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Trained to Get Fat

Jill Richardson

Humans are biologically programmed to overeat certain foods, according to Dr. David A. Kessler’s new book “The End of Overeating.” And food companies have learned to exploit this trait.

Kessler calls the problem “conditioned hypereating” and blames it for the epidemic rise in obesity among Americans. Food companies, he writes, driven to increase profits each quarter by selling more and more food, have perfected calorie-pushing strategies and conditioned us to crave and overeat “hyperpalateable” foods laden with salt, fat and sugar.

Kessler isn’t just a typical M.D. He is also the former commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration. As a physician, he is under oath to help his patients live healthy lives. As a public servant, he was given a larger task: making sure that food and drugs don’t harm Americans. While his book provides useful recommendations for individuals, he says precious little about the role of the government. I don’t want to unfairly blame Kessler or his excellent book, but that mindset is precisely the problem.

Kessler’s book lays out clear evidence that food companies are exploiting humans’ natural predisposition to overeat “hyperpalatable” foods — corporate behavior akin to tobacco companies’ exploitation of the addictive nature of nicotine. In both cases, companies are knowingly hooking consumers on products that will decrease their quality of life and may ultimately kill them.

The U.S. government has stepped in to regulate tobacco, limiting how it may be marketed, requiring warning labels on cigarette packages, and even denying crop subsidies to tobacco farmers. Yet so far the federal government views food consumption as an individual, not public health, issue. Sure, the Secretary of Agriculture will encourage kids to eat well in “Sesame Street”-themed PSAs, and the First Lady now has a First Garden and a First Farmers’ Market. Yet across the nation many public schools continue to serve corn dogs and tater tots for lunch. This is like telling kids not to smoke and then passing out cigarettes in the classroom.

The key difference between tobacco and food is that we can all live without tobacco, but we can’t live without food. Big Food wants us to believe that there are no bad foods, and Big Agriculture wants us to believe that the U.S. has the safest, most abundant and affordable food supply in the world. And the feds are still buying into this nonsense. Look at — the Internet era version of the food pyramid — and notice how it cleverly never tells you to eat less or avoid any food. Meanwhile, government officials, such as Sen. Blanche Lincoln (D.-Ark.), the current chair of the Senate Agriculture Committee, echo the safe-cheap-abundant line. Our food supply might be plentiful and affordable — but that’s clearly not enough if we are suffering an epidemic of diet-related health problems, like diabetes and heart disease.

Individuals absolutely should have the right to choose what they eat, and businesses by their very nature seek to make money. The government, however, has a role to play in preventing predatory behavior by business — and that means that the government has a responsibility to reform our food system. Until the feds abandon their hands-off approach to food, don’t expect the tide to turn on diet-related chronic disease.

Jill Richardson is author of the book “Recipe for America: Why Our Food System is Broken and What We Can Do to Fix It” and founder of the blog called La Vida Locavore.