So, we just got back from two fabulous weeks spent in Florida. I know, I know..but don’t hate me too much. We were lucky to have the opportunity to travel to the US with work which took up the first week, and the second we tacked on as vacation time staying with friends.
I love the US. I’ve come home with so many impressions and observations about the American lifestyle, which should keep me in blog posts for some time to come. So first observation coming up…the food! Everyone always seems to talk about the portions and the ready availability of food in the US. It seems almost like a cliché, but it is true..the plates are huge in restaurants (although they always offer you a doggie bag to take home if you don’t finish the meal). The scenery as we drove along the highways was a relentless succession of food stops – Wendys – Dennys – McDonalds – Cheesecake Factories – Dunkin Donuts – Krispy Kremes – Dairy Queens all whizzed by interspersed with other restaurant signs – many of them drive-throughs.
And then the aisles in the giant supermarkets packed full of mountains of food – much of it imitation food like cheeze whizz (!). You are bombarded with adverts on the TV – food seems everywhere. In his bestseller The End Of Over-Eating: Taking Control Of The Insatiable American Appetite, author and former commissioner of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, David Kessler proposes that we’ve created a world where food is always available and designed to make you want more of it.” No where is that truer than in the United States. As Kessler also points out “few of us are immune to the dangers of over-eating. The ubiquitous presence of food, large portion sizes, incessant marketing and the cultural assumption that it’s acceptable to eat anywhere, at any time, have combined to put more people at risk.’
Kessler says it all comes down to the “bliss point” in our brains – the point at which we get the greatest pleasure from sugar, fat or salt. ‘The right combination of tastes triggers a greater number of neurons, getting them to fire more,’ he explains. ‘The message to eat becomes stronger, motivating the eater to look for even more food. Certain foods trigger the bliss point more than others, among them Heinz tomato ketchup, Starbuck’s frappuccinos, Pringles crisps and pretty much anything from McDonald’s.
Kessler makes the point that where 30 years ago a triple chocolate muffin was made with real eggs, real chocolate and real butter, today it will be considerably bigger, leading the customer to believe they are getting more value for money. Yet, instead of butter, it will contain fat substitutes, powdered egg instead of whole eggs and inexpensive processed sweeteners, according to Kessler. It’s food as an illusion; a combination of chemicals designed to trigger the brain’s neurons and make customers crave more.
So what can be done? Kessler believes that ‘The goal is not to vilify all food and those who serve it, but to change thinking about big food – huge portions of layered, loaded food with little nutritional value…you have to understand your own behaviour around food and pay attention to everything you eat. You need to bear in mind how the brain processes stimuli and how that drives your behaviour. And you need to always remember what the food industry is trying to sell you and why.’ With that understanding, Kessler argues, will come a new way of eating. The act of eating should not be an act of denial, but one of enjoyment – it’s just a matter of everything in moderation rather than the all-or-nothing attitude so common in today’s world.