Why your teen can’t put down the junk food

Dr. Kessler says that food cues are hard — but not impossible — to break.

Former FDA Commissioner David Kessler’s 2009 best-seller, “The End of Overeating,” introduced the thought that our eating habits are reinforced by the fat, sugar and salt pervasive in our diets. Now, he’s speaking to the adults of tomorrow with “Your Food is Fooling You” to help teens learn the science behind their behavior and how they can change it.

Why write a book for young people?
The goal was to try to speak to them in a voice that doesn’t talk down to them, that really tries to explain how they can protect themselves — to make sure that their neural circuits don’t get adapted to wanting and responding to these cues. The goal was to give young people the tools so that their grown brains, these neural circuits, do not get adapted to this constant wanting and constant responding. Because once the neural circuits get laid down and you start responding to all of these cues, it’s very hard to unlearn that behavior.

How are teens targeted by the food industry?
Just look at all the places you can buy food today. And not only that, look at the food. Much of the food is designed; it is made multisensory.

So what can we do about it?
The goal [of the book] is to explain how they can be  in control, rather than the food industry. Much of the time, it’s not that you’re hungry. Much of the wanting is cue-induced that’s automatic — that it’s happening to us, it’s not a conscious decision. [Ask yourself:] ‘Is it real food, or is it just highly processed layers of fat, sugar and salt?’ Being able to take charge is very powerful.

How can parents help their children get healthy?
There’s no question that young people are, to a significant extent, limited by someone else making the choices. But young people do have an ability when they’re going through the school lunch line, what they encourage their family to eat, what choices they make. You never get rid of that cue-induced wanting cycle. But you can focus it on what you want.

Will changes be made at the federal level?
The food industry will change when people change what they buy and what they want. Remember [with] tobacco, when kids came home and said, ‘Mom, dad, please don’t smoke?’ Kids are a very powerful force.

Future of fat

Why is childhood obesity a bigger problem now?
We had this problem under control when I was growing up. Back then, there used to be certain boundaries of when we ate. What’s changed in the last four or five decades? Three things: One is we’ve taken down the boundaries of when we eat. We made it socially acceptable to eat anytime. Second, there are more places where food is available all the time. You can’t walk any more than 100 feet and not be stimulated with some food. And three, we made our food so highly processed and so layered and loaded with fat, sugar and salt — which makes it highly stimulating and is the reason why the cues are so powerful.


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