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Overeating has many aspects.

Addiction to processed food. It is not a straightforward case of gluttony.

(Much of the information on this page comes from David Kessler's book - The end to overeating. See details in the reference section.)

The fat, sugar and salt story.

Many people are completely unaware that food manufacturers have been deliberately adding extra sugar, fat and salt to processed food to make it more palatable and desirable. When creating a new line, the starting point is not how nutritious the product will be but how much it will appeal to potential customers. Most commonly, manufacturers use a judging panel that is given no information as to the nutritional value but is simply asked to vote on what is most appealing taste wise. As has been known by food processors for many years, products which are high in fat, sugar and salt are by far the most appealing. You can try this out yourself: try adding vanilla crystals first to low fat milk and then to full cream milk. The effect is immediately apparent, with the low fat mix being almost unpalatable compared to the full cream result. When such selection panels are quizzed on what they think might be the level of sugar, fat and salt, they by and large underestimate how much is present. They are often unaware for example how much salt has been added to sweet dishes.

Conditioning meat.

However, it doesn't end there. In meat containing foods, the meat has often been reprocessed to make it softer and more succulent by a number of methods. The most common is by grinding the meat and then reconstructing it with special binders so that the consumer is required to do virtually no chewing, allowing the food to be consumed at a much faster rate, leading to increasing consumption. Meats which are not ground are often injected via a needle array with a special marinating solutions to create the same effect.

The art used in creating processed foods.

The art of creating highly desirable products is not random guess work but based on highly scientific research work. There are regular major conferences around the world where food processors meet to discuss the latest techniques to make food even more irresistible. For example processed food is often layered to produce a progressive taste experience as the various textures and flavours enter the mouth and come in contact with the tongue and cheeks. Hence we see for example, potato fries which are no longer simple fries, but coated in various flavoured batters and then deep fried, and served with a creamy dipping sauce. This produces a dish which is fat, sugar and salt (dipping sauce) on fat, sugar and salt (the deep fried batter) on almost pure carbohydrate (the potato). Often times, in the same dish, spicy or hot flavours in one part are contrasted to sweet creamy parts in another adjoining area creating a progressive taste sensation. As the food processor researcher know extremely well, most people simply go for the taste since they believe that if it tastes good, it must be good. Sadly this is far from the truth.

We are programmed by our evolutionary past.

However, the process goes beyond modern day manipulation of food: we have been programmed from our recently evolutionary past to make us greatly desire foods which are high in fat and sugar. These energy rich foods were not common in palaelothic times and the ancestors with access to them would have improved their odds of survival. Hence the pathways in the brains of early man that induced a desire for these foods would have been selected for as a survival trait. These characteristics are still strongly expressed in modern humans. What has changed for modern humans is the unrestricted access to these energy dense foods, something that was never encountered by our pre-historic forebears.(Haslam 05) Because this vastly increased exposure to energy dense foods has only occurred in the past few decades, the adverse health effects from it cannot have exerted any evolutionary selection pressure. Moreover, because these ill effects mainly occur after children bearing age, they are likely to have little effect on our genetic makeup.

For many people, this has meant that they cannot resist the temptation of eating more and more of these luscious, melt-in-your mouth foods, eating when they are not hungry and eating way past the point where they feel full.This is not done for health. People's enjoyment is being played upon to increase manufacturers' profits with a complete disregard for its adverse health and environmental consequences.

Manufactured foods induce a true addiction.

These foods (or more accurately food like substances) stimulate the same dopamine pleasure pathways in your brain that are involved in the addiction to drugs such as cocaine and heroin. Thus a true addiction is set up.

There is now much experimental evidence in laboratory animals of this process. In one experiment, laboratory rats were divided into two groups. The first was given ordinary food pellets which were provided without restriction. These rats maintained their usual weight and stopped eating when they were full. The second group was fed a variety of supermarket foods which were regarded by humans as highly desirable. Such foods had been altered by their manufacturers to have increased  amounts of sugar, fat and salt to maximize their palatability. Rats exposed to these foods would continue to eat them way beyond the point of satiety. They rapidly gained weight to a level double that of the control group. In another experiment, rats had to cross an electrified grid to gain access to their food. It was shown that rats would endure much physical hardship if they knew that these highly palatable sugar and fat augmented foods were available. Further experiments demonstrated that rats would use almost the same effort to obtain these addictive manufactured foods as they would to obtain further cocaine.

Conditioned overeating.

The consumption of highly palatable manufactured foods sets up a conditioned response. The reward from such foods sets up reflex pathways in the brain that lead to increased desire to consume more of these foods. Many people experience cravings, with thoughts about consuming more of these highly palatable foods crowding out other matters particular if they have made an effort to resist further consumption.

Observations in children are very instructive. In pre-school children, many display a compensatory response to food containing excess calories by consuming fewer calories afterwards, thus demonstrating a homeostatic mechanism to prevent excessive nutrition. However, in the presence of more recently developed highly palatable manufactured foods, this reflex is over-ridden. Children will continue to eat beyond the point of no longer being hungry or feeling full. This response is now quite common and sets the scene for later excessive consumption.

Food is now much more accessible and it now no longer frowned on to consume food in public, with many social interactions now occurring in the presence of food. Thus this conditioned overeating continues almost everywhere we go, with the temptation to consume more and more occurring almost our whole waking time.

Obesity has significant energy costs.

This goes beyond just a matter of personal health. Over consumption of food adds significantly to a person's carbon foot print in two ways: first, the production of western style food uses considerable amounts of energy so that the more a person eats the more of the world's energy they consume; second, obese people use more energy to get around since they require larger cars and use more fuel because of the additional loading of the vehicle.

 

 References:

(Haslam 05) David W Haslam, W Philip T James. Obesity. Lancet 2005;366:1197-1209

(Kessler 09) David Kessler. The end to overeating. Taking control of the insatiable American Diet. 2009 Rodale.