Sunday, July 12, 2009

Obesity Research

I've spent a fair amount of time this weekend reading David Kessler's The End of Overeating: Taking Control of the Insatiable American Appetite and it's really making a lot of sense to me. I also saw an article on the BBC website, Obesity 'link to same sex parent', which asserts that obesity in children is directly connected to whether their parent of the same sex is also obese. Wonderful. I found consolation, however, in another BBC article, Obesity 'set before the age of five', which presents research that children who are obese tend to gain most of their excess weight (90% for girls, 70% for boys) before they reach school age (five). Both of my chickadees are extraordinarily tall for their age, but their weight is absolutely proportional to their height and the pediatrician has assured me that they are both at really healthy weights and have healthy BMIs. In fact, Chickadee #2 freaks me out because I can count all her ribs when she raises her arms above her head.

Terry Wilkin, the lead researcher in the study on the age at which obesity is "set" theorizes that there is evidence that diet, rather than lack of exercise, is to blame for obesity in preschool children. He blames higher caloric density and larger portion sizes. Which brings me back to David Kessler.

I'd been waiting to get this book from the library (I'm number 32 on the waiting list) but, this weekend, I decided not to wait any longer and sent my husband to Barnes and Noble. I'm still in the first part of the book, in which Kessler discusses the neurological research related to how animals react to what he calls the "salient stimuli" offered by food -- the taste, texture, smell, and emotional/cultural context of the food we eat. Kessler's presentation of this research is fascinating and very readable -- in some ways, it is even too "dumbed down" -- there are places where I am left wanting to know more (but that's what end notes are for, I suppose). It's also somewhat dispiriting to learn how like laboratory rats we are. Kessler's main point in this section is that human beings react to the presence of fat, sugar, and salt in much the same way as they do to, say, cocaine in terms of the brain's endorphin system.

Kessler describes the ways in which combinations of fat, sugar, and salt are included in different foods. His descriptions of various menu offerings, while funny, are also pretty disgusting. For example, here is his description of potato skins:

Typically, the potato is hollowed out and the skin is fried, which provides a substantial surface area for what [Kessler's industry insider] calls "fat pickup." Then some combination of bacon bits, sour cream, and cheese is added. The result is fat on fat on fat on fat, much of it loaded with salt. -- (Kessler, 19)
Yum. Think of that next time you're at a sports bar.
While this section of the book is disturbing, especially in its relentless detailing of the ways in which our brains are rewired through the things we put in our mouths, I think the next section, called "The Food Industry" is going to be even more eye-opening. I'll keep you posted.

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