It’s not often that I read a book that begins to reach out, encloses itself around my neck, and starts to squeeze. Dozens of powerful ideas are like tentacles that not only grip, but begin to work their ways inside my throat. This isn’t as unpleasant as it sounds; I immediately know that I’m reading something that’s going to stick, and to live with me, for a very long time.
David Kessler is the man, and his new book, “The End of Overeating,” is the cephalopod hanging around my neck. This is probably the best book ever written –well, to my knowledge it’s the ONLY book written—about the neurology/biology of appetite, and how this knowledge is used, developed, and exploited by industrial food concerns.
Kessler’s ideas are remarkable for many reasons, but let me outline just three of the big ideas in this book that I think are most relevant to our community here. There is much more to say about all of this, but for now:
- Big idea #1` Human beings have evolved to react in autonomic ways to foods that are, to use Kessler’s term, “hyperpalatable.” By this he means foods that tend to combine fat, sugar, and salt, with much emphasis given to texture, in ways that are easy and convenient to purchase and to consume, and that are reasonably affordable for most.
If you imagine the menus of the big fast food chains and, especially, of the big chain megacorporate restaurants like Chili’s, the Cheesecake Factory, and Outback Steakhouse, and their 2,000+ calorie bombs like the “blooming onion,” and buffalo wings (which are actually appetizers), you quickly arrive at the definition of a hyperpalatable food: doubly, and sometimes triply, fried foods that layer fat, salt, and sweet on inexpensive delivery vehicles (onions, cheap meat, potatoes, zucchini, etc.) and serve it with a sauce. The insides of these foods are soft and almost pre-chewed, really, and the outsides are crispy/fatty. Just a few chews are necessary to get them down. All of this makes them hyperpalatable.
- Big idea #2 Hyperpalatable foods tap into brain circuits in surprising ways. When we taste highly palatable foods, taste buds in the tongue respond by sending a signal to an area of the lower brain responsible for controlling many involuntary activities, such as breathing and digestion. That activation enables the body to perceive a rewarding experience.
Neurons in the brain that are stimulated by taste and other properties of highly palatable food are part of the body’s primary pleasure system known as “opioid circuitry.” The opioids are also known as endorphins, chemicals produced in the brain that have rewarding effects similar to morphine and heroin. Stimulating the opioid circuitry with food drives us to eat foods that deliver the strongest “hit” possible, with “hit” being the combo of fat, sugar, and salt, delivered as pre-chewed as possible.
The opioids produced by eating high-sugar, high-fat foods aren’t just stimulating; they can relieve pain or stress, and calm us down, at least temporarily. Infants cry less when given sugar water. Eating highly palatable food activates the opioid circuits, and activating these circuits increases consumption of highly palatable food. It’s a perfect cycle that results in the consumption of more calories than we are evolutionarily equipped to handle.
One small region lies at the center of all that pleasure. The “hedonic hot spot” is just one cubic millimeter, the size of the head of a pin, in the nucleus accumbens. When the nucleus accumbens is activated, it causes us to like something, to *really* like something.
- Big idea #3 The food industry has essentially hijacked the brains of tens of millions of Americans (and others, of course, but this is primarily an American phenomenon) by making and marketing foods that hit all these neuronal sweet spots, which only stimulate our desire for more.
Kessler offers mesmerizing – and bone chilling — descriptions of how restaurants and industrial food concerns manipulate ingredients to reach the “bliss point” – it’s an inverted U shape that adds more sugar, salt, and fat until we reach the top of the curve. Foods that contain too little or too much sugar, fat or salt are either bland or overwhelming. The section on the Snickers bar, and how it achieves its path to neuronal bliss, is alone worth the price of the book.
Early human diets contained only about 10 percent fat. Sugar intake, primarily from ripe fruit, was even less. But these foods were essential sources of the energy needed to survive, and we developed the biological tools/neuronal circuitry to lust after and appreciate them when we could get them. We have more than 300 olfactory receptors to sense the odors associated with fats, as well as an innate preference for sweetness, and it’s not hard to understand why, after reading Kessler.
The second half of the book is more concerned with practical ways to gain control of one’s eating habits, with emphasis on mindfulness as the path to lead us out of the grips of hyperpalatable foods that really are very, very bad for us. Effective intervention, mainly through mindfulness and “nudges” we set up for ourselves – don’t have bad foods laying around the house, reduce portion size by serving on smaller plates, learn to think of some foods as enemies that disgust us, and many more — draws us away from the conditioning power of a stimulus before it triggers its usual response. Breaking mindless eating habits is supremely, extraordinarily, difficult. But forming new ones, like we discussed recently, is one good way out of a bad cycle that we want to eliminate.
So how does all of this relate to breakaway cooking? Breakaway cooking, too, likes sweet, fat, and salt. Very, very much. I couldn’t help but notice that some of my tastiest dishes are indeed somewhat hyperpalatable. Salts are used widely, as are fats like good olive oil and good butter, and even some animal fats, especially duck fat, and a faint touch of sweetener in the form of fruit, maple syrup, agave, honey almost always makes a dish really shine. Texture is hugely important – nothing satisfies like an umami-laden crust of, say, pulverized shiitake, pulverized dried tomato, and herbs pressed into a piece of meat or tofu and then lightly fried or roasted till highly crispy.
The difference between, say, the Cheesecake Factory and breakaway cooking at home, concerns both quantity and quality – small amounts of extremely high-quality olive oil, flavored salts, vinegar, fruit/agave/maple syrup/honey, and tarting up a vegetable “carrier.” I also think the big chains have yet to understand the power of umami. God help us if they do!
Check out the book, please — you won’t find a more compelling analysis of why we eat the way we do today. Would love to discuss it here.