David Kessler, M.D., former FDA commissioner under presidents Bush the first and Clinton has been popping up here and there lately to promote his new book The End of Overeating: Taking Control of the Insatiable American Appetite. I saw him first on the Daily Show with Jon Stewart and then last Friday on Real Time with Bill Maher.
Kessler theorizes that “hyper-eating” is not a personal character flaw, but rather a biological challenge that individuals must overcome through education and persistence. Lifestyle changes, along the increase of power in the advertising and food industries since the 1980s have left many Americans at the mercy of reward-driven eating. Kessler’s main argument is that the brain has a significant reward response to the diabolical combination of salt, fat, and sugar. This sets people up for a lifetime of food obsession due to the permeating presence of these attributes in most mass-marketed/widely available foods. Kessler makes an urgent plea for “food reform” and suggests a simple kind of rehabilitation for overeaters, promoting new sources of reward and pleasure.
Anyone who has ever tried to make a significant lifestyle change knows that it’s a struggle. Some days are easy, while others you find yourself frustrated, angry, and willing to make any excuse as to why it’s okay to stick with a bad habit rather than change it. One of the main things that surgeons performing the RNY and other weight-loss procedures emphasize is the lifestyle change. It’s repeated over and over again how truly permanent the changes have to be in order to make the surgery a success.
When I made the decision to cut refined flour and sugar out of my life, I was miserable for about 2 weeks. I chewed through multiple packs of Trident in a day to keep myself from biting the inside of my mouth or grinding my teeth. I had unbelievable cravings for bread, crackers, and salty snacks. My own miniature detox.
It took time, but I stopped craving those things with that kind of fervor. I still think about them and even still want them, but I don’t feel compelled to find them.
When I want sweets, I crave oatmeal with evaporate cane juice (sucanat), roasted nuts, Vietnamese cinnamon and diced apples. When I want salty food, I crave roasted chicken, spinach and artichoke dip, or hot multi-grain cereal with parmigiano reggiano and a dash of olive oil. As I have changed my lifestyle and altered the way I grocery shop, the cravings have changed too. I don’t stress about my “diet” as much because the only real thing I need to watch is the quantity of what I eat (oh freeze-dried fruit, I could eat you forever and a day).
What does it all boil down to? The cover of Michael Pollan’s In Defense of Food (another great book) reads “Eat Food. Not too Much. Mostly Plants.” I think he’s got it covered pretty well. I’d add eat fresh and as local as possible too. Cleaning up your eating as opposed to simply going on a diet will have greater long-term benefits.
Some people who try a new diet often consider the idea of having a “cheat day.” As much as this idea seems alright on the surface, it’s considerably risky to healthy lifestyle success. If cheating means the occasional binge on a food containing large quantities of addictive, dangerous substances, then you can never really be the one making the decision. (Do you want food to make your decisions for you?) Food addiction is no joke and the obesity epidemic is evidence enough to convince me. You wouldn't encourage an alcoholic to indulge in one drink a week, so why do the same thing regarding your own diet?
That said, I'm not suggesting depriving oneself of the pleasure derived from food entirely. I'm simply saying that it's possible to feel healthy, sustained, and happy without needing dangerous foods to feel that pleasure.
If you're a foodie who takes pleasure in providing delicious things to others, I suggest starting a small garden and canning at the end of the season. There's a special kind of pleasure reserved for opening a jar of homemade tomato sauce in the middle of a freezing, gray winter.
Have a great week!