Dr. David A. Kessler’s book, The end of overeating (2009), is an extremely pertinent and timely account of North America’s ever-increasing struggle with food. He combines two levels of analysis, the sociological and the psychological, to explain how we have become so overweight. Dr. Kessler places some of the responsibility for obesity squarely on the shoulders of a non-caring, profit driven food industry. He is also cognizant of what takes place on an individual level, in the brain, to make the eating of some foods compulsive.
The food industry has grasped the knowledge that the brain is wired to want, increasingly, foods that deliver the ‘biggest bang’. That is, sugar, fat and salt most particularly have reinforcing properties that provide a strong reward. We love them! When provided with the stimuli (cues) of these foods we are seduced into eating more and more of them. We have to increase our intake to get the same reward. The food industry has made it their ‘business’ to sell processed food that is, in essence, fat upon fat upon sugar! Comparing the marketing of nicotine and cigarette companies to the marketing of food and the food industry he says, “…industry tactics and social norms bolster the reinforcing properties of sugar, fat and salt in much the same way [as nicotine]-through their appeal to the senses, the power of advertising, ready availability and cultural patterns that allow us to eat all the time” (243). Dr. Kessler doesn’t come right out and say that this food is killing us as surely as nicotine does but it is understood.
Dr. Kessler, however, realizes that humans have agency. At this point he brings his analysis back to the individual and argues that although the status quo is overwhelming, change is indeed possible. What has happened he argues, is that over time we have become what he has named “conditioned hypereaters”. That is, a cue is presented and an action follows. The same action is repeated over and over, until it is an almost unconscious response to the stimuli (or cue).The action is repeated because it is so rewarding. Once again, we love it! And once again, it is killing us!
Kessler is however, optimistic. He believes change is possible and that the first step to this change is awareness. That is why this book is so important. It not only puts the North American problem in context and provides the reader with an explanation of how this crisis came about, but it also leaves the reader with hope. Just as attitudes about smoking and nicotine addiction have changed so can attitudes about obesity. It will take understanding.
If as a society we can start looking at this as addiction perhaps we can begin to treat the obese with compassion. This book, with its intelligent analysis of this severe social problem, has made inroads. There has been such a paucity of literature that examines obesity from a sociological perspective and does not just ‘blame the victim’. If we can begin to understand this addiction to fat, salt and sugar as at least partially cultural and societal (as Dr. Kessler has done) then this is a good start and, perhaps more importantly, it has left the obese with hope.