The End of Overeating: Taking Control of the Insatiable American Appetite
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. 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 topic.
One of the biggest strengths of The End of Overeating (and the reason 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"). While for a large part of America calorie intake is outpacing calorie absorption, he acknowledges that 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 or a particular brand of chocolate—and think about how hard it is to turn away from the treat it promises. That is what Kessler is talking about, and The End of Overeating helps us to understand why we don’t just ’say no’. The first three 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. One also suspects Kessler would have done well to stop with his thorough analysis of the problem rather than extend the book to offering solutions as well. The 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 of the book. While there are a few useful suggestions, they don’t go beyond what common sense suggests, nor are they buttressed with any studies or other information on their efficacy. They also veer dangerously close to the "you can stop eating if only you try" approach that Kessler disses in the first half.
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.