David Kessler, The End of Overeating

August 2nd, 2009  |  Published in Books  |  12 Comments

kessler-end-of-overeatingDavid Kessler, The End of Overeating: Taking Control of the Insatiable American Appetite. New York: Rodale, 2009.

Put down the cookie and drop the donut. Hard, isn’t it?

For all of us who’ve ever found ourselves going into autopilot as we spoon peanut butter from the jar at 2 am, or who’ve ever found ourselves staring at the shiny foil bottom of a chip bag wondering what the hell just happened, or who keep their medicine cabinet well-stocked with Pepto-Bismol… this book is for you.

This book is also for the rest of you (who possibly don’t exist) who don’t understand how people can do such silly things. You 1% who claim to be satisfied with a single square of chocolate, listen quietly without interruptions.

If you’re from, say, rural Asia or eastern Africa, walk around any mall in the United States and you’ll be flabbergasted at the flabbitude. It’s a situation unlike any other in human history: the widespread wide-load consequences of abundant overnutrition and sedentary living.

While traveling through the southern US and stopping at a Denny’s, I had the inspiration to make a movie called, simply, Eating. The movie would be a montage of mouths chewing and slurping the vast portions of sugar/fat/chemical-laced slurry that passes for comestibles in North America.

Not surprisingly, the top-selling drug classes in the US are drugs to treat the aftermath of overeating. #1 are gastro-esophageal reflux (GERD) medications, while #2 are statins, which purportedly lower cholesterol, which supposedly is good for us (let’s leave that discussion for another time).

It’s tempting to think that overeating and its symptomatic consequences — obesity, chronic diseases, etc. — represent a failure of individual will. We just eat too fucking much because, well, we are weak. A well-known bodybuilding writer once quipped that he was going to write a very simple diet book called Don’t Eat So Much, You Fat Fuck. (I assume this would go along with Saturday Night Live’s infomercial for a financial management strategy called Don’t Buy Stuff You Can’t Afford.)

But is it really that easy? Are we all just moral weaklings? Lazy? Stupid?

When I was fat, I certainly wasn’t. I tried hard to eat well and get regular activity. And I was in grad school, so my stupidity was debatable. (Probably a different, more masochistic, kind of stupidity. I digress.)

Now that I’m fit, my desire to eat delicious things — way past the point where I should quit — has not gone away. I’m just better at managing the insatiable reward system of the brain, and I avoid many of the foods that trigger the NOM NOM NOM response. But you know what? The Pepto Bismol is still in my medicine cabinet and I’d be lying if I said it was unopened.

So what’s up with the fill ‘er up?

In this insightful book, author David Kessler explores the mechanisms behind overeating. Why do we eat too much? Why do we eat things that we know we shouldn’t? Why do we eat well past the point of satiety — often well into the territory of pain?

Important systems in the brain and body control appetite (the desire to eat), hunger (the physical manifestation of needing food), and satiety (feelings of fullness and satisfaction). These systems have done us very well for millennia.

However, these systems evolved in conditions of food scarcity and irregularity. They evolved when food was high-fibre, often high-protein, and high in naturally occurring “good” fats. And they evolved in conditions where we might have to trek many, many miles to get that food. We evolved to run after beasts, to scoop fish from streams and oceans, to scrabble roots out of the soil, and to pluck tiny berries from bushes as we walked and walked and walked. Sweetness signaled “good to eat” and “fruit”. Salt came from the sea, or from the blood of animals freshly killed.

We did not, in other words, evolve to manage an overstimulating environment replete with artificial fats, mountains of sugar, constipatingly fibreless hunks of gluten, artificially generated scents that remind us of sizzling meat on a grill or fresh strawberries, nor a host of other chemicals that stimulate our reward pathways.

Our brain is wired for the savannah, but it’s getting Dairy Queen and corn dogs. Is it any wonder the poor dear is going haywire?

Kessler explores the ways in which the commercial food industry has manipulated the contents of prepared foods to ensure that these foods hit our “on” switch. There is more sugar. More fat. More salt. More perceived — but not always actual — flavour. All of these chemicals stimulate our brains’ reward systems.

This is not surprising. What is novel is the degree to which this manipulation occurs. Every last detail is considered: look, feel, texture, graininess or smoothness, the speed at which a food melts or crunches, the sound it makes when your molars grind or the lid pops, how it’s arranged on a plate or in a package, what you have to do to get it (ie the “food ritual”, eerily similar to the smoking ritual), the nuances of smell (one chemist explains that he can take a basic cooked beef flavour-scent and layer additional notes on top: grilled, roasted, even barbecued outdoors — entirely in a test tube).

Meta-food issues are also addressed: for example, just like real estate, overeating is location location location. Mice fed tasty treats in a certain location will come to prefer that location, even if they didn’t like it at first. If we were served scrumptious chili cheese dogs in a dirty alley, we’d eventually find ourselves cruising that alley, stepping over garbage as we salivated. 

Also interestingly, eaters prefer multisensory experiences. Once, years ago, in the throes of PMS insanity, I assembled and devoured horrid little sandwiches from two potato chips and peanut M&Ms as filling. This “PMS crunch” combo of crispy-crunch + sweet + slightly bitter + fat + salt is no doubt the secret behind the abomination known as chocolate covered pretzels. The more flavours, textures, and stimuli can be jammed in there, the better. Thus, chicken wings are glopped with blue cheese dip (with added sugar); fries are drowned in bacon/cheese/sour cream; double-deep fried nachos are suffocated beneath groaning layers of cheese (from a mix, also sugared), previously frozen and reconstituted avocado, and sour cream that probably contains no actual cream but rather hydrogenated corn or soy oil and emulsifiers.

Foodwise we’re like crazy cat ladies who hoard old shopping bags and bits of string. The more we can jam in there at once, the better. Thus, companies seductively offer us sprinkles, toppings, sauces, cheesy chunks, nummy bits… preferably all gunked into a bucket with a fried egg on top, as per Mr. Creosote’s menu order in Monty Python’s Meaning of Life.

Kessler interviews food scientists, neurobiologists, food industry executives and average people. The food industry exec confesses that companies are well aware of the research — such as the study showing that mice who are normally self-regulating will gorge themselves sick on Froot Loops and other “supermarket foods” — and they use it to their advantage. The food industry, remarks the exec, “is the manipulater of the consumers’ minds and desires.”

Kessler’s thorough explanation creates a damning critique of a deeply cynical industry obsessed with squeezing every last drop of profit out of consumers’ vulnerabilities and cheap commodities. That supersized drink — composed of colouring, water and syrup — you just ordered? 90% profit for the company. Costs them 5 cents to make while you pay $1.59 and think you got a great value.

“Our job,” says one food industry scientist, “was to sell more syrup.”

The worst part, as Kessler observes, is that we often don’t truly enjoy this consumption. The experience is contradictory: we eaters want it, but we don’t.

Even while we’re stuffing our faces, we’re experiencing a kind of artificial hedonism rather than a deep, existential enjoyment. Afterwards, of course, as the stomach cramps roll in like intestinal tsunamis of guilt and we’re left with empty packages, we’re certainly unhappy. As one “average person” remarks about one of her favourite junky snacks, “I do not want them, but I cannot control my desire to eat them.” 

Throughout the book, Kessler captures, with a deep compassion as well as medically informed insight, the complex experience of overeating. The real people’s stories ring painfully, heartbreakingly true.

He points out that because of this dysfunctional food environment, the majority of us are actually disordered eaters without having official “eating disorders”. To me, this is a fascinating insight. 

Problem drinkers often refuse the label of “alcoholic” because they don’t drink in the morning, or throw up, perhaps. Men who abuse their partners resist the title of “wife beater” because, y’know, it doesn’t happen often, and we were both mad.

Likewise, most of us would not self-label as “disordered eaters”, but that is exactly what we are. Our evolutionary physiology is out of whack with our modern environment. The result is chemical chaos, mismatched stimuli-responses, and a perfectly good body that we understand as messed up. As Kessler demonstrates through numerous examples, our bodies are doing the best jobs they can; it’s just that the tools they have currently suck, and there are agents who, like medieval demons, prey on our (very) soft underbellies.

So what do we do?

One answer is simple: Get away from the foods that make us cuckoo. Get away from the foods that tweak our brain the wrong way. But it’s not simply an issue of self-deprivation, for that only reinforces the cycle. As Kessler notes, rats who are intermittently rewarded will still seek the reward — for as long as it takes.

Rather, it’s about choosing — and seeking — foods and behaviours that affirm our brain’s chemistry and body’s operational controls while actually nourishing us.

As Kessler also notes, if we are immersed in this environment, we cannot rely on our intuition any more. We cannot always trust our perceptions. We inhabit an environment designed to mess with our reality in all kinds of ways: artificial boobs, electric lights at night, fast-paced work demands, close-up visual tasks, chemical stimulants in the morning and depressants in the evening. The days of the savannah are long behind us.

Kessler argues that “we need to replace chaos with structure”. Our lizard brain can keep on handling our breathing, heartbeat, pooping, and running away from angry dogs, but it’s time to put the recently evolved logical brain in the driver’s seat for most of our experiences. We evolved those food impulses, but we also evolved a very good thinky brain that can solve mathematical equations, produce symphonies, and write TPS reports.

Use that thinky part.

Recognize that we’re being miscued, led astray, and BSed by food companies that mean to do us harm. Recognize that what we feel in the immediate moment may not be “real” or ideal for us. Re-adjust our conception of how much we should be eating — since food companies have rapidly increased the suggested portion sizes beyond the actual mechanical capacities of the human stomach. Recognize, as Kessler suggests, that we are in “food rehab” like any other type of addict. We will inevitably relapse, but we have to get back on the horse. 

Don’t feel shame. Feel inspired to action. You can take control, he says. With some self-knowledge and critical thinking, we can all take control back.

And this is not, he concludes, about self-denial. It’s about claiming our evolutionary birthright: food that genuinely replenishes our needs, that tastes truly (not artificially) good, that makes us feel joyful rather than stuffed/guilty/overstimulated, and that works with our body’s chemistry rather than bludgeoning it into whimpering, masticating submission.


  1. Jac Lynn says:

    August 2nd, 2009at 2:51 pm(#)

    Thanks for the heads up on this one.

    may also be of interest.

  2. ephraim says:

    August 2nd, 2009at 6:45 pm(#)

    I think the points that Kessler makes about the food industry and the brain-behavior reward system are totally valid. However, i think putting the onus on individual people to make individual choices to change that behavior when all the odds of context and evolution are stacked against them is wrong. It’s just honestly too much to ask of most people. The change has to come at the level of the food systems and food policy from a government that cares about people more than it cares about corporate agrobuisiness and big money food interests. Drug addicts stay addicted to substances that are not necessary to life functions, much more expensive and hard to access, and carry much more social and legal repercussions. It’s just inevitable that people who are addicted to foods that aren’t physiologically healthful (and that’s most people) aren’t gonna just will themselves to get un-addicted, which seems to be what you’re suggesting. No one has come up with a sustainable way to simply “re-adjust” as you say. Or if they did, the information has been seriously supressed by the food industry and the diet industry (often the same companies) who knew it would kill their profits. Until some systemic change happens, i think the best we can do is help people become as healthy as possible in spite of their (very reasonable given the circumstances) unhealthy relationships with food. And that includes reinforcing the notion that an addiction response to salt, fat, and sugar is a normal physiological product of evolution, not a moral failing in addition to promoting awesome physical activities for fat folks.

  3. Mistress Krista says:

    August 3rd, 2009at 5:06 am(#)

    I think I stress pretty clearly here that Kessler isn’t blaming anyone, unless it’s the food industry. And the addiction response as evolutionary is EXACTLY what he is arguing.

    “However, i think putting the onus on individual people to make individual choices to change that behavior when all the odds of context and evolution are stacked against them is wrong.” — That’s not really Kessler’s argument per se. The issue is that you could, as a reader, reach the end of this book and feel utterly disempowered. The urge is to throw up your hands and say “Well, fuck it, who cares? I’m screwed!” and then slide on in to chronic disease and morbidity.

    His position is that overeating is clearly not beneficial: it’s making us quite miserable despite the transient reward. But more importantly, to shift 100% of the perceived control to corporations is also very disempowering. Change — and enabling people’s agency — requires people developing a sense of self-awareness, self-efficacy and autonomy. He provides strategies for individuals to understand their behaviour, not to punish nor judge (in fact, he counts himself among those who struggle daily) but to add insight that can then be used to improve their lives despite being surrounded by environmental challenges.

    From my own experience with overeating I know that feeling out of control is an awful sensation. I welcome strategies that can, even if in small measure, help me to regain some degree of control over my own life. This is a proven approach in dealing with addictions as well. (I recommend the book Motivational Interviewing for a psychological/clinical treatment of this subject.)

  4. Janna says:

    August 10th, 2009at 10:09 am(#)

    This review was even more entertaining than the book was! I hope the book’s popularity will lead to more media discussion on how food is being manufactured and manipulated in unprecedented ways. From having been significantly overweight to a more “fit” size, I still struggle with visual cues to overeat.
    I feel so encouraged to see more discussion that takes the onus off individual “dieters” to “stay strong” and have “willpower”. I dislike these terms because they simply perpetuate the messages of the diet industry and negate any collective values that frame the way we eat or relate to food. While our day-to-day habits and decisions undoubtedly shape our individual health and well-being, I think most of us feel more than a little overwhelmed by the level of “defense” we need in light of the barrage of food marketing and behaviors that have become “normal”. Wouldn’t it be nice to feel like it’s less of a struggle to run through a gauntlet of messages that tell us to overeat every day?!

  5. A says:

    August 20th, 2009at 8:47 am(#)

    Wow, great read! I lost about 60lbs. over 6 years ago and have managed to keep it off. It’s nice to know that I am not imagining things whenever I stray off the eaten path (har har). I have always found that my sure-fire way of getting back on track after a period of eating poorly (I have come to accept the phases that go with being an over eater) is to deny myself all prepared foods, i.e. fast food/restaurant stuff, for at least one week. No exceptions. This seems to be the magic number to clear my brain and body… then I start to feel the cravings for healthy food again, and can allow treats here and there without plunging back into the cycle. And it is absolutely a powerful cycle of psychological manipulation because I always feel guilty afterwards, and hardly ever feel satisfied (especially when the indigestion sets in).

    Thanks, I’ll have to pick up this book!

  6. Robert says:

    August 22nd, 2009at 5:50 pm(#)

    Talked about this book on a couple of sites and a podcast. When I first heard about it, I was skeptical. After reading it, I enjoyed it enough to buy the audiobook and listen to it again as I was doing my morning cardio. All stuff long time nutrition and fat loss geeks already knew, but well presented and organized. Going over it again helped quite a bit in figuring out just how to present the problem to people trying to tackle their own fat loss issues.

  7. Robert says:

    August 22nd, 2009at 5:57 pm(#)

    Additional: Just re-read your review. You do have a gift with words, Krista-sama. :-)

  8. Doreen Dixon says:

    September 2nd, 2009at 6:59 pm(#)

    Damned library here doesn’t have it, but I definitely want to read it after your excellent synopsis.

  9. Alan says:

    September 19th, 2009at 9:54 am(#)

    “I have always found that my sure-fire way of getting back
    on track after a period of eating poorly …is to deny myself
    all prepared foods, i.e. fast food/restaurant stuff, for at
    least one week. No exceptions.”

    So easy to say; so hard to do. For me, at least. What I have
    found is that a POSITIVE approach works better. Instead of
    trying to deny myself the goodies — whatever I’m currently
    binging on — I try to INCREASE my intake of good stuff, the
    approximate opposite of junk food. That means:
    — protein, lots! shoot for 200 grams per day; use supplement
    — fiber, lots! shoot for 30-40 grams per day; use supplement
    — nutritional yeast; mix with V-8 and gulp down, several
    ounces per day
    — at least one huge flaxseed smoothie per day (2-3 oz
    ground flax, protein powder, some green veggies, one
    apple, cinnamon, ginger, sucralose or stevia)
    — vinegar: several ounces daily, diluted, and neutralized
    with sodium & potassium bicarb (cuts insulin resistance,
    reduces glycemic response to food) (if neutralized
    right it is nearly tasteless)
    — flax and/or cod liver oil, a couple tablespoons per day;
    add to smoothie
    — creatine: 10-20 grams per day (helps move sugar into
    muscle cells; lowers blood glucose)

    The net effect of all this is to cut appetite, improve
    satiety (get filled up faster), modify glycemic and
    insulinemic responses (help normalize this aspect of
    addiction biochemistry), modify other hormonal
    parameters (insulin:glucagon ratio; possibly also
    leptin) and generally get me back into an almost-
    normal space in which the compulsivity of junk
    food consumption is reduced, and quitting becomes a
    do-able option — sometimes even easy. I fall off
    the wagon all the time. I LOVE junk food and sweet
    booze. But now I know how to get back on.

    You can probably get good results with a
    simplified version: shoot for 200 grams protein per
    day (or: a gram per lb bodyweight) + 30 grams fiber.
    You might be surprised at how just those two things
    will modify your whole organism in a way that makes
    it MUCH easier to cut out the junk.

    Yes, it is true: “Just say no”. But it is ever so much
    EASIER to say no when you’re in a metabolic and
    hormonal state that favors saying no — when you are
    in a state that allows the prefrontal cortex to
    just say no, against the compulsive urgings of the
    limbic system and/or reptilian brain.

    Further, there’s a psychological advantage, IMO,
    to saying yes before saying no, provided the “yes”
    is accompanied by strategic biochemical/neurochemical
    alterations as the result of the scheme recommended

    Tell yourself: YES, I WILL eat that whole bag of
    chocolate chip cookies! The soft, chewy, irresistable
    kind! With a quart of whole milk! (Or, simply: as much
    as I want. TWO bags, if I want them.) I’m going to live
    it up and enjoy every moment! It’ll be better than sex!
    Denial be damned! YES YES YES! But first I’m going to
    toss-down a neutralized vinegar drink, and put away a
    quick 60 grams of protein and 15 grams of fiber. (Like,
    a big smoothie.) THEN the junk-feast. No holds barred.

    What I’ve found is that within 48-72 hours of this,
    the whole bag of cookies goes to 4 cookies, and then
    to none, almost without conscious effort. I’m full,
    satisfied, and simply DON’T WANT the crap anymore.
    At least until the outbreak of the next binge.

    Why this happy state does not last forever — why the
    binges ever come up at all, assuming I’m eating
    right and training — is for me a mystery. Maybe some
    deep genetic/neurochemical problem? Deficient reward
    system? Maybe something extrinsic, like stress, low
    mood, etc.? I don’t know.

  10. Lindsay Clark says:

    January 6th, 2010at 9:55 pm(#)

    I read the whole book, before reading your quite accurate encapsulation of it. Fascinating! I literally couldn’t put it down.

  11. WeightLossPlans says:

    September 24th, 2010at 2:15 pm(#)

    Haven’t read the book, but sounds interesting. So many people overeat too.

    Awesome blog!

    Always enjoy reading your blog posts!

    WLP (www.weightlossplans.net)

  12. Teri says:

    October 10th, 2010at 2:02 pm(#)

    Like you, I couldn’t believe I didn’t noticed this book when it first came out. Even though I eat very healthy & am extremely well schooled about what’s in my food (or so I thought), I could NOT put this book down. Bought it O’Hare Airport in Chicago (yes, right near the Chili’s he mentions in the book) and read it non-stop all the way back to Texas.

    Recently, I started ‘treating’ myself to a famous brand low-calorie ice cream bar’ as a reward. But I found myself going back & eating 3 more from the box, one right after the other. In fact, before I’d finished the first bar, I was thinking about the next one!

    At first, I thought it was because they were only 140 calories each. You know what I mean: Hey, since they’re only 140 calories, I can have more. But I realized after reading that book that there might be more at work here. I know these bars contain a brand name artificial sweetner that always makes me crave food like crazy!

    I will NEVER see food the same away. I truly believe he is right that these chemically manufactured flavors & “non-food” food are rewiring our brains & bodies. What would you say if a doctor handed you a vial of chemicals and said ‘Here’s your dinner!??” I think we’d run like hell, but since it’s all done oh-so-subtley by the food industry, we slurp, scarf & swallow it down without a thought!

    From now on, I’m cooking my own real food, making my own desserts & NOT patronizing the restaurants that serve fake food!! I am OVER IT!!!

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