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The End of Overeating

August 6th, 2010

Obesity and the health issues that accompany it have long been a subject of intense discussion in the Western world, where the abundance of super-cheap and highly processed foods has been linked to many health disorders. David Kessler’s, The End of Overeating is an important addition to the books written on the subject - why, we shall come to a little later.

Kessler has the background to take on this complex subject having served as commissioner at the US Food and Drug Administration. He is also a man who has grappled with weight issues, giving him a more personal interest in the subject.

One of the biggest strengths of The End of Overeating (and the reason why I called it an important book) is that Kessler articulates convincingly a position on obesity that moves it away from the issue of individual control and choices (’if you’re fat, you have no willpower, and you really ought to control yourself’). He acknowledges that while for a large part of America, calorie intake is outpacing calorie absorption, it’s not as simple as ‘having the willpower to say no’. (Kessler also acknowledges that a small percentage of obese people are obese due to other medical reasons and that ‘hypereating’ is not restricted to obese people.)

Kessler advances his position by taking a close look at the food and restaurant business, and how it gets consumers to eat larger portions, eat more often, eat at any place, eat at more locations, eat more indulging foods and eat mind-blowing combinations of fat-sugar-salt that make us want to - well, eat some more. He also goes to some length to explain how overeating can become a habit, by conditioning and by altering the stimulus-reward circuits in the brain. By indulging in high calorie foods, which offer a temporary but pleasurable sensation, we are primed to remember those sensations the next time we come across the same stimulus.

If all this sounds esoteric, think of a food experience that you particularly crave - perhaps a burger at a particular fast-food joint, perhaps a particular brand of chocolate and think about how hard it is to turn away from the treat it promises.┬áThat is what Kessler is talking about, and this book helps us to understand why we don’t just ’say no’. The first 3 sections, ‘Sugar, Fat, Salt’, ‘The Food Industry’ and ‘Conditioned Hypereating Emerges’ are all about dissecting the problem, and are the strongest parts of the book.

One quibble is that Kessler sometimes stops short of covering an individual’s story in sufficient detail, preferring to move on to the next of numerous chapters. For instance, in one chapter, he interviews Jerilyn Brusseau, the creator of Cinnabon, a cinnamon roll bakery that started off as a small store offering a ‘treat’, but is now part of the pandemic of chain stores rushing to pad your waist (and line your heart).

He goes on to end the chapter with, ‘Balance was something Brusseau once lacked in her own life. In her twenties, thirties and forties, she battled bulimia and anorexia. A chef and restaurant operator who lived her days surrounded by tempting indulgences, there had been a time when Brusseau lost all sense of when she was hungry and when she was full.’ Now, what is one to make of an ending like that? A gourmet bakery owner’s complicated relationship with food - yes, interesting, but why tell us about it if you are only going to throw in stray tidbits? Kessler does this when talking about people, but when he gets to the science, he is painstaking.

One suspects that Kessler would have done well to stop with this thorough analysis of the problem rather than extend the book to offering solutions as well. The next 3 sections, ‘The Theory of Treatment’, ‘Food Rehab’ and ‘The End of Overeating’ are somewhat disappointing in their generality when compared with the rigorousness of the first half. While there are a few useful suggestions, they don’t go beyond what commonsense suggests, nor are they buttressed with any studies or other information on their efficacy. They veer dangerously close to the ‘you can stop eating if only you try’ approach that Kessler disses in the first half.

Some of the suggestions don’t take the social context into account adequately; what of the fact that healthy eating in Western societies (especially the US) takes more money than eating junk food? What of the loss of cooking skills in many families and young people? Kessler doesn’t address these issues when he advocates healthier eating.

Nor is there a special focus on women and food, which is surprising, given the greater social expectations from women to maintain a desirable weight, and the pressure it creates amidst the constant food cues in the environment.

Despite these drawbacks, The End of Overeating is an interesting read for anyone who has struggled with weight or with the expectations of desirability in an increasingly appearance-conscious world. Those of us living in India can already see the wholesale import of Western brands and lifestyles into what was a slower and more wholesome way of eating. For us, it may be the Beginning of Overeating, but that is no reason we shouldn’t be better prepared.

Publisher: Penguin Books/Penguin India

Price: Rs. 399

apu The Literary life

  1. August 6th, 2010 at 20:46 | #1

    I totally agree that consuming empty calories is not associated just with obese people. I work with children the whole day and as enjoyable as it is, it is highly stressful. At around 1.30PM there is this immense desire to blindly consume chocolates, anything sugary….. it washes over rationality and creates a picture that one piece of chocolate is going to going to make everything better :)

  2. apu
    August 9th, 2010 at 16:44 | #2

    UTBT, thanks for the comment. That is precisely one of the things Kessler examines - how the promise of reward (heightened by super-availability and chemicals) overrides rationality…

  3. August 10th, 2010 at 14:53 | #3

    I think the point about individual self-control is so valid. A lot of the time, overweight people are judged for not having self-control. But it’s not as simple as that… fattening foods can be as addictive and mood-enhancing as other substances like drugs, alcohol and nicotine…

  4. apu
    August 11th, 2010 at 10:26 | #4

    Rohini - yes, that was one of the things I liked about the book - just “shaming” fat people doesn’t help. The societies we live in increasingly encourage us to indulge in fattening foods…while deprecating the consequences.

  1. August 6th, 2010 at 18:30 | #1