Take a moment and think of a food that is irresistible to you. You probably can see it vividly in your mind's eye...and you even may start to salivate.
Chances are that the food you imagined is not a vegetable or fruit but rather a processed food made with a precise combination of ingredients that trigger repeated cravings similar to those of addicts who can't resist a drug or alcohol.
Can our taste buds really be so easily tricked by food manufacturers?
Absolutely, says David Kessler, MD, former head of the Food and Drug Administration. Dr. Kessler, who has extensively researched the eating habits of Americans, recently answered questions about the ways the food industry is controlling our appetites.
- It's widely reported that about one-third of American adults weigh too much. Why has this occurred in the US?
There should be a balance between the food we consume and the energy we expend. All the evidence says that it's the amount we eat that's gotten out of hand.
It's useful to note that in 1960, the average 40- to 49-year-old American woman weighed 142 pounds. By 2000, the average weight in that age group had jumped to 169 pounds. Research shows that also during this period, American adults were gaining more from ages 20 to 40. Instead of just a few pounds, the average man gained more than 12 pounds during these ages.
- Why are Americans now eating so much more?
While past generations ate most of their food at mealtimes, processed foods that are highly "palatable"-meaning that they stimulate the appetite and prompt us to eat more are now available 24/7. With such ready access, it's become socially acceptable to eat these foods at any hour of the day. For many people, they're impossible to resist.
- Can't a person use willpower to resist such foods?
Not necessarily. It's not a question of people lacking self-control or being lazy. What's really happening is that their brain circuitry has been "hijacked."
Considerable animal and human research shows that foods are made palatable by three ingredients-fat, sugar and salt. Sugar is the main driver of food appeal. Fat and salt work synergistically with sugar.
Get the proportions right, and you hit what might be called the "blisspoint." Candy bars, buffalo wings, Big Macs, cheese fries—they all combine fat, sugar and salt. The "white chocolate mocha frappuccino" served at Starbucks is coffee diluted with a mix of sugar, fat and salt.
- How do these foods hijack our brain circuits?
Foods that taste good are reinforcing—that is, they keep us coming back for more. But highly palatable-or so-called "hyperpalatable"-foods do even more.
They stimulate brain circuits that release dopamine, the neurotransmitter that focuses attention and increases motivation. It can take only a single taste of a hyperpalatable food to set this process in motion.
After you've eaten such a food several times, you become more sensitive to cues surrounding the experience-for example, the sight of the wrapper and the name of the food arouses your memory of how it felt to eat the food and focuses your attention on getting it.
Each time you repeat the experience by eating the food, you strengthen the neural circuits involved, making yourself ever more sensitive to anticipation cues-literally rewiring your brain.
- What is the food industry's role in all this? The basic business plan of the typical modern food company is to sell foods loaded with fat, sugar and salt.
Take buffalo wings—it's the fatty part of chicken, fried and refried and covered with red sauce that's full of salt and sugar. Fat on fat, on fat, on sugar and salt.
You'll find similar combinations in many appetizers, snacks and fast foods, such as chocolate-covered pretzels and cinnamon rolls.
"The three points of the compass" is what one high-level food industry executive calls sugar, fat and salt. "They make food compelling," he told me. "They make it indulgent. They make us want to eat more."
But it's easy for consumers to tell when a food is fatty, salty and sugary-it's not like the food industry can hide it.
Actually, experts in the food industry have found additional, sneakier ways to increase what they call the "craveability" of food products.
They've learned how to combine ingredients, including chemical enhancers (such as artificial sweeteners, hickory smoke flavor and cheese flavorings) to create a complex series of flavors and textures that magnify the sensory appeal.
Food manufacturers even have spent considerable effort making their creations easier to swallow. It used to be that the average bite of food in the American diet required 20 chews before swallowing-now it's only two or three chews.
As soon as that fleeting taste and oral stimulation fade, you reach for more. Through careful engineering by food companies, you're led to eat quickly enough to override your body's "I'm full" signals.
On top of that, incessant advertising adds pleasurable associations to the sensory experience—it pairs foods with images of parties, barbecues and friends having fun. The combined effect is very powerful.
People in the food industry would argue that they're just giving consumers what they want. But we now know this means excessively activating our brains to overeat—not what most consumers would want once they understood what was happening.
Diets alone won't work, because they can't change the brain circuitry that's been created by all the food cues put forth by the food industry. You can try to fight these forces by depriving yourself—and you may even lose weight for 30, 60 or 90 days. But if you're still living in the same environment, you'll be surrounded by all the same food cues you've been trained to respond to.
You can keep foods full of sugar, fat and salt out of the house, but every time you walk down the street, you'll be bombarded. Sooner or later, you'll gain back the weight. A diet alone doesn't get at the root of the problem—the way your behavior has been shaped by changes in your brain circuitry.
- What can we do to defend ourselves?
Simply knowing that the food industry has created many of its products in a way that is calculated to take control of your eating behavior will go a long way toward helping you see hyperpalatable foods for what they are-which is not at all appealing.
When you're armed with this knowledge, you can take some concrete steps to replace one set of automatic behaviors with another set that is much more healthful.
For example, for people who are overweight and those who may not be overweight but want to avoid unhealthful processed foods, I suggest that they establish their own rules and enforce them ruthlessly. Identify the foods that you know are uncontrollably appealing and decide that they're absolutely off limits.
For a while at least, plan all your eating. Decide what you want to eat and when, and limit it to three meals a day, with a midmorning and midafternoon snack.
- What if I start to lose my resolve?
If you feel yourself slipping into a mental dialogue of "This looks great, but I know I shouldn't have it...maybe just this once..." then reframe your thoughts and remind yourself of your goals. Tell yourself, for example, "If I don't give in to my desire for this food, I'll feel a lot better about myself tomorrow."
Many of us have gotten so caught up by the stimulation of food that we have lost touch with how much we really need to eat to feel satisfied. How much will it take to keep you from getting hungry until the next meal? Try increasingly smaller portions—you may be surprised by what you find out.
Deadly Labeling Loophole for Trans Fats
Products with less than 0.5 grams of trans fat per serving are allowed to list their trans fat content as zero.
Problem: If you eat more than one serving of a product that has a small amount of trans fat, you may consume a significant amount.
Self-defense: Look for the words "partially hydrogenated" on products ingredient labels, This means that there is some trans fat present, even if the listed content is zero. Eat as little trans fat as possible, even if you cannot eliminate it from your diet completely.
Getting Hooked on Fish Is Healthy for Most
Despite reports that farmed fish contain more contaminants than wild, both generally are safe and nutritious to eat.
But: Pregnant women, nursing mothers and young children should be careful about which fish they eat. See the list at www.Fish4Health net, and click on "Wallet Card" for a printable card that you can carry when dining out.