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June 18, 2009

Adult baby food and the science of overeating

Katharine Mieszkowski has a fascinating interview with Dr. David Kessler, the former head of the FDA and now the author of a The End of Overeating. His book reviews the science of appetite and self-control and describes how food scientists exploit the flaws in our natural appetite control systems to create foods hyperpalatable foods that people can't stop eating:

KM: What makes a food hyper-palatable? Even if you like apples, you're probably likely to eat one and not gorge yourself on four more. Where if you like nachos, you might eat way more than you had intended to when you started. What is the difference between these foods?

DK: It starts with how many chews there are in a bite. If you take a stimulus and you get a sensory hit and it disappears, what do you do immediately next?

KM: You take another bite.

DK: Yes. We're eating, in essence, adult baby food. Twenty years ago the average chews per bite was about 20, now it's two or three. The food goes down in a whoosh and it's very stimulating. It's layered and loaded with fat, sugar and salt. It's as if you have a roller coaster going on in your mouth. You get stimulated, it disappears instantly and you reach for more.

We're often told that the secret to healthy eating is to listen to our bodies. Kessler argues that a lot of junkfood is engineered to make sure those messages aren't sent even when we've eaten plenty.

Tobacco companies have been accused of spiking nicotine levels in an attempt to make their product more addictive. These allegations sparked massive public outrage. Even people who think it's okay to sell of potentially addictive products to adults may bristle at the thought of a company deliberately engineering a product to make it even more addictive. I don't know if the nicotine-spiking allegations were ever proven, it's not in Big Tobacco's interest to give more buzz for fewer cigarettes. But the very idea certainly touched a nerve.

Will the public have the same reaction to junkfood manufacturers when they learn that scientists have studied the instincts that tell us we're full and schemed to defeat them?

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See also "Mindless Eating", by Brian Wansink. There's a book, and a website (though the website seems to be down).

Mieszkowski has a good interview with Wasink, too.

The Wasink interview's observation about gender is interesting. It certainly helps explain why women are likelier to be obese than men even while they're also likelier to be underweight.

When we asked men, they said: "When I eat meal-related foods, I really feel cared for, I feel like I'm important, I feel like I'm the center of attention." And when we asked women about those same foods, women said: "Yeah, we like them, they just don't really give us that much comfort, because when we think of these foods we think of the fact that we're probably going to have to make them, we're probably going to have to clean up after them." For women, they didn't have associations of comfort. They had associations of work. That's why women tended to gravitate more toward some of these foods that are less effort -- ice cream, cake, cookies, candy, chips -- all of which are pretty much pre-made foods. They don't take much effort to dish up, or to clean up.

Does this work on babies too? I'm worries because my baby isn't that much.

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