After years of knowing that my eating was out of control, but feeling powerless to change, feeling shame for eating in ways I didn’t want to but couldn’t seem to stop, and wondering what was wrong with me that I couldn’t muster the willpower to change, not only did I learn that I’m not alone in this matter, but that there are scientific explanations for my experience and that the food industry is actively capitalizing on this science in its relentless pursuit of profits.
In The End of Overeating: Taking Control of the Insatiable American Appetite, Dr. David Kessler dives into the science behind what he calls “conditioned hypereating,” which seems to be driving much of the American obesity epidemic. I was galvanized by the opening passage, in which I saw my own reflection clearly:
I’ve learned to recognize overeating in restaurants all over America. It’s not hard, because people who have been conditioned to overeat behave distinctively. They attack their food with a special kind of gusto. I’ve seen them lift their forks, readying their next bite before they’ve swallowed the previous one, and I’ve watched as they reach across the table to spear a companion’s french fries or the last morsel of someone else’s dessert. Certain foods seem to exert a magical pull on them, and they rarely leave any on their plates.
As I watch this kind of impulsive behavior, I suspect a battle may be taking place in their heads, the struggle between “I want” and “I shouldn’t,” between “I’m in charge” and “I can’t control this.” In this struggle lies one of the most consequential battles we face to protect our health.
“Yes, yes, yes,” I thought. “I do eat that way, I exhibit those impulsive behaviors. I have precisely those power struggles in my head.”
Dr. Kessler goes on to describe the stories of four average Americans who struggle with overeating: Sarah, Andrew, Samantha and Claudia. Their stories, it turns out, are in many ways strikingly similar to my own.
Kessler writes about watching Dr. Phil addressing the topic of obesity on The Oprah Winfrey Show, talking with an audience member:
Sarah [began] to describe how she felt about herself. [Her] sunny visage began to change as she confessed to feeling like a failure. Sarah called herself “fat” and “ugly” and said her actions often left her disappointed, frustrated and angry. “I feel that I can’t accomplish what I set up my mind to do. I feel that I can’t do it, that I don’t have the willpower.”
He then goes on to describe his own interview with “Andrew”:
Andrew, who is about five feet nine inches tall and weighs about 245 pounds, has written fearlessly from many of the world’s battlegrounds. He has spent time with jihadists, suicide bombers, and war-hardened soldiers, and he hasn’t flinched. But when I placed M&M’s on the table before him, Andrew felt barely able to cope. … At lunch, Andrew is likely to be tempted by a basket of hot, fresh bread served with butter. On city streets, Starbucks seems to summon him, and at home his refrigerator beckons irresistibly. “It just goes on and on and on,” said Andrew. Like so many people who have difficulty controlling their eating, he sees food as an obstacle course he must navigate. … He rarely knows when he’s full and feels mystified by people who don’t share his single-mindedness. “I can comprehend suicide terrorism more easily than I can comprehend somebody who just doesn’t think about food,” he said, without a trace of facetiousness.
Standing 5’6″ and weighing 120 pounds, “Samantha” is not even overweight, and yet faces a similar battle:
“If food is put in front of me, I find it an eternal struggle not to eat,” said Samantha. “I hate going to work because they have bowls of candy everywhere. I’ll leave my apartment and go to the library to study because we’re not allowed to have food there. I keep thinking that it would be so easy to just make healthy choices, so why can’t I do it? But instead, I rationalize what I eat in the weirdest ways. I have friends who feel the exact same way, and we marvel at people who are not like this. I don’t understand how they do it.”
Finally, Kessler asks “Claudia” what happens when she starts to eat:
“Sometimes I can’t stop. It doesn’t happen at every meal, but if there’s appealing food in front of me, or I’ve been thinking about food a lot for some reason, I’ll keep eating, even to the point of being sick.”
Clearly, these struggles are not unique. They are not even isolated to only a few individuals. Fortunately, despite the despair they engender, these struggles are not insurmountable.
Kessler’s treatment of the complex science behind all of this is fascinating, if a bit dry from time to time. Even more enlightening is his description of how the food industry is engineering its offerings to capitalize on the science. For example, the industry recognizes a principle it calls “hedonics” and works very hard to understand how to make food combinations that maximize pleasure in order to maximize sales, with no regard for public health.
I was outraged to learn that the Society for the Study of Ingestive Behavior, the Institute of Food Technologists and myriad other trade organizations, funded by the likes of Coca Cola, Pepsi, the National Pork Board, Smuckers and Tysons, among others, produce conventions, symposia and trade shows related to engineering, producing and distributing products designed to trigger overeating behavior. The industry conducts extensive research and produces reports like Premium Indulgence: Capitalizing on the Growing Trend for Premium Treating, which Kessler reports “sells for about $6,000.”
So no, it’s not just a lack of willpower at work here, folks.
But in knowledge, there is power, and in understanding, there is hope. Just learning these facts has already transformed the way I see food. I must confess that I am only halfway through the book. The sections with strategies and solutions for success still lie ahead. But what I’ve read so far is enough to warrant a hearty recommendation of this book to anyone struggling to find answers.
If nothing else, know that you are not alone.