In the scrum of explanations for our obesity epidemic, one common-sense theory has gained traction. We eat too much. I know, this is not headline material. But there's a twist. The big new idea here is why we eat too much.
The simple answer is we have become addicted to food.
If you look at our culture's eating behavior, it certainly looks like addiction. Any situation is an opportunity to eat. Once we've started eating we don't seem to know when to stop, even when we want to, even when we know we're hurting ourselves, even when a doctor has warned us about the diseases that await us if we continue to eat this way, even when we're already suffering from such diseases. The vast majority of the population goes on and off diets in an attempt to correct the consequences of uncontrolled eating. Most people fail at changing this behavior. In fact, so many fail that a surgical procedure has been developed to treat the condition.
Sound like an addiction to food?
But it's not so simple.
The first big complication is we're not addicted to food. We're addicted to manufactured products that have replaced food. The food industry creates "fast food," "processed food," "food products." These industrial products bear little or no resemblance to natural foods. And the devil is in the differences.
Sophisticated scientific research has elucidated the psychobiology of appetite, taste, pleasure, and satiety. In his recent book, Salt, Sugar, Fat, Michael Moss describes the remarkable application of this knowledge by the food industry. Not surprisingly, a powerful, hardwired food reward system has allowed our species to survive. The same system is activated by cocaine, opiates and nicotine.
By manipulating the form and quantity of salt, sugar and fat, and such qualities as "mouth feel," rate of absorption, and acidity, food products are exquisitely designed to hit what they call the "bliss point." This is the recipe that maximizes craving and minimizes satiety. The ideal form for anything you want to sell.
Add brilliant marketing, low price, and ubiquitous access and you've got everyone hooked.
I know, this starts to sound like a paranoid fantasy. So let's look at some numbers to gain perspective. Frito-Lay, the maker of Doritos (the number one snack food), Cheetos and Fritos, brings in $13 billion a year. The beverage giant Dr Pepper Snapple Group (one of many companies actively applying this new science) has a net worth in excess of $11 billion. These numbers represent a level of market penetration that anyone would have to call stunning.
The other striking piece of this story is the role played by the tobacco industry, a sector well-versed in the science of addiction. In 1985, R.J. Reynolds acquired Nabisco. Shortly after, the largest cigarette manufacturer in the world, Philip Morris, bought General Foods and Kraft, the two largest food manufacturers, making Philip Morris the largest food company on the planet.
Industrial foods have been definitively linked to the most prevalent diseases of our culture. Diabetes, hypertension, obesity, and cardiovascular disease, the so-called diseases of civilization, represent a real national security threat. Our food supply has been compromised. Not only is our physical health damaged by these foods, the fiscal health of the country has been compromised by the skyrocketing cost of treating the above conditions.
Are you addicted to food?
Yale University's Rudd Center for Food Science and Policy has developed a questionnaire to assess whether someone is struggling with a food addiction. Below are some sample questions.
- End up eating more than planned when you start eating certain foods
- Keep eating certain foods even if you're no longer hungry
- Eat to the point of feeling ill
- Worry about not eating certain types of foods or worry about cutting down on certain types of foods
- When certain foods aren't available, go out of your way to obtain them
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