Weighing fat, salt, sugar

Former FDA commissioner analyzes our urge to overeat

October 11, 2010

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Q. In your book, “The End of Overeating,’’ which comes out in paperback this week, you blame America’s obesity epidemic on the innate drive we have to eat sugar, salt, and fat — and on the food industry’s success in making foods that fill this need.

A. The business plan is to take fat, sugar, and salt and put it on every corner, make it available throughout the waking hours, make it socially acceptable to eat at any time [of day], make food into entertainment — and we’re living in a food carnival.

Q. Did the food industry do this to us on purpose?

A. The food industry knew the inputs: that fat, sugar, and salt stimulate [our brains]. They knew the outputs: People come back for more. Did they know the neuroscience? No. The question is not what did they know then, it’s now that we know this, what are we going to do about it?

Q. What can be done to beat back urges to overeat?

A. Once you understand you’re constantly responding to these cues, at least you have a framework for saying, how do I change that? At the end of the day, you have to change how you perceive the stimulus.

Q. Sheer willpower is not the answer then?

A. Willpower’s not going to work. . . . If it’s something that calls out to you and you’re just going to try to resist, you can do it for a short period of time, but unless you change how you perceive that stimulus, your brain is just going to be constantly going after it.

Q. Why is eating natural food better than highly processed products?

A. It’s much easier to overeat the highly processed food because everything objectionable is taken out of it. The average bite of food 20-30 years ago was 20-30 chews. Today with processed food, how long is it in your mouth before it goes down? And what do you do before you’re even done [chewing one potato chip]? Reach for the next one. It’s engineered to take out anything that slows down your eating.

Q. How important is better food labeling on products and at restaurants?

A. If you explain to people what they’re eating, it helps them change how they look at food.

Q. Where does exercise fit into the obesity solution?

A. Exercise is absolutely critical for weight maintenance. I feel better after I exercise. If I start doing something that’s helpful, I start doing other things that are helpful, I start viewing myself in a different light. [But] exercise is never going to work alone in the current environment. I can eat a candy bar with 300 calories in two minutes. It will take me an hour to work that off. Exercise is never going to keep up.


Interview was condensed and edited.

Karen Weintraub can be reached at

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