Four Steps to Put an End to Overeating

David Kessler was arguably the most activist FDA Commissioner in history. Now, he's back in the spotlight with a new book, The End of Overeating(here's my rabidly positive review if you missed it), in which he lists four controversial recommendations to rein in a food industry that he believes has run amok.

Are his suggestions good ideas or hopelessly misguided? In my view, a little of both. Let's take a look.

1) "Restaurants should list the calorie counts of all foods they serve on their menu--by mandate, if they're not willing to do so voluntarily."

Let me admit up front that I've only recently come around to agreeing with this idea. I'd always taken more of a free-market view towards food, both in restaurants and in stores, and for a long time I was completely against the recently-enacted rules requiring major chain restaurants to post calorie counts for their menu items. My logic fell along the lines of "hey, nobody puts a gun to your head and makes you wolf down that Monster Thickburger, so let's focus instead on personal responsibility and eating in moderation."

However, after learning about the many food engineering, processing and layering techniques the restaurant industry uses to entice diners to eat far beyond their daily needs, I've come to believe that the preposterous calorie counts of restaurant dishes should be revealed to consumers, and all restaurants, chains or not, should fall under these rules. Consumers should know exactly what they're getting themselves into when they order a meal. Furthermore, a mandate like this will give restaurants an instant incentive to put several lower-calorie options on their menus. If you disagree, I'd love to hear why.

2) "All food products should convey prominently on their labels the percentage of added sugars, refined carbohydrates, and fats they contain."

Again, agreed, and I didn't even have to come around to this one. I've felt all along that the federally mandated labels on packaged food don't go far enough. For more on this subject, and to see a particularly devious way to exploit labeling requirements in order to hide the contents of a processed food, see my post on how to hide sugar in plain sight. Kessler's recommendation would add the final piece of the puzzle for the consumer to make truly informed decisions about the packaged foods they buy.

3) "Well-funded public education campaigns should address the issue of "big food." People need to hear repeatedly, from many sources, that selling, serving, and eating food layered and loaded with sugar, fat, and salt has negative, unhealthy consequences."

The model that Kessler wants to follow is that of government funded anti-tobacco advertising. One could imagine gruesome photos of clogged arteries, or appetite-killing descriptions of advanced Type II diabetes symptoms.

I have issues here: it's one thing for the government to use tax dollars to sponsor advertising on something that literally kills you. It's another thing to have the government sponsor negative advertising on something that only kills you when eaten to ridiculous, Homer Simpson-esque levels of excess. Is it fair to punish everyone for the sins of a few people who eat too much of a good thing, and more importantly, is this an intelligent use of tax dollars? I think it's a stretch to say yes.

4) "Food marketing should be monitored and exposed. When the industry promotes superstimulants that lead to conditioned and driven behavior, it's not presenting neutral information; it's promoting harmful behavior."

This is the squishiest and most dangerously broad of Kessler's ideas, and I'd hate to see the 1,000 page bill that comes plopping out of Congress to try and satisfy this vaguely phrased recommendation. Not to mention, we already have a government agency that monitors advertising and marketing: The Federal Trade Commission. Perhaps a more prudent idea would be to stiffen that agency's regulations and policies first.

Readers, what do you think about these recommendations? Fair? Or foul?

Finally, for those of you who haven't yet read David Kessler's The End of Overeating, do so. It's well worth it.

Related Posts:
How to Lie About the Soda Tax
Just Say No to Overpriced Boxed Cereal
Why Our Food Industry Isn't So Bad After All
Stacked Costs and Second-Order Foods: A New Way to Think About Rising Food Costs
Eat Right to See Right: Foods for Better Eye Health

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Julia said...

I disagree with parts of point (1). The smaller, independently owned restaurants don't have the means to do a calorie count for their recipes. First, the menus often change regularly. Second, this kind of analysis is time-consuming and costly. Not only does the restaurant need to precisely write-down the recipe, they must submit it for analysis.

I just went through this process with one of my clients. It wasn't a huge deal because he has 5 items plus sides on the menu, and it doesn't change. But if it did, it would be insane.

Otherwise, I would agree with your assertions. I was just reading the nutritional information for Uno's Pizza and was appalled to discover that their "Individual" sized pizza has 600 calories per serving, and *3* servings per pizza!

AmandaLP said...

My issue with these recommendations is that it seems like another way to demonize and moralize the issue of fatness and weight. If you took two people, who are eating the same exact meal, society places a moral judgment on the one who is larger in size.

I fully agree that the marketing and food manufacture process (including restaurant food) should be much more transparent, and that consumers should have ALL of the information that they need to make informed eating choices.

I think a campaign to eat more unprocessed foods would be much more effective than a "do not eat bad foods" campaign. It is always easier to do something than to not do something.

Heather B said...

Your comments on point 3 seem a little inconsistent with your thoughts on point 1. The whole thing about food engineering techniques is that you *don't* have to eat obviously ridiculous portions in order to consume excessively. For instance, it's taken me a fair amount of self-education to understand the difference between the way my birth family eats and the way I have to eat if I want to attain and maintain a healthy weight.

It seems to me that point 3 is an analog to point 1, in that those little numbers on menus are easy to ignore unless you know that they contain valuable and counter-intuitive information.

I also question your "sins of a few people" comment. When a third (or so -- I don't know the number these days) of adults are overweight or obese, I don't think you can call that "a few people" anymore. That becomes a public health issue with potentially grave consequences for future (Medicare) tax dollars.

Devon said...

The government doesn’t have to run a fast-food smear campaign, a la cigarettes, to teach Americans healthier eating habits. Highlighting the positive effects of healthy eating would be just as effective and more palatable.

Unknown said...

This is one of the few books I've ever read where I agree with a significant part of the author's central thesis (big food is making us fat), but still hated the book so much that I wanted to throw it across the room.

I was only able to get through about a quarter of it before I put it down. Since I'm a food blogger, I obviously believe in the pleasure of eating food. Mr. Kessler seems to be saying that eating for pleasure is an evil that must be eradicated.
*I'm exaggerating for effect. A little.

These four points are a prime example. I lost a lot of weight a few years back, based primarily on a combination of "mindful eating", and counting calories. If you pay attention, eat until you're full and stop, and eat real food, well prepared, you can maintain a reasonable weight.
*(I lost about 80 pounds, gained 40 back, and I'm happy with where my weight has stabilized.)

So I have some sympathies for #1 and #2. If you don't know what you're eating, how can you pay attention?

But, I think #1 would just hurt all the restaurants I actually WANT to eat in - smaller places that serve good food (as Julia says above.)

#3 and #4 are prime examples of my problems with the book's message. I can't read #3 without getting angry - sugar, fat and salt have negative consequences when eaten to excess, and I agree that big food is making that easy to do if you're not paying attention. But Mr. Kessler is demonizing the source of most of the flavor in food, and coming dangerously close to demonizing food itself.

I'm trying to raise three kids in this environment. I want them to be aware of what they're eating, and what's good for them, but not be scared to eat any food in moderation. I was grilled by my then-2nd grade son about this, about a year ago: "Sugar is bad, so I shouldn't have this cookie, right Dad?" That's what I got out of this book, and that's NOT what I want my kids to be learning.

Like Dan mentioned in an earlier post, I much prefer Michael Pollan and Marion Nestle's approach to this issue. They have most of the same information, with a lot less of the scare tactics.


FoodCalc LLC. said...

In regards to point 1, I love seeing nutrition information on menus both as a consumer and as a nutrition professional. Because I work with both chain and independent restaurants ( I have to agree with Julia in that it’s not a simple task for independents that don’t even have recipe specs a lot of the time. What I have seen lately is a lot of restaurants (both chain and independents) starting to provide nutrition information on their own without being mandated. I think that we will continue to see more of this in the future.

Daniel said...

These are some great insights. Thanks for the comments so far. I had a few thoughts in reaction:

Julie: you make a valid point--it was interesting to note that the rules recently passed in New York only apply to chain restaurants with ten or more locations. Perhaps it's a good compromise. I hope to address this more deeply in a forthcoming post.

Heather B: You made a couple of intriguing comments, thanks for joining in. I guess my view on #3 was geared toward addressing whether spending money toward demonizing big food would be an effective use of tax dollars and a judicious use of government resources.

Mike, agreed that the book is somewhat inflammatory, although I suspect Kessler does some of it for effect. I thought there was much, much more to the book than that, however. But, as we used to say in my old profession: that's what makes it a market. Thanks for your thoughts.


Unknown said...


I'm sure you're right that there is more to the book than the inflammatory parts. wife agrees with you. She loved the book, and thought there was a lot of good information in it. We had a spirited discussion of the pros and cons of the book after I read her the commend I left above.


Daniel said...

Mike, nothing wrong with some healthy disagreement! If you see flaws in the book, by all means share them--it helps everybody make a better decision on whether it's worth the time and attention to read the book. I'd definitely encourage you to do you own review in your blog and frame up the other side of the argument. I'll be sure to stop by and add my thoughts.


Marcia said...

I read the book and I found it interesting, for sure. I agreed with some points and disagreed with others, as is normal I suppose.

I don't eat out very often. It's not my thing anymore. If I want to maintain my 50-lb weight loss, I just can't do it. And now that I cook, my food is better than most restaurants.

I was recently out to dinner for "girls night" however. I noticed that California Pizza Kitchen has calorie counts on their menu. And I loved it! So, it was a little tricky that the pizza calories are only for 1-2 slices, and the salad calories are for the whole thing. But it really *did* help me make my decision for the 700-calorie salad.

I don't necessarily think it would be difficult for most restaurants to at least estimate calories for the items on their menus. I do it for my own menus at home occasionally.

And I guess on #3 and #4, I don’t know. It’s kind of squishy, I agree, on how much we really need to tell people that sugar is bad for you (or other things). Shouldn’t people know that already?

I just had a visit from my mother-in-law and her best friend. And we got into an argument over “The Omnivore’s Dilemma”. When asked if I read it, I pulled it off the shelf. Friend said “I didn’t like it, it was boring, I couldn’t finish it.”

So, I can understand that it does get technical at times. Fair enough. But then MIL said “I KNOW I wouldn’t like it. Not my kind of book.” But she didn’t read it. And even when my spouse started giving her an idea of what it was about, she shot him down. I wanted to say “okay, I get it, you don’t care where your food comes from. Got it. Remember though, where you get your food here in the US is nothing like things were when you were growing up in Europe.”

But I didn’t. I really wanted to though.

Daniel said...

Marcia, thanks for sharing your thoughts. I like your example of how the calorie information helped you make a decision. That's a good example of empowering the consumer.

And by the way, I commend you on your diplomatic skills. :)


Holly said...

I don't buy that it's a time consuming burden to put calorie information on a menu. We count calories at our house and we like to cook. Before the meal hits the table, we've already mentally tallied the calories. This isn't rocket science. It is probably harder to come up with fiber, protein, carb and fat counts - but I really don't think all that is as important as the calorie information.
I think if prepared foods fell under this guideline, you wouldn't need all the other "big brother" tactics. If people know the calorie count of their Philly steak and cheese sandwich and choose to eat it anyway, I doubt a public service billboard will convince them otherwise.

Farhad Kazemi said...

I don't think overeating is as important as the type of food we eat. Of course you never want to overeat but how many times have you come across a raw vegan who had an overeating problem. Overweight people are starving for nutrients, but not short on volume. We can all increase the quality of our food by eating more fresh organic fruits and vegetables, and now you can get fresh organic vegetables for free in your own plot: so no more excuses.

wosnes said...

I haven't read the book. I don't think calorie counts and nutritional analysis will stop overeating -- at least not for many people. They've both been around for years and the obesity problem has only become more of a problem.

Demonizing foods and food groups hasn't worked, either. And some of it may be wrong.

What will make a difference? Learning about portion control and not eating 24/7! In a nutshell: eating less and moving more. Practicing moderation and avoiding excess would be good, too.

I do agree that there needs to be some sort of a campaign about eating more unprocessed foods -- and that those foods are not necessarily expensive or time-consuming to prepare.

Within the last couple of weeks, I've also heard from two nutrition experts that most of us don't need snacks. Three meals daily is sufficient. I tend to agree. If one does need snacks, they should be no more than 100-150 calories, not another meal.

Daniel said...

Some more great insights.

Holly, I don't know what kind of a burden it might be to put calorie information on menus (any restaurant owners care to chime in?), but I think most of us are interested in seeing that information when we eat out. I guess that speaks for itself.

Farhad: Interesting point. I'll concur--I did a trial of a week of 100% raw foods and I felt like I was eating all the time. I think that's one of Kessler's points--most processed food is essentially engineered to be easy to swallow and wolf down. That's what enables us to ingest so many more calories without knowing what hit us.

Wosnes, I don't know if I agree with you. I guess I'd prefer to be an optimist and assume that the majority of people will put to good use the additional calorie and nutritional information. But I might be a wide-eyed fool to think that. Also, great points on portion control and snacking.


wosnes said...

I'm over 60. When I was growing up few people knew about calories and nutrition information consisted of "eat your vegetables; they're good for you," and grandma's admonition to "eat your roughage; it's good for you". Extremely few people were overweight and practically no one was obese, let alone morbidly obese.

Every year since about 1970 has brought us more and more nutritional information. Calorie counter books abound. And every year since about 1970 we've gotten heavier and heavier.

If we aren't already using the information that's out there, why would we use more? It's just....more.

It seems to me that this is putting all of the responsibility on Big Food. What about us?

chacha1 said...

I'm a fan of calorie counts but agree with the NYC-style limitation: Mom & Pop with their one little cafe shouldn't be required to do this. McDonald's should be. Recent research does show that calorie information does influence food choice.

Regarding no. 2, more in-depth food labeling, I am again a fan. I think it would be hugely helpful for the average consumer to be able to differentiate between the sugar and fat that occur *naturally* in the food and the sugar and fat that have been *added.*

Against 3 and 4. If we are going to spend tax dollars to fight obesity, we should do it in what I consider the simplest and most obvious way: by turning public school cafeterias into classrooms and TEACHING KIDS HOW TO PREPARE REAL FOOD. Ooops sorry, got excited there.