Review: The End of Overeating by David Kessler

Note: An expanded version of this post is on my book review blog, What I Just Read.
Why is it impossible to eat just one Dorito? Why do we crave some foods and not others? Why is it easy for many of us to eat far beyond satiation--even though we know we're going to regret it?

Why, in short, do we overeat?

These are the fundamental questions that former FDA Commissioner David Kessler asks in his new book The End of Overeating.

In this book, you'll learn why some foods, tweaked and optimized by food designers and engineers to be "hyperpalatable," drive us to irrational cravings. You'll learn how our biology and our psychology conspire with these hyperpalatable foods to lead us to engage in "conditioned hypereating," causing us to eat far past the point where we're full.

You'll also learn how foods are processed, standardized and saturated with sugars and fats before being served at casual theme restaurant chains across the country. One particularly disturbing example describes chicken breasts pierced with hundreds of needles (for a more tender texture), injected with water or saline (to add moisture and bulk), breaded with sugary, salted flour (for extra palatability), and then par-fried, frozen and shipped to your local restaurant franchise. After a second frying, the chicken is practically pre-chewed by the time it arrives at your table.

Sheesh. And I thought I had already come up with all the best reasons to avoid second-order foods.

Needless to say, it is not normal to eat food prepared this way. But because so much of the food in restaurants and grocery stores is heavily processed, who's to say what is even normal anymore? And while there is an enormous amount of personal responsibility each of us can exercise between our forks and mouths, you can't help feeling after reading this book that the food deck is stacked against all but the most iron-willed of people.

This book has a few flaws: The first section contains some 10-15 pages of borderline erotic descriptions of chocolate chip cookies, pizza and M&Ms as Kessler gradually sets up his arguments against engineered foods. Two or three pages would have sufficed and would have left me quite a bit less hungry. And at times Kessler plays an unconvincing innocent, wandering Michael Moore-like into meetings and conversations with industry insiders and expressing affected shock at the techniques and methods used in the food business. The innocent guy act might work if Kessler wasn't one of the most politically savvy civil servants ever to head up the FDA--and a key force behind most of the new food labeling regulations passed during the 1990s.

But these are minor criticisms of an otherwise exceptional, insightful and shocking book.

Read The End of Overeating and you'll learn how our biology and psychology cause us to crave and consume foods to the point of irrationality. Read it to learn how the food industry entices us to eat more than we should of foods that are less healthy than they could be. But most importantly, read this book to become a more aware eater and a more aware consumer.

Readers, those of you familiar with my reading blog know that I love putting together reading lists from the books I read. If you're interested in further reading on the many subjects touched on in The End of Overeating, here's a list of some of the most interesting books Kessler used as sources:

1) Fat Girl: A True Story by Judith Moore
2) Waistland: The R/evolutionary Science Behind Our Weight and Fitness Crisis by Deirdre Barret
3) The Fortune Cookie Chronicles: Adventures in the World of Chinese Food by Jennifer 8. Lee
4) Dieter's Dilemma: Eating Less and Weighing More by William Bennett and Joel Gurin
5) Willpower's Not Enough: Recovering from Addictions of Every Kind by Arnold Washton and Joan Zweben
6) Biting the Hand That Starves You: Inspiring Resistance to Anorexia/Bulimia by Richard Maisel, David Epston and Ali Borden

Related Posts:
Does Healthy Eating Really Cost Too Much? Blogger Roundtable
A Question of Food Quality
Why Our Food Industry Isn't So Bad After All
Just Say No to Overpriced Boxed Cereal

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Joanne said...

I'm always up for becoming more aware, especially when it comes to food so thanks for the review. It never fails to surprise me how low the food industry can go to "please" the public. They are ruining everyone's palates! If only there could be a revolution where everyone at once decided to start cooking healthier, fresher, REALER meals then maybe people would begin to appreciate how delicious fruits and veggies really are.

Alyssa said...

I bought this book and added it to my shelf lineup of "things to read sometimes maybe when I get around to it."

It just moved up :D

Natalie Que said...

Thanks Dan! Of course as bloggers we LIVE for comments letting us know we helped or inspired someone; so let me know how you go with the lamb.

Okay I, {as always} LOVED this post! I really love your objective critique of the book and it made me far more likely to listen to what you had to say than if you'd just bought into it wholly, dismissing it's quirks. I honestly couldn't have agreed more {without having read the book myself} with your thoughts on the subject!

And I love your description of the borderline erotic parts, hilarious. Reminds me of the way my husband rolls his eyes any time I watch Nigella Lawson, since he thinks she is always borderline erotic with her food!

Anyway, this was fantastic and I really want to read the book myself now!

Daniel said...

Joanne, I agree with you... And the issue of how food companies give the public what they "want" is a good subject to pursue in future posts. It's worth asking why, for example, Doritos sell so well. And is it wrong to sell them if there is demand for them? People are going to have to want to choose real foods, rather than simply going for the hyperpalatable foods that food companies manufacture for us.

Alyoops, happy to hear I gave you a push--feel free to share your thoughts via email or via comments on this post once you've read it.

HG: It was funny but I was getting borderline uncomfortable in the "erotic" section of the book...! I felt both hungry and a little bit sheepish reading that section, strangely enough. But he used those passages really effectively to set up his arguments, so they ultimately added to (and didn't detract meaningfully from) the book. Glad you enjoyed the post, and thanks so much for the great feedback.


Holly said...

I will have to check this out. I'm currently enjoying a similarly themed book called Mindless Eating that explains why we over eat from a different angle - environmental cues and industry decisions like packaging, lighting, food names, etc. Fascinating!

Daniel said...

Hi Holly, yep, Brian Wansink's book. I addressed some of his ideas in a post here at Casual Kitchen.

It can be mortifying to find out how our minds can play tricks on us, can't it? Thanks for sharing your thoughts.


Stacy said...

Such an important topic. Thank you for helping to make people more aware of what they are eating!

Unknown said...

Great review. This book is in my TBR pile, and it just moved up the list.

Like many people, I have had a weight issue. I have tried to follow Michael Pollan's mantra of "Eat food, not too much, mostly plants" and it is amazing how I feel so much better and have easily lost over 25 lbs in the past few months.

Daniel said...

Thanks TTG, I really appreciate the positive vibes.

Fiona, congrats big time on your weight loss, that is really impressive. Let me know what you think of the book once you finish it.


Jim Hohl said...

I am reading this now and so far so good. Thanks for the tip!

Daniel said...

Great to hear Jim! I'm looking forward to hearing your thoughts about it once you've finished.