Lispian Random meanderings on whatever catches my fancy

The Fattening of America

I recently finished The End of Overeating by Dr. David Kessler, former commissioner of the US Food and Drug Administration. It was primarily of interest to me because, like many people, I’ve struggled with weight gain. And following the so-called “Food Pyramid” has only exacerbated the condition. So it was eye opening to read Dr. Kessler’s book on the food industry and why sometimes the food we eat is particularly bad for us. Furthermore, it readily explains much, perhaps all, of the fattening of America that has occurred during the last 50 years or so.

The basic question behind the book is simple: What’s causing the so-called “Obesity Epidemic”. Whether you believe in the epidemic or not is immaterial. We all know that way too many people are struggling with huge weight issues. And the usual methods of staying slim don’t seem to work — more on that when I finish Good Calories, Bad Calories.

In the book Dr. Kessler examines what we’d consider “normal” food — i.e., the stuff nature produces — vs. the food we often consume from restaurants, processed food sections of supermarkets, etc. He determines that it isn’t fat that makes us fat. And that’s something that’s been pretty obvious to researchers for years — who can actually eat a sufficient quantity of fat? I mean, really? It’s impossible, our system simple gets disgusted once it’s been sated. But carbs are another matter, you can eat a lot of carbs. But even just carbs won’t sufficiently fatten a person up, not normally. To really get people huge seems to require a double or triple barreled approach of either fat and sugar or fat and sugar and salt. He describes this approach as creating hyper-palatable foods.

Dr. Kessler describes how the food industry, in whatever guise, has discovered that you can create awesome calorie carriers by combining fat and sugar  and occasionally salt. He points at the grilled cheese sandwich as such a simple, common delivery system for fat and carbs and salt. But the food industry has gone way beyond that. He points out processed foods that were built up over years from things that are extremely palatable — fat makes things taste better — to food that is, to put it most bluntly as Dr. Kessler does in his book, effectively predigested.

Now, some may start to gag at the thought that some of the food they’re eating is effectively predigested, but that is indeed the goal of some in the food industry. And it makes sense. How fast can someone deliver the calories in an effective package that won’t keep folks hanging around chewing. Thus, finely chopping the pieces and providing it in an easily consumable format can result in a “food” that requires next to no chewing, is highly flavourful because of the carbs, salt and fat and is calorie dense. In one instance Dr. Kessler points out a concoction that is a deep-fried burrito with a filling that has been highly processed so as to effectively require no chewing. The deep fried outer layer, he points out, is to keep the thing together in a solid piece until it’s consumed. And I’ve seen this exact food at O’Hare. To my Canadian eyes it looked disgusting and so I went for something more normal, a burger, but when I read that that “burrito” might have up to 5000 calories I nearly fell off my chair! That’s twice the daily amount of calories most people need! No wonder some people are fattening up so much. Eat a few of those a week and you’ll gain weight no matter who your are.

It also got me thinking about other things I noticed in the US on a recent trip. The portions were huge, which is something Dr. Kessler discusses in his book, too. I’ve always lamented the size of the portions because it seems like such a waste of food. But then, I’ve seen some people actually inhale those large portions. I recall my recent trip to Hawaii when I went to The Cheesecake Factory for dinner. I ordered a seafood gumbo and it was massive. I ended up eating it across three days! I was very glad I didn’t order an appetizer and having a dessert was out of the question. My daughter’s meal was similarly huge, and it took her 4 days to fully consume. But at the table next to us was a massive family. They each ordered an appetizer, which was about the size of a main course here in Canada. They then consumed their main courses followed by dessert. I heard the father pronounce that he has no idea why he’s getting so fat. I didn’t have the heart to tell him that he probably ate the necessary caloric intake for his whole family by himself that night, probably more.

And it doesn’t help that plates are so huge. Nor does it help that we were taught by our parents to finish everything on our plates as kids. I remember us Boomers being told to finish everything off as there are starving kids in Africa. Dr. Kessler similarly points out that this hasn’t helped, especially as portion sizes have increased.

Overall, a fascinating book. It gets a bit slow in spots but the main focus, that high calorie delivery systems that are hyper palatable are being created and disseminated within restaurants and grocery stores means it requires diligence. To further show how much diligence, a colleague of mine at work pointed out that on his recent trip to Florida he was shocked by the sugar content in yogurt. To me, the only true yogurts are the “high fat” ones — i.e., the way yogurt is supposed to be made. In Florida, a lot of the yogurt he found was high in sugar, up to 25g in a small serving. It was incredible. I pointed out that at that size it had more sugar than a soft drink. For this lunacy I blame the “low fat” crowd who think that it’s fat that’s making us fat when it’s the unnecessary infusion of sugar into way too many foods. Sugar in yogurt? Just so it’s more palatable? If you need to sweeten it then you’re making the food worse, not better. Ugh.

What the book did to me personally is accelerate my push within my family to only eat stuff we make ourselves. We have next to no processed food in the house. I’ve been following the rule that if my grandmother couldn’t figure out what it was it shouldn’t go into our bodies. And I’ve tried to ensure we don’t use carbs as calorie delivery systems. It’s convenient but, in the long run, deadly. And I’ve already started losing weight and feeling better.

The bottom line is pick up a copy if you want to figure out what the hell is going on with your waistline, or that of a loved one. Some of the descriptions of the various processed foods will disgust you, but maybe that will help you avoid ingesting those in future. I do hope that this book is the start of a movement to eat more naturally. As I noticed after my Viennoiserie course, you can make foods that look like high calorie delivery systems that don’t actually make you ingest huge amounts of extra calories. In the case of those pastries, I found I ate less during the day, was more sated, and actually lost weight. It was just fully satisfying. And it might explain the dilemma that some claim exists between the French diet and their weight, namely a lot of supposedly highly caloric foods but many French remain lean. After that pastry course I can tell you you simply cannot eat multiple croissants or puff pastries. It’s not because they’re not good,  it’s because they’re satisfying and your body says: you’re full. Besides, those pastries required chewing but each chew was rewarding in flavours. To have just inhaled those pastries would amount to a crime!

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September 2010
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