THE BLOG
03/18/2013 06:10 pm ET Updated May 18, 2013

Protecting Home Turf in the Fight Against Processed Food

No one likes being manipulated into making choices that are bad for them, but it's happening -- and if you're like most busy Americans, chances are you haven't given it much thought. We've long suspected that our nutrient-poor Western diet is contributing to a raging obesity epidemic, but a recent exposé on the processed food industry shows just how calculated (and preventable) this epidemic could be.

Written by Michael Moss, The Extraordinary Science of Addictive Junk Food is a must-read, especially for parents. Moss talked to more than 300 people from the processed food industry and obtained thousands of pages of secret memos revealing how junk food is formulated and marketed. He describes the hordes of data scientists use to engineer products that take consumers to the "bliss point," the point of maximum craving, without injecting so much flavor that they won't keep coming back for more.

Is Junk Food Addictive?

The process Moss describes in food labs isn't so dissimilar from what's happening in designer drug labs, where chemists search for the next high. Processed foods affect the pleasure center of the brain in a way that is similar to cocaine and other drugs of abuse. Knowing this, Moss suggests major players in "Big Food" are methodically finding the tastiest blend of salt, sugar and fat to keep our overindulged taste buds hooked on their products.

Although it's too soon to say definitively that food is addictive in the same way as drugs and alcohol, the science is raising serious concerns. Sugar and fat -- substances our brains are programmed to crave -- are being injected into processed food in copious amounts. The result, according to studies, is drug-like cravings, increased intake that resembles tolerance, withdrawal-like symptoms and rewiring of the brain in much the same way as drugs of abuse.

A war is brewing, reminiscent of the battle against Big Tobacco, but until policy and regulatory changes are in place there's a lot families can do to protect themselves:

Leverage Your Buying Power

Consumers don't know who they can trust to care about more than "stomach share," a term food manufacturers use to describe the space they seek to occupy in our guts. Corporations are in the business of making profits but, as Wal-Mart, Disney, Walgreens and other companies have shown, profit and public health are not necessarily mutually exclusive. These companies have managed to improve the nutrition profile of the foods they serve while increasing profitability and consumer confidence.

Corporations may not be responsive to individual health concerns, but they do make a science of studying what we spend. We can send a message about consumer demand by purchasing fewer processed foods and shopping at stores that find creative ways to prioritize both people and profits.

Take Initiative

The primary argument used by the processed food industry is that it merely makes a product available; from there, responsibility shifts to the consumer. People want what tastes good, so why not cater to that preference? The problem is "good" is relative, based, in part, on the way our taste buds have been conditioned to like fatty, salty and sweet foods.

People choose what to put in their bodies. But how informed can our decisions be when some manufacturers are actively working to exclude genetically engineered ingredients from labels and major dairy organizations are trying to change the FDA's definition of milk to allow them to include artificial sweeteners without informing consumers?

Just as drug addiction stops being a choice once changes in the brain take place, ending a junk food obsession might not be as simple as "just say no."As Moss explains, "It's not just a matter of poor willpower on the part of the consumer and a give-the-people-what-they-want attitude on the part of the food manufacturers. What I found, over four years of research and reporting, was a conscious effort ... to get people hooked on foods that are convenient and inexpensive." Regardless of who or what is contributing to the obesity epidemic, we can take the initiative to make changes in our own homes.

Be Health-Inspired

Processed foods are cheap and convenient. Manufacturers know this and capitalize on it by targeting working moms and notoriously picky children. While finding a balance is never easy, next time you're in the grocery store, pass up the scientifically engineered, drug-like products and stock up on real foods -- fruits, vegetables, whole grains and lean meats -- that can be turned into quick snacks or 30-minute home-cooked meals.

Keep healthy snacks readily available by placing them on a kid-level shelf or in a bowl that is in plain sight. If certain foods are off-limits, keep them out of your home. This will send the message that "our family eats healthy foods" and also prevents bargaining about junk food. Without processed foods at home, you'll also eat healthier, setting a positive model for your children.

Read Labels

The solution isn't as simple as avoiding foods most of us know are junk, like potato chips and cookies, but also products that masquerade as good for you like Yoplait yogurt, which Moss reports has twice as much sugar per serving as Lucky Charms cereal. Before buying anything packaged, read the label with your kids and explain why certain options are acceptable (e.g., those with fewer ingredients, less sugar, salt and fat, and more whole grains) while others are not.

Decode Marketing Messages

Our children beg endlessly for the processed foods that are aggressively marketed to them, and then we blame parents for giving in. While parents play a critical role, sometimes healthier foods aren't readily available, sometimes kids have processed junk foods when they're at school or a friend's house, and sometimes exhausted parents aren't a match for the trillion-dollar food marketing industry and just can't say no one more time. As Moss points out, processed food manufacturers are counting on this, encouraging kids to eat the junk they want with slogans like: "All day, you gotta do what they say, but lunchtime is all yours."

To encourage your kids to make healthy decisions even when you're not around, teach them to think critically about the advertisements they see. Why are they using certain colors, shapes or characters to sell their products? Explain that companies go to great lengths to convince kids they have to have certain products even when they're not good for them. Setting limits on screen time can also limit children's exposure to junk food ads.

What we put in our children's bodies affects not only their weight, but also their study habits, energy levels, physical development, self-esteem and even their IQs. Day-to-day, parents have a lot of influence over their children's eating habits, but so does the food industry. Moss gave us a glimpse into the inner workings of "Big Food." Now it's our job to move beyond outrage and turn knowledge into action.

David Sack, M.D., is board certified in psychiatry, addiction psychiatry and addiction medicine. He is CEO of Elements Behavioral Health, a network of mental health and addiction treatment centers that includes the Promises, The Ranch, Right Step, The Recovery Place, The Sexual Recovery Institute, Malibu Vista, and Spirit Lodge.

For more by David Sack, M.D., click here.

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