Friday, March 5, 2010

Bliss Points, Hedonic Hotspots, and Conditioned Hypereating

Recently, I have been reading David Kessler's book, The End of Overeating. It takes you on a fascinating, behind the scenes look at how the food industry 'manufactures' food products that Americans find irresistible. These products are cheap, easily accessable, and dominate our modern environment. The food industry makes no arguement about it, they are in business to maximize profits, even if that is at the expense of your waistlines or health. Their creations are far removed from whole, real foods. They are more like elaborate chemistry projects.

The food-like products sell because they are hyperstimulating and essentially addicting substances. Every little nuance of the food product is tweaked for maximum eater enjoyment. Everything, from texture and aroma, to the mouth-feel and ease of swallowing are perfected. He gives the example of Cinnabon rolls. These cinnamon rolls are sold in almost every mall and airport in America. Although, these country-style cinnamon rolls were popular at the small bakery in Snohomish, Washington, where they were originally sold, they were re-developed in test kitchens over several months to become the irresistible fast-food bakery item they are today.

The processed food products are more than just appealing to the senses. They condition you to anticipate eating them. The term 'incentive salience' is used in the book and is explained as "the desire, activated by cues, for something that predicts reward." Eating these food products condition you to want these artificial food products(even though you may not be hungry). The smell or sight of a french fry, for example, is the cue that drives dopamine levels up in areas of your brain that are involved in food-seeking behavior. Hence, you find yourself scouring through the pantry looking for the bag of the Doritos at 10 o'clock at night.

The 'rewarding pleasure' from the processed food products stimulate the emotional centers of the brain. These 'pleasure centers' in the brain are stimulated similarly as would happen with cocaine use. Over time, your brain gets used to this stimuli and when it doesn't get it, your "seeking behaviors" increase. You now are an addict. Diet Coke drinkers know this all too well. The Diet Coke has no Calories in it, but contains a sweet, sharp taste. It is not so much the caffeine (Diet Coke has much lower levels than coffee or even tea). It is very diificult to cut back Diet Coke intake. But, analagous to drug use, it conditions you to seek out, new and different stimulating sweet tastes (in the form of highly-processed, sweet foods).

Well, if you weren't outraged by the food industry before, you will be ready to boycott every fast food restaurant and supermarket in town after reading this book. Restaurants and food manufacturers blantantly exploit your addictive vulnerabilities for profit at the expense of your health. We have all been affected and conditioned by the modern foodscape. The simple answer is to eat whole, unprocessed foods. Buy from the farmers and grow some of your own. But, I understand the barriers to this solution. Food is so intricately wooven into the fabric of our culture that you have to go against the masses to eat this way. It is also human nature to to find the cheapest,easist, and quickest way to eat (even though this stuff is not food and actually costs you much more in the end). Finally, we have come to use food as a drug. Food provides us with a fleeting sense of pleasure. In a world of more stress, more work demands, more stimuli, less sleep, less physical activity, less family time, we find ourselves more depressed, anxious, and uneasy. Processed food products provide a short-term fix. Unfortunately, these behaviors are part of a viscious cycle, ultimately leading to worsened physical and mental well-being.

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