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Is The Food Industry Manipulating Your Chemistry? An Interview With Dr. David Kessler

Posted: 07/07/09 09:10 AM ET

If cake is your BFF (best friend forever), if the call of Cheeto sends you into an orange-stained spin, if you start to drool at the mere mention of Cinnabon, and/or if you are mad at yourself for giving in and diving into a vat of chocolate, then pull up a chair and start clicking for an interview that just may change your relationship to food and, in turn, your life.

Read as Janice Taylor, weight loss coach, hypnotherapist, and author of All Is Forgiven, Move On interviews Dr. David Kessler, author of, The End of Overeating: Taking Control of the Insatiable American Appetite.

Dr. Kessler was Commissioner of the FDA from 1990-1997 (under two administrations--one red, and one blue), and during that time he was responsible for putting a squeeze on the tobacco industry and reinventing the food label. Janice found him to be an authentic, caring human being who has battled the bulge himself and is a model teacher for how you can take control of your overeating.

Cracking the Overeating Code

JT: Dr. Kessler, you invested seven years of your life meeting with top scientists, physicians and food industry insiders, exploring and investigating just how we (Americans) have lost control of our eating habits. This research must be very important to you.

DK: Yes, very important on a number of levels. While watching Oprah, I heard a woman speak about her inability to control her eating, and the pain and frustration that accompanied her lack of control. I wondered, "What is going on? What's driving this?"

And I related to her story. There's almost nothing in my life that I do on impulse. But foods and the cues that surround them have the power to make me act against my own will. I wanted to understand how this works. I wanted to crack the code.

JT: You found that the food industry plays a rather prominent part in the fattening of America. Please explain.

DK: The food industry is a for-profit business. Their business model is to pull out all the bells and whistles, load the food with multiple layers of salt, fat and sugar, thus creating what I call "carnival food." This carnival atmosphere keeps us wanting and coming back for more.

The food industry's first priority is to make their foods as highly 'palatable' and appealing as possible. They discovered that certain foods can and do keep us eating and eating, with no end in sight.

JT: How does our brain chemistry come into play?

DK: Our brain is the command center of an elaborate communication system. It encourages us to seek out pleasurable things - food being one of them.

Palatability refers to how food engages our senses. Is it cold? Creamy? Does it smell good, and does it taste good? Usually, the most palatable foods contain layer upon layer of fat, sugar and salt. The combination of these factors can and do stimulate the neurons, which are the basic cells in the brain. The brain responds to these highly palatable, rewarding and pleasurable foods by firing electrical signals and releasing brain neurons that are encoded with 'palatability.'

Our brains are being excessively activated - bombarded throughout the day - by food cues. Food cues include the actual food we eat, as well as external cues such as anchors to time of day, location, sound and sight. These cues activate the brain, grab its attention, arousal sets in and it drives consumption.

It's important to understand that when we think of the word 'palatable,' we think of something that tastes good. When the food industry uses that word, they are primarily referring to the food's capacity to stimulate the appetite and prompt us to eat excessively.

JT: I'm having an a-ha! lightbulb moment. Every time I pass Carvel, the urge to go in and order a hot fudge sundae is extraordinary. It must be anchored to happy memories of my father taking my brother and me to Carvel on special occasions.

DK: Yes, exactly. Once the motivational circuits are triggered with food cues, your mind becomes highly focused, the anticipatory neurons are aroused and you are compelled to eat. And again, yes, whether your conscious mind wants to or not.

JT: Goodness, we can all relate to that! Is palatability the only factor to the fattening of America?

DK: No. Another demon here is 'big food.' Portion size is a cue. The corporations drive the portion size, because they argue that they are just giving consumers what they want. The idea that more is better value.

JT: I heard you speak about the packaging on tobacco; explaining that just the crinkle of the cellophane might be enough of a cue to set a person off to seek a smoke. How does packaging and advertising play into the stimuli that cues us to eat?

DK: The advertising adds an emotional gloss which says to consumers, "you will love it; you will want it." Advertising is not really about providing neutral information - the facts about a product; it is about adding emotional gloss. The advertising campaigns increase "the want." The want factor alone can be enough to arouse the motivational circuitry.

JT: So it's a trifecta of emotional gloss, portion size and the fat, sugar, salt combo which activates our neurons. We're being manipulated by the food industry. I don't know about you, but this makes me angry! Tell me, how can we affect change? Not just in our own eating, but in the industry.

DK: We need to educate. We need to understand what is going on in terms of 'palatability,' and understand that our minds are being stimulated. We need to get to the point where we realize that this kind of eating - the fat on top of sugar on top of salt on top of fat - is disgusting. That is the beginning of change.

JT: Obesity is a major problem that threatens our health and well-being. It has reached epidemic proportions. What role should government play?

DK: Government should demand greater disclosure. Once you know how the industry is manipulating the foods and our brain chemistry; you then understand that this has serious implications for our generation as well as for our children. We are conditioning the behavior of our children for a lifetime.

JT: You've given us plenty of food for thought today. Thank you, Dr. Kessler, for your important and life changing work and for the time you've taken to talk to me today.

DK: Happy to do so. My pleasure. Thank you.

More from Janice Taylor on the food industry:
Food Inc.: What's the food industry hiding?
Xtreme Eating Awards: Food Morality?

Spread the word ... NOT the icing,
Janice

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Read more from Janice on her Beliefnet.com weight loss blog
or visit her "Our Lady of Weight Loss" website.

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