Book Review by Denis Faye

I've always had a hard time with food. As a kid, my kitchen was rarely stocked with salty and sugary snacks—rarely, because most of those salty and sugary snacks would be eaten before they even had a chance to be put away. A jumbo bag of Fritos® would be lucky to last an hour in our house. Gallon tubs of ice cream were routinely opened for the evening's dessert. My best friend's mother once asked him to stop bringing me over after school because I would regularly and impulsively clean out her pantry's stock of peanut butter and chocolate chips.

While I had friends who would smoke funny things and listen to Pink Floyd, I didn't do drugs; when I watched The Wall, instead of smoking those funny things, I got "high" by drinking 2 liters of Coke® and eating an entire box of Peanut Butter Cap'n Crunch®.

Through my teens and into my twenties, my weight seesawed between 225 and 170. It wasn't until I moved to Australia that I finally got a handle on things. Perhaps it was the lack of exposure to the American media machine, perhaps it was because junk food is more expensive down under and fresh produce is cheaper, perhaps it was because I had fallen in with a committed pack of super-fit surfers, or perhaps I was just sick of being fat. Either way, I finally turned things around and have managed to remain relatively thin ever since.

But it's incredibly difficult. While my thinner waist is a result of raw willpower that's tested daily, I still have to resort to a few tricks. It was impossible to curb my appetite, so instead, I learned to fill up on the right things. I eat more fruits and vegetables in a day than most people eat in a week. I stay out of restaurants as much as possible, and for at least a decade, even vaguely tempting groceries did not enter my house. It's only in the last couple of years that I've been able to keep peanut butter on hand, and that's because I've learned to block its very existence out of my head.

Also, I exercise. A lot.

David Kessler's The End of Overeating: Taking Control of the Insatiable American Appetite

The reason I'm playing true confessions is because it was with great personal interest—perhaps even out of personal necessity—that I opened former Food and Drug Administration commissioner David Kessler's new book, The End of Overeating: Taking Control of the Insatiable American Appetite.

Sometime in the 1980s, Americans starting getting fatter. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, between 1988 and 1991, the number of overweight Americans increased by 85 percent. Between 1960 and 2000, the average weight of women between the ages of 20 and 29 went from 128 to 157.

The "why" for this has been extensively covered in books like Fat Land: How Americans Became the Fattest People in the World by Greg Critser and Fast Food Nation by Eric Schlosser. We have access to more salty and sweet foods, and the portions we're served are larger. When a 500-calorie fries, 310-calorie Coke, and 540-calorie Big Mac meal is presented to you as a normal lunch, you're going to eat it.

And you're going to get fat.

Overeating: Solutions?

Unfortunately, while the problem is well documented, the solution isn't. Calling for reforms in the food service industry is lovely, but this is a billion-dollar industry; and frankly, people will continue to eat 1,350-calorie McMeals, no matter how unhealthy those meals are.

The other half of the solution—that consumers should exercise self-control—isn't all that helpful either. A few lucky ones, including me, found an escape from the Dionysian trap, but we are few. It's one thing to say you won't eat M&M'S®, but as anyone who has any issues with overeating knows, when you're at a party and you're surrounded by bowls of the little multicolored jerks, they call out to you in a collective, candy-coated chorus that's often too much to bear.

Conditioned Hypereating

That's the premise of The End of Overeating. Thanks to our culture of consumption, the drive to eat beyond our needs has skyrocketed out of control. Kessler dubs the problem "Conditioned Hypereating."

Essentially, Kessler theorizes that today's foods have been engineered to the perfect point of saltiness, fattiness, and sweetness. It just tastes so good, and it's just so accessible. Where once higher-fat ice creams were premiums and adding crushed candy bars or other extras as toppings was a novelty, these practices have now become the norm. And while all these rich foods damage the waistline, they cause majorly gratifying chemical reactions upstairs.

(Of course, I didn't need Cold Stone Creamery® or Chili's®. I learned how to "engineer" foods myself. In my junior year of high school, my favorite after-school snack was a Ruffles® and Miracle Whip® sandwich on Wonder® Bread.)

The brain's pleasure-seeking chemicals, called endorphins, are overstimulated by these foods because these foods are specifically created to cause this overstimulation. The brain remembers this stimulation, so over time when you see these foods, another chemical called dopamine is released. According to Kessler, "Dopamine drives desire through a survival-based capacity known as 'attention bias.' Defined as 'the exaggerated amount of attention that is paid to highly rewarding stimuli at the expense of other (neutral) stimuli,' attention bias allows us to pick out what matters most so we can pursue it."

In other words, in the same way the brain induces "fight or flight" responses or overwhelming maternal instincts, it urges us to eat yummy junk. Our stomachs may be full, but our brains really, really want the rush.

4 Steps to End Conditioned Hypereating

After explaining this, Kessler dedicates several chapters to admonishing the food industry for creating this situation. It's an interesting read, but it is fairly well-treaded territory. Where the book really shines is part four, "The Theory of Treatment." Here, Kessler suggests how someone suffering from Conditioned Hypereating might go about fixing it.

Basically, Kessler suggests four steps to kicking the habit.
  • The first is to become aware of the problem.
  • The second is to reverse the habit by exercising competing behaviors.
  • The third is to develop thoughts that quiet the old, problematic thoughts.
  • The fourth and final step is to seek support.
Kessler then explains how to achieve these steps with methods like planned eating, which is basically having your meals planned and sticking to that plan. This is much like the nutrition plans that come with programs like P90X® and ChaLEAN Extreme®.

As it turns out, as much as I value The End of Overeating, there's nothing in Kessler's book that I didn't already know. However, it has given me a new perspective. He's taken these facts and connected the dots in a way I hadn't seen before.

As I said, my change came largely due to willpower, but I was blessed in that I was put in a situation where that willpower could take hold. I often forget this when giving advice and simply tell people suffering from Conditioned Hypereating to just buck up and do it.

It's just not that simple, and now that I know exactly why, hopefully, it will grant me the patience and tools to help others accomplish the goals that took me so long to achieve.