June 23, 2009

Playing On Your Brain's Weakness For Food

I mentioned earlier in the month that CSPI was trying to alert people to the outrageous calorie content. I think there might have been a misunderstanding about why I thought this was an interesting and worthwhile story.

I think that people do realize that they're splurging when they go to a restaurant, but I don't think they're aware that one restaurant meal can offer well over a full day's recommended calories. And I think this lack of understanding contributes to obesity in this country.

Of course, it won't make any difference if people aren't trying to be careful about what they eat. But the sneaking of more calories into food is an art that has developed into a science.

Yesterday we saw the president sign a landmark bill to regulate tobacco products. Part of this new law will govern the nicotine in smoking products. The cigarette companies have a history of manipulating nicotine levels in cigarettes to reinforce addiction in their customers. These activities are well-documented.

These manipulations were discovered because Massachusetts requires manufacturers to use a more realistic test to measure how much nicotine is deliverable to typical smokers and requires companies to report design features of their cigarettes. When Harvard researchers reanalyzed the data they found that the nicotine yield per cigarette rose by an average of 11 percent between 1998 and 2005, a conclusion contested by the industry.

Harvard researchers concluded that the companies managed this by using tobacco containing a higher concentration of nicotine and perhaps also by slowing the rate at which cigarettes burned - thus increasing the number of puffs per cigarette. The companies presumably hoped that additional nicotine would hook more new customers and keep old ones from breaking the habit.

There is a general understanding that addiction to cigarettes is difficult to overcome, and that smoking is not simply a failing of will power. In signing yesterday's bill, the president acknowledged his own struggles with tobacco. Knowledge of the strength of this addiction makes people a bit more understanding about why folks continue to smoke when it puts their health at risk. Addiction is a huge contributing factor, though not the only reason people smoke.

Another result of this knowledge is that there are efforts by society to aid sufferers, and prevent more people from being afflicted.

Personally, I'm not fond of being exposed to smoke, and I have never been very compassionate about involuntary exposure to tobacco smoke. However, I do sympathize with people who struggle to quit. They feel the lingering effects of a drug that was designed to make them lifelong customers of a destructive business.

It's not smart to start smoking, but a decision like that should not put you at the mercy of a predatory industry which enlists your biology against you. I liken it to being slipped a rape drug. Just because you show up at a party and have a beer doesn't mean it's OK for someone to slip a substance into your drink that compromises your ability to control what happens to you. The effort to increase the addictiveness of cigarettes is a similar attack on a much larger scale.

Now, it seems, people are finding that the food industry benefits from some complex neurochemistry and the manipulation of ingredients:

In "The End of Overeating," Dr. Kessler finds some similarities in the food industry, which has combined and created foods in a way that taps into our brain circuitry and stimulates our desire for more.

When it comes to stimulating our brains, Dr. Kessler noted, individual ingredients aren't particularly potent. But by combining fats, sugar and salt in innumerable ways, food makers have essentially tapped into the brain's reward system, creating a feedback loop that stimulates our desire to eat and leaves us wanting more and more even when we're full.

If we dismiss overeating as simply a lack of willpower, that's an easy out for those of us who have healthy habits. But we're all bearing the burden of the effects of smoking and overeating. From both a practical and a compassionate view, it behooves us to recognize that there are educational, informational, economic and neurobiological factors. Possible practical solutions in the future positively depend on this.

Posted by James at June 23, 2009 10:16 AM
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