I just finished The End of Overeating by David Kessler, former head of the FDA in the first Bush and Clinton administrations. In it he argues that the primary driver of our current obesity epidemic is the ubiquitous availability of large portions of hyperpalatable foods. What are hyperpalatable foods? Open a Chili’s menu or visit your local Panda Express or Cinnabon and you will see plenty of examples. These are highly processed foods with layers of suger, simple carbs, fats, salts and flavoring designed to be irresistible to consumers. They are foods that we crave, that we have become accustomed to eating in huge portions, that are dense in calories and often have strong flavors. The food and restaurant industries have become very good at making foods that we want to eat and the result has been millions of people essentially addicted to fattening foods.
For anyone old enough to remember when a Quarter Pounder was the biggest hamburger available at a fast food restaurant, this won’t really feel like news. We’ve watched the food industry evolve over the last 30 years first hand. Portions have grown, foods have become more indulgent, more flavorful, with more textures. Comfort food is everywhere, and eating it feels great, at least it does for the two minutes it takes to shovel it down our throats. What might seem like news is the extent to which the food industry knows and understands what they are doing. Just as cigarette companies want more people to smoke and people to smoke more, restaurant chains want us to eat more meals out and buy more food when we do go out. And they go to great lengths to reverse engineer precisely the kind of foods that we will crave and overeat. Many more of us are getting fatter than we used to, and it’s because this hyperpalatable food is available nearly everywhere we go.
Is it a good book? I think it has something important to say, but I have a few qualms. Kessler makes his case a little too well in the beginning of the book. I found myself salivating over his descriptions of food items. I craved the appetizers he was describing and felt my tummy rumble. I skipped over about 10 chapters because of it (they are quite short), and still he was describing the techniques the food industry used to make food delectable. I think I may have gained 10 pounds just by reading that part of the book. I would say read just enough of this part of the book to be convinced that he is right and then skip ahead to the chapters on what you can do.
Eventually he starts talking about his solution. He takes a lot of ideas from the world of addiction counseling and has some good strategies to avoiding the worst kinds of foods and dealing with it when you are faced with it. He believes we should embrace the concept of Food Rehab. He does implicitly encourage us to prepare our own food. But here is where I think he kind of ignores an obvious point.
I think we should all be unprocessing our food, or rather we should do as little processing as possible when we cook for ourselves. I’ve heard it said before that it’s healthier to make your own food at home from fresh whole ingredients than it is to buy prepackaged, processed foods. This point has been made many times by many people. But it seems like we can take this much farther. If the food industry makes food into the equivalent of addictive drugs by adding layers of fat, sugar, salt and flavorings to foods, perhaps we should do the opposite.
My new plan
We should start with simple whole foods that are as close to unprocessed as possible: Meat, eggs, fish, vegetables, fruit, legumes and nuts. We should buy them in their completely unprocessed forms. Fresh if possible, frozen in some cases, but certainly without any added flavor, fat, sugar or salt. Then we should prepare these foods as simply as possible without adding any of these things ourselves. Don’t add any oil when you grill that meat. Don’t mix in butter with your brown rice. Put away your salt shaker, all your sauces and spices. And lastly, don’t even combine foods together. Make discrete portions of spinach, grilled chicken and fish, poached eggs and steamed veggies. Eat them separately. Don’t mix them together or add a little sauce of any kind. Don’t do anything to make the food more palatable except cook it. If you have an urge to make something taste better by adding or combining, don’t do it! My theory is that if you confine yourself, as much as you can, to food like this, you will not overeat and you will lose weight.
Now of course, there are some drawbacks here. The ubiquitous nature of these hyperpalatable foods is hard to avoid. They are everywhere, so unless you work at home and are a hermit, you will be exposed to these foods and they will be hard to resist. I know… put a free pizza in front of me and you can kiss it good bye. Kessler has a lot of good ideas of how to deal with some of these issues. And it’s worth reading the book to look over his suggestions.
But some of you might also be screaming, “But Kevin, I can’t eat plain steamed vegetables and poached eggs with no cheese or sauce. That will taste bad!” Well, I hear you. I think that is true to a degree. But I don’t think food tastes bad when it’s prepared like this, it just doesn’t taste awesome! But that is the point, you won’t have cravings for this simple unprocessed food, like you might for chicken nachos dripping with cheese or the latest crazy ice cream combination from Ben and Jerry’s. I have been trying this for the last week and it feels like it’s working. I am feeling a bit of withdrawal at the moment, and I’m still indulging some of my cravings. I had a nice hot cocoa last night, for instance. But I do think I might be finally losing a little weight after months of running four times a week.
For instance, here is what I ate and drank yesterday (except where noted, I added no salt, butter, oil or anything else to the food):
- A few glasses of water
- Coffee (milk and sweetener)
- Steamed asparagus
- Steamed spinach
- Brown rice
- Grilled chicken (twice)
- Two poached eggs
- Cup of flavored yogurt – not in the plan
- Four pieces of whole wheat bread with butter
Now, I did feel hungry through most of the day, or rather I felt a little like an addict who wanted something I wasn’t getting. It reminded me of those first few days of quitting smoking. As I drove home, I thought it would be good to eat some toast with butter. And I think I might keep that as a way to really shut off my hunger. By the way, I’m talking about actual real whole wheat bread, not the brown wonderbread that companies try to pass off as whole wheat. If the bread squishes when you squeeze it and feels soft, it ain’t whole wheat bread in my book. The stuff I’m eating is that sprouted grain Ezekial Bread from Food For Life. Four pieces was definitely too much. It extinguished any feeling of still wanting to eat, and made me feel a little sick actually. My new rule will be this, if I feel unsatisfied after eating, I’ll toast one piece of bread add some butter and wait 20 or 30 minutes, and repeat until I don’t want another piece. This morning I had one piece with some coffee and I still feel full three hours later.
I don’t expect anyone to only eat like this forever. I’ll still be going out to eat with friends, but as much as I can, I want to prepare my own food in this way.
Today I weighed in at 190. My goal weight is somewhere between 165 and 155 (I’ll know when I get there). I’ll try to update this to let you know how it goes.