Our brains are obviously hard-wired to love food. For many years, scientists have been trying to unravel the mystery of why we go all ga-ga over fresh-baked chocolate chip cookies, for example. If we could figure out — and even control — the neuroscience of appetite, just imagine what that would do for combating obesity, and for living with diabetes!
I bring this up because it's been on my mind since last month's annual ADA Conference, where I unfortunately missed three talks on the topic: "Imaging Flavors," "Brain Representation of Taste and Other Food Perceptions," and "Imaging the 'Food-Seeking' Brain." I wasn't able to review the material either, since the ADA doesn't allow cost-free press access to Webcasts after the fact. Dern. But from what I can tell, researchers are still pussy-footing around questions like, "What exactly happens to the levels of blood flow in the brain where neurons are active when you smell or taste a food?"
And now, there's some great new popular science to help us all make sense of it: a new book by former FDA Commissioner Dr. David A. Kessler called "The End of Overeating: Taking Control of the Insatiable American Appetite," which takes on the American food industry and their exploitation of our natural food preferences.
The author began by experimenting on himself, trying to understand why a chocolate chip cookie should have such power over him.
According to the NY Times, Kessler comes to the conclusion that we're all generally suffering from "conditioned hypereating" — not a lack of willpower, but rather a "chronic biological challenge" made more difficult by the overstimulating food environment that surrounds us.
Sounds convincing. Certainly we are tempted by an onslaught of glitzy advertising and mega-sized portions in this country. Interestingly:
"Dr. Kessler isn't convinced that food makers fully understand the neuroscience of the forces they have unleashed, but food companies certainly understand human behavior, taste preferences and desire... He offers descriptions of how restaurants and food makers manipulate ingredients to reach the aptly named 'bliss point'... (foods that) reach the precise point at which we derive the greatest pleasure from fat, sugar and salt."
So what can we do about it? This is where the willpower comes in.
"Planned and structured eating and understanding your personal food triggers are essential. In addition, educating yourself about food can help alter your perceptions about what types of food are desirable. Just as many of us now find cigarettes repulsive, Dr. Kessler argues that we can also undergo similar 'perceptual shifts' about large portion sizes and processed foods."
He's essentially asking Americans to re-teach themselves about food, become cognizant of every morsel that goes into their mouths, and learn enough about unhealthy foods to start finding them repulsive. In other words, act like you've been diagnosed with diabetes, even if you haven't!
More easily said than done, I'd say. Statistics tell us that even millions who already know they have diabetes aren't on the "structured eating" bandwagon yet. Because clearly, their brains are hardwired to go ga-ga over chocolate chip cookies too. So don't tell me it doesn't take willpower to combat those impulses. Those of us working diligently to control our blood sugar use it over and over again every day.
I'm sure this book is interesting, but honestly, I was hoping for some kind of breakthrough in the neuroscience of food, like a way to severe the pull of that chocolate chip cookie, for instance — or perhaps a method for installing an automatic carb-counter that scans each bit of food and does the math for us?
Meanwhile, we'll just have to keep using our conscious brains to combat the unconscious desire for all the "wrong foods." Viva la Willpower...