Ending Overeating: An Interview With Former FDA Commissioner David Kessler

Readers, today we have an enormous treat: An interview with a true thought leader in food, and one of Casual Kitchen's biggest influences, Dr. David Kessler.

Long-time CK readers of course know Dr. Kessler as the author of the exceptional book The End of Overeating, which exposed many of the food and restaurant industry's most pernicious and manipulative food processing techniques. His book completely reshaped how I think about food (you can read my rabidly positive review here), and it galvanized many CK readers to reconsider the suspect value of most processed foods and restaurant meals.

What readers may not know is that Kessler's book is just the tip of the iceberg of his career: Kessler ran the entire US Federal Drug Administration from 1990 to 1997, and he was a rare example of a senior government official who was able to work successfully under both a Republican and a Democratic President (George Bush Sr., who appointed him, and Bill Clinton, who kept him on). During his tenure FDA Commissioner, he was best known for dramatically increasing regulations on cigarettes, instituting many of our current food labeling requirements, and for stiffening the regulatory framework surrounding our food industry. After leaving government service, he served as the Dean of Yale Medical School.

I asked Dr. Kessler to talk about The End of Overeating for one simple reason: If there's ever a time of year we should read his book, it's right now during the holidays when we're surrounded and most tempted by processed, hyperpalatable and unhealthy foods. I'm grateful that he took the time to share insights about his book, about the food industry, and about the current state of overeating today.

Here's what he had to say:

CK: What's changed in the two and a half years since the publication of The End of Overeating? Are things improving in our culture with regard to obesity and our eating habits?

Dr. Kessler: It's been gratifying that new science continues to support the findings in The End of Overeating. I purposefully did not use the word "addiction" in the book, feeling it was a distraction, but scientists increasingly are using addiction science to look at the world of overeating and weight gain. The past two and a half years have seen an explosion in attention to this topic. Awareness and knowledge can only help us make informed decisions about what we eat.

What's the most important piece of advice you'd share with the average person who's up against the modern food industry?

It is most important to understand how huge portions of foods loaded and layered with sugar, fat, and salt can hijack the mechanisms of our brains. It's not always obvious what those foods are, so try to know what's in that chicken breast, as well as what's on that hamburger.

What's been the harshest, most unusual or most unsound criticism that you've received about The End of Overeating? And what reader responses to your book have most inspired you?

One criticism [I've received] is that I place the blame for the obesity epidemic on food companies, who are merely selling what the public wants, and not on individuals. I believe that corporations have a responsibility not to manipulate the brains of consumers. I believe individuals have the responsibility to understand they are being manipulated. I think that is clear to readers of The End of Overeating.

I am most inspired by readers who approach me after I have given a talk on the topics in the book and tell me that they felt for the first time as if someone knew what they were going through, that the science of that was a revelation, and their eating habits and lives had been changed forever. Heady stuff!

Some of the central ideas of your book--if taken to an extreme--can put us on uncomfortable ground. An example: if hyperpalatable food is truly bad, does this mean that the food industry should instead sell us "not-very-good-tasting food" so we won't eat so much? Is it really Big Food's fault that it merely sells the very food that we consumers consent to buy?

We've been conditioned to consume those loaded and layered foods. Believe it or not, once you know what's in those products, they can become "not-very-good-tasting food." Foods that are not highly processed, real foods, can taste good once we break the cycle of eating hyperpalatable foods. Food companies have long known what sells. Now they know the science of why. What is their responsibility once they have that knowledge?

You were appointed to run the FDA in 1990 under bipartisan support. You've successfully served under presidents of both the right and the left. If President Obama took you aside and asked you for your top policy suggestions on the subject of heath, diet and the business of food, what would you tell him?

What I tell all policy-makers is what I've said in my answers to your questions. Policies about truth in food marketing, food labeling, farm subsidies, etc., should be informed, as all good public health policy is, by the science.

Readers, share your thoughts and opinions!

Related Posts:
Four Steps to Put an End to Overeating
The Pros and Cons of Restaurant Calorie Labeling Laws
Obesity and the Obama Administration: A Blogger Roundtable Discussion
Who's Watching the Watchdogs? Ethical Problems in the "Ten Riskiest Foods" Report By the CSPI

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Anonymous said...

Now that we are aware, what can we do about it? Personally...

I eat JUNQUE because I can, because I want to, because I am sad, because I am bored, etc.
(I also eat plainly baked chicken, & steamed vegetables for dinner 5 plus times a week. & I eat plain oatmeal also 5 times a week.)

Yeah, I know that single serve brownie is full of CR@P, is over priced, etc. but it is 1 serving...

chacha1 said...

Re: bad food tasting bad once you're used to good food: definitely.

I had a serious Pop-Tart habit when I worked in an office where they were free in the breakroom. Mmmm nom nom nom sugar!! After moving to a different job, I started eating a real breakfast.

Recently I was on jury duty and desperately hungry. The options in the snack bar were all bad. I got a package of Pop-Tarts and they tasted DISGUSTING.

So ... yeah.

MikeH said...

I am very opposed to the "nanny state". Inform me and all others then let me make the decision for me. I don't need the government sitting beside me at the table. They sure do just about everywhere else.

Daniel said...

I've noticed the exact same phenomenon as Chacha refers to. Not just with processed foods but also with salt. Just like our palates adapt to salty, fatty, sugary deliciousness, they can alto be adapted away. The thing is, it takes some time. For us, adapting our palates away from salt took us a number of weeks.

But de-saltifying our palates came with an enormous and unexpected payback: almost all restaurant meals now taste like brine to us--and it saves us a ton of money.


Daniel said...

MikeH: the nanny state question is an interesting one, and I've raised it elsewhere in yet another post I wrote about Kessler's solutions for reining in the food industry. With cigarettes, it's an easier question to figure out where to draw the line.

With food I don't know. For me, I feel like we have an obligation and a responsibility to empower ourselves. We can't just appeal to the government to fix everything as if they were some sort of parental authority. We consumers can take ownership of what's on our store shelves too. But I am open to disagreement and debate on where I stand on this issue.


Joanne said...

I never keep processed foods at home and so really...after eating homemade for this long, none of that other stuff even tastes good to me! I think it's definitely true that if you stop eating hyperpalatable food for long enough, you'll start being able to appreciate REAL food.

chacha1 said...

I have no patience with the "nanny state" objection. Just like I have no patience with people who complain about government spending but scream about having their government benefits cut.

All the governmental regulations that have been put in place to protect citizens are there in response to citizen demand. The government doesn't do a single.blessed.thing that citizens haven't asked for.

If someone is smart and responsible and capable of figuring out, e.g., how to read a food label and why it's desirable to wear a seat belt, well yippee for them. The regulations don't impinge on their rights at all.

There are a lot of people out there who AREN'T smart and responsible. And they cost the *rest of us* a whole lot of money - much more than we spend enacting and enforcing protective regulations.

Government without protective regulations = Zimbabwe.


Daniel said...

Chacha, you make a solid point, and the regulations you cite (seatbelts, food labels) are ones that I'd say almost all of us agree are "good" regulations.

But I can think of one excellent contra-example out there that makes the opposing case: that more regulation isn't always better. There are instances where regulations can actually hurt consumers.

The thing is, my contra-example turned into a full post :) that I plan to run in the next few weeks. Thanks, as always, for prompting me to think.


chacha1 said...

I live to serve. :-)

It'll be great to see your counter-example, because a lot of people make that statement - that excessive regulation can hurt consumers - but I've never seen it effectively backed up. If an example is offered, it is usually something very arcane that applies to a very small population, vs safety regulations that benefit the *entire* population. So ... bring it! I always like to learn something!