MICHELE NORRIS, host:
As the former commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration, David Kessler was a passionate advocate for healthy eating. But the Harvard-trained doctor had his own weakness for junk food. Chocolate-covered pretzels made him swoon. A plateful of cookies seemed to call out his name. Dumplings from the food court at the San Francisco Airport made him weak with excitement. His weight swung up and down over and over again, with diets following periods of excess.
He wanted to know why and to find the answers, spelled out in his new book called "The End of Overeating," Kessler had to use more than just his clinical research skills. The doctor went Dumpster diving. Wearing gardening gloves and dark clothing, he rifled through the Dumpsters at some of the nation's most popular restaurants to find out exactly what they were serving.
And Dr. David Kessler joins me now.
Welcome to the program.
Dr. DAVID KESSLER (Author, "The End of Overeating"): Thank you for having me.
NORRIS: I just can't get that picture in my mind. I can't picture you moving through the alley and rifling through the Dumpster.
Dr. KESSLER: I took off my tie.
(Soundbite of laughter)
NORRIS: So you at least dressed for the occasion.
Dr. KESSLER: Exactly.
NORRIS: How did you do this?
Dr. KESSLER: I wanted to know what was in the food we were eating, especially in restaurants. I was talking to someone in the food industry about the problems we have controlling our eating, with obesity across the country. And he looked at me and he said, Kessler, it's all your fault. And I said, what are you talking about? He said, when you were at FDA, you put the nutrition facts panel on all packaged foods. But there was nothing in restaurants - and that's where the explosion - both in calories, as well as with food being loaded and layered with fat and sugar and salt.
NORRIS: So what happens? How are our brains, our minds altered or changed when we consume foods that have a very high content of salt, fat and sugar?
Dr. KESSLER: You need to understand what makes us human. And a very important characteristic of what makes us human is our ability to focus on the most salient stimuli in our environment. Let me give you an analogy. Let's start with nicotine. Nicotine is a moderately reinforcing substance. But if I add to that the smoke, the throat scratch, the cellophane crinkling of the pack, the color of the pack, what happens? You take nicotine that's moderately reinforcing and add all those other layers of stimuli, and what do you end up with: a highly addictive product.
I give you a package of sugar and I say, go have a good time. You're going to look at me and say, what are you talking about? Now, I - to that sugar - I add fat, I add texture, I add mouth feel, I add color, I add temperature, I add the emotional gloss of advertising. I put it on every corner and tell you, you can do it with your friends.
So what's happening is for millions of Americans - and we estimate maybe 70 some odd Americans have this condition, hypereating - they get stimulated, they get cued, they get bombarded with foods. Their brains get activated. No one's explained to them that they're constantly being stimulated.
NORRIS: Reading your book is like a fun-house journey through the food industry. It seems that much of what we eat is not exactly what it seems to be. And I just want to tick through some of the things that you find. You say it's possible to create virtually anything with chemicals. You can take a piece of meat and make it taste like it's been braised, seared, roasted, grilled - all with a few drops of some kind of chemical.
Dr. KESSLER: Much of our food today, because it's so highly processed, is enormously palatable.
NORRIS: You note that it's almost as if we're eating some sort of adult baby food.
Dr. KESSLER: Exactly. And not only that, the food is layered and loaded with fat, sugar and salt. Pick an appetizer. What's in buffalo wings? You start with the fatty part of the chicken. Many times, it's fried in the manufacturing plant first. It's fried again in the restaurant. That red sauce? Sugar and fat. That creamy sauce? Fat and salt. So what are we eating? Fat on fat on fat on sugar on fat and salt.
NORRIS: But it tastes good.
Dr. KESSLER: That's what the food industry has said. And, yes, it does taste good. For decades, they simply say, we're giving consumers what they want. But that food is excessively activating the brains of millions of Americans to get them to come back to eat more and more. That doesn't mean that we shouldn't take responsibility. Once you understand you're being stimulated, then you can begin to fight back to prevent being manipulated.
NORRIS: Dr. David Kessler, it's good to talk to you. Thank you so much.
Dr. KESSLER: Thank you.
NORRIS: The book is called "The End of Overeating: Taking Control of the Insatiable American Appetite."