Monday, May 04, 2009

The unbearable tastiness of eating

I heard an interview with David Kessler MD, former FDA commissioner, author of the new book The End of Overeating, last night, and it was really bizarre. The man is clearly disgusted by the fact that people get pleasure out of eating and therefore eat a lot of junk food. I would pull a quote or two, but that's a little tough with radio programs. The way he described the neurobiological picture of appetite and desire for food captured what for me has become the most irritating trend in science writing; the "neural circuitry" as separate from self. I'll paraphrase his description of what happens when you see or think of something yummy: your idiotic brain tells you to eat it. It's not you that wants it; it's your brain. If I have a memory of ice cream being delicious, the memory of it giving me pleasure is surely going to be reflected in the "neural circuitry" of my brain. That doesn't make the pleasure any less real or important to my experience of eating. Eating is much more emotionally and experientially complex than simply meeting needs for energy and nutrients. Kessler seems to think this is a problem. I'm glad, and yeah, not a religious eater of healthy food - if I need to eat several times a day, I'd like it to be pleasant. This isn't some kind of creepy mind control, it's a natural desire for tasty food that is reflected in a physical process in my brain. The things I do, feel, want, think, arise from physical processes in my brain. Is that such a bad thing? If we're going to get all excited about "the neuroscience behind" everything, we might as well appreciate and accept the unconscious processes in our brains that contribute to making a personality. Having experience with these processes being manipulated and out-and-out breaking down, I think I have a unique and useful perspective on the issue. From a BoingBoing post about the book:

Instead of satisfying hunger, the salt-fat-sugar combination will stimulate that diner's brain to crave more, Kessler said. For many, the come-on offered by Lay's Potato Chips -- "Betcha can't eat just one" -- is scientifically accurate. And the food industry manipulates this neurological response, designing foods to induce people to eat more than they should or even want, Kessler found...
I think this is a pretty disingenuous thing to write in a book nominally about overeating (which isn't about liking food, exactly, but appetite). The implication of this statement is that if you eat sugar and salt and fat, your hunger will never feel sated. I haven't read the book, but the press about it implies that what this means is that eating food and liking it creates a horrible and unforgettable memory of enjoying it.

The food industry faces a unique problem in our growth-dependent economy: there's only so much people can eat. In that respect, it's not in their interest to pack as many calories as they can into a food product that will have little effect on satiety. They're not trying to sell us calories, they're trying to sell us bags of Doritos.

If I'm still hungry after I finish one bag of Doritos (and if they're light and calorically insubstantial, I am likely to be) I might buy another and eat it too. A good example would probably be diet soda, which they can sell at the same price as regular, but get me to drink a lot more of. I drink quite a lot, myself, but would get a tummy ache if I drank two regular Cokes a day. The problem with making up the nutritional defecit in volume is that there are lots of low-cal foods out there we could be burning through at an enormous rate, but we don't like them very much and in the case of fresh fruit and vegetables, they don't offer much in the way of branding.

I like rice cakes*, but I hardly see the point. I like them, but not enough to justify buying them and getting crumbs all over myself for so little energy payoff. We like fatty, salty, and sugary foods. Convincing me I want to buy and eat more calories than I need or really want is not so hard with truly yummy foods. With other goods, merchants are only limited in their sales by how much of their product people want - which they work a lot to manipulate - or can afford. I have x number pairs of shoes, but I could stand to have more. Like food marketers exploit our natural desire for rich foods, manufacturers of shoes manipulate my desire to look pretty and prestigious. Both of these desires are real, but they don't really tie directly in to the purchase of these goods. My collection of shoes doesn't include any that I like currently, but buying more won't have much effect on my standing in society. Having a nice pair that I liked would, however, make me feel like I looked better. These tactics work with foods, too, so a winemaker can say that you're living the good life when you drink his wine in an attempt to get you to buy it, but Kessler seems more offended by the appeals to taste than any other method of convincing you to put food in your mouth. If these baser motivations bother Kessler so much, you'd think he'd be worried a little about Axe brand hygiene products, the safety of which are dubious, that market themselves by appealing to young men's desire for sex. If Kessler is motivated purely out of concern for the health of poor widdow Americans that like french fries, the moral crusade he's on is equally applicable to the Axe products. We're prisoners to our desire for junk food and sex! How dare these companies exploit our weaknesses like this?!

*How did this iconic diet food lose its place in the pantry of the dieter? When was the last time you saw someone eating one?

Oh my god I'm hungry - time for breakfast.
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