundamental questions that former FDA Commissioner David Kessler asks in his new book The End of Overeating.

In this book, you'll learn why some foods, tweaked and optimized by food designers and engineers to be "hyperpalatable," drive us to irrational cravings. You'll learn how our biology and our psychology conspire with these hyperpalatable foods to lead us to engage in "conditioned hypereating," causing us to eat far past the point where we're full.

"Our business is to make something taste like something, even if it is not."

You'll also learn how foods are processed, standardized and saturated with sugars and fats before being served at casual theme restaurant chains across the country. One particularly disturbing example describes chicken breasts that are pierced with hundreds of needles (for a more tender texture), injected with water or saline (to add moisture and bulk), breaded with sugary salted flour (for extra palatability), and then par-fried, frozen and shipped to your local restaurant franchise. After a second frying, the chicken is practically pre-chewed when it arrives at your table.

Needless to say, it is not normal to eat food prepared this way. But because so much of the food in restaurants and grocery stores is heavily processed, who's to say what is even normal anymore? And while there is an enormous amount of personal responsibility each of us can exercise between our forks and mouths, you can't help feeling after reading this book that the food deck is stacked against all but the most iron-willed people.

Overeating is a subject of deep importance to Kessler himself, a man who has struggled with his weight throughout his life and who describes himself as "firmly in the camp of the overeaters." Kessler did a preposterous amount of research for this book (the endnotes alone take up 52 pages of small print), and it shows with his deep and extensive analysis of our brains, our evolution, and the food industry that seeks to sell us food to satisfy our cravings.

There are a few flaws in this book. Kessler's writing is generally quite clear, but he occasionally falls into incomprehensible medical study speak (the acknowledgements at the end of the book seem to indicate Kessler received a lot of help from writer Karyn Feiden in untangling his writing). The first section of the book contains some 10-15 pages of borderline erotic descriptions of chocolate chip cookies, pizza and M&Ms as Kessler sets up arguments against designed and engineered foods. Two or three pages would have sufficed--and would have left me quite a bit less hungry.

Finally, Kessler at times plays an unconvincing innocent, wandering Michael Moore-like into meetings and conversations with industry insiders and expressing affected shock at the techniques and methods used in the food business. That act might work if Kessler wasn't a pediatrician, a former dean at two medical schools and the former head of the FDA.

But these are minor criticisms of an otherwise overwhelmingly insightful book.

Read The End of Overeating and you'll learn how our biology and psychology cause us to crave and consume foods to the point of irrationality. Read it to learn how the food industry uses our biology and psychology to entice us to eat more than we should of foods that are less healthy than they could be. But most importantly, read this book to become a more aware eater and a more aware consumer.

I highly, highly recommend this book.

Note to readers: for more discussion of David Kessler's book, as well as articles on food costs, obesity and other issues surrounding the food industry, please visit my food blog, Casual Kitchen.

Reading List for The End of Overeating:
Fat Girl: A True Story by Judith Moore
Waistland: The R/evolutionary Science Behind Our Weight and Fitness Crisis by Deirdre Barret
The Fortune Cookie Chronicles: Adventures in the World of Chinese Food by Jennifer 8. Lee
Dieter's Dilemma: Eating Less and Weighing More by William Bennett and Joel Gurin
Willpower's Not Enough: Recovering from Addictions of Every Kind by Arnold Washton and Joan Zweben
Biting the Hand That Starves You: Inspiring Resistance to Anorexia/Bulimia by Richard Maisel, David Epston and Ali Borden
Emotion Explained (Series in Affective Science) by Edmund T. Rolls (warning: this is reportedly an extremely difficult book used in upper level neuroscience courses)

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