Monday, August 17, 2009


I first heard of The End of Overeating at a party as I was scarfing down cookies. A friend was reading it, and she told me it was about how certain foods actually change our brain chemistry. I don't recall her looking pointedly at my plate, but it would not have been inappropriate.

When I checked the book out of the library, the circulation assistant exclaimed, "They put the wrong cover on that book!" Well, no, they didn't, at least not for me: I couldn't look at those pictures without strongly coveting the carrot cake. (The carrots would make nice snacks for my dogs.)

Dr. Kessler's point exactly.

When we eat certain combinations of sugar and fat, or salt and fat, or sugar and salt and fat, Kessler says, our endorphins go wild ("I feel good!") and our dopamine levels rise up and induce us to race back to the cupboard for more. Alas, the more we eat of these "hyper-palatable" foods, the more we want. Unlike, say, apples or whole-wheat bread or broiled salmon, which satisfy hunger and leave us feeling full, foods like ice cream and chocolate-chip cookies and potato chips leave us craving more and more. Some people gorge on such foods until they puke. Others just eat them until their waistlines disappear and their extra chins emerge.

Kessler, who has a medical degree from Harvard and a law degree from Chicago, was commissioner of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration from 1990 to 1997. During his career, he has noticed a big change. "In 1960, when weight was still relatively stable in America, women ages twenty to twenty-nine averaged about 128 pounds," he writes. "By 2000, the average weight of women in that age group had reached 157."

What happened--did we suddenly grow taller? Not so much. The Center for Disease Control reports that "the average height of a woman 20-74 years increased from slightly over 5'3" in 1960 to 5'4" in 2002"--not nearly enough to support nearly 30 pounds of additional weight.

Kessler partly blames the increase in American heft on "larger portion sizes, more chain restaurants, more neighborhood food outlets, and a culture that promotes more out-of-home eating." In part 2, he discusses all of those contributing factors in detail. Did you know, for example, that Starbucks' strawberries & crème frappuccino with whipped cream contains "more calories than a personal-size pepperoni pizza, and more sweetness than six scoops of ice cream"? (With my consciousness newly raised, I checked online before eating at Famous Dave's a couple of weeks ago. I learned that their rather small corn meal muffins--surely a harmless accessory--have 600 calories apiece. Yikes.)

Kessler’s observations on the food industry are interesting and revealing, but that sort of exposé has been adequately done elsewhere, and it is not Kessler's focus. His main point is that if we have conditioned ourselves to overeat, it is possible to recondition ourselves to eat sensibly. It isn't easy—after all, in response to our choices, our brains have changed—but it can be done. And he offers a program for doing it.

In parts 3 and 4 of The End of Overeating, Kessler explains how conditioned hypereaters—not necessarily people with eating disorders, but people like me who can't resist chocolate and cashews and ice cream—can break bad habits and become sensible eaters. Superhuman feats of willpower, he says, are not required, nor is giving up everything that tastes good.

So what can a conditioned hypereater do (I ask, my mouth full of salted peanuts)? Kessler offers a behavioral response:
• Be aware of the cues. "Intervention begins with the knowledge that we have a moment of choice--but only a moment--to recognize what is about to happen and do something else instead" (182).
• Substitute competing behaviors for habitual responses. "To compete successfully with old habits, this competing behavior needs to be planned before you encounter a cue. You need to know exactly how to respond when your brain receives an unwanted invitation" (187).
• Change the way you talk to yourself about food. "Instead of 'That pint of chocolate ice cream looks really good to me; I'll have just a few bites,' we can say to ourselves, 'I know that I can't have one bite, because it will lead to twenty'" (187).
• Get yourself a good support system--though "if your support system does not reinforce your goals, you're better off going it alone" (189). (Click here for an interesting article about how friends influence teens' eating.)
• Make up rules to guide your behavior. "Setting rules helps us make the steps of habit reversal real. Rules provide structure, preparing us for encounters with tempting stimuli and redirecting our attention elsewhere" (190).
• Change your emotional response to food stimuli. "When you perceive hyperpalatable food as negative--and place that recognition in your working memory so you can access it quickly--you're better equipped to interfere with the automatic response and make healthier food choices" (201).
Kessler warns that, although we can change our behavior, "our vulnerability to the stimuli doesn't simply disappear. We never fully unlearn earlier responses" (182). Still, we can create new habits in place of old, gradually diminishing the old habits' insistence. We can learn to eat in a way that satisfies hunger, makes us feel good, and is thoroughly enjoyable.

In Part 5, "Food Rehab," Kessler makes an important observation: "The only eating plan that will work for you is one built around the personal likes and dislikes you have accumulated over a lifetime" (214). Apparently my lifetime likes and dislikes differ markedly from Kessler's: his sample meals sound like what most people call diets, and he pays insufficient attention to the joy and beauty and delight that really good food evokes.

Figure out how much food you need to eat in order to stave off hunger pangs for four hours, Kessler advises, and learn what kinds of foods satisfy you the longest.
Essentially, that means a diet based largely on lean protein and whole grains or legumes, supplemented with fruits and nonstarchy vegetables. On a typical day meals might include an omelet for breakfast; a grilled chicken sandwich for lunch; two snacks, such as a piece of cheese and a cup of fruit; and fish with leafy greens for dinner.(214)
Your diet must be personalized, Kessler goes on to say. He knows people who are happy with "a few strips of bacon or a small portion of cheese for breakfast, a plain, reasonable-size hamburger for lunch, and a medium serving of pasta and salad for dinner" (214).

I’d have to do a lot of personalization to follow Kessler’s advice. His meal plans sound not only awfully stingy but downright unhealthy. He doesn’t include nearly enough vegetables and fruits, and the meals are mostly beige. Where are the bright red and yellow tomatoes, the purplish beets, the yellow-orange butternut squash, the deep orange yams, the bright green broccoli, the red-veined chard, the green and red and orange and yellow peppers, the red and purple plums, the bright red strawberries and soft red raspberries? Where is the joy?

For conditioned hypereaters to turn into just-right eaters, rules and structure are necessary--Kessler is right about that. He just needs to pay more attention to what he puts on his plate.

My favorite way of eating is much like his, but with the order reversed, and that makes all the difference in the world. Eat mostly fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and legumes. Supplement with lean protein, a splash of wine, and a dab of olive oil. Yep, it's the famous Mediterranean diet, though since most people think of a diet as a temporary privation of good things, I'd rather call it the Mediterranean way of life. It includes so much more than food. Think fresh ingredients, attentive preparation, relaxation with family and friends, delight in flavor and texture and color.

As Kessler repeatedly says, you'll need to come up with a program that works for you, with your own structure, your own rules. Just don't turn it into a diet--make it a joyful way of life.

For further inspiration, read Mireille Guiliano's French Women Don't Get Fat: The Secret of Eating for Pleasure, or Richard A. Watson's The Philosopher's Diet: How to Lose Weight and Change the World, or Michael Pollan's In Defense of Food: An Eater's Manifesto.


  1. But if you are an overeater to no ill effect, why should you care?

  2. Good question, Heidi. I'm a "conditioned hypereater" who has deconditioned some but not all triggers. When I overeat, I don't feel good, my bad cholesterol goes up, and I outgrow my jeans.