Washington — Food hijacked Dr. David Kessler’s brain.
Not apples or carrots. The scientist who once led the government’s attack on addictive cigarettes can’t wander through part of San Francisco without craving a local shop’s chocolate-covered pretzels. Stop at one cookie? Rarely.
It’s not an addiction but it’s similar, and he’s far from alone. Kessler’s research suggests millions share what he calls “conditioned hypereating” — a willpower-sapping drive to eat high-fat, high-sugar foods even when they’re not hungry.
In a book being published next week, the former Food and Drug Administration chief brings to consumers the disturbing conclusion of numerous brain studies: Some people really do have a harder time resisting bad foods.
It’s a new way of looking at the obesity epidemic that could help spur fledgling movements to reveal calories on restaurant menus or rein in portion sizes.
“The food industry has figured out what works. They know what drives people to keep on eating,” Kessler tells The Associated Press. “It’s the next great public health campaign, of changing how we view food, and the food industry has to be part of it.”
He calls the culprits foods “layered and loaded” with combinations of fat, sugar and salt — and often so processed that you don’t even have to chew much.
Overeaters must take responsibility, too, and basically retrain their brains to resist the lure, he cautions.
“I have suits in every size,” Kessler writes in “The End of Overeating.” But, “once you know what’s driving your behavior, you can put steps into place” to change it.
At issue is how the brain becomes primed by different stimuli.
Neuroscientists increasingly report that fat-and-sugar combinations in particular light up the brain’s dopamine pathway — its pleasure-sensing spot — the same pathway that conditions people to alcohol or drugs.
Where did you experience the yum factor? That’s the cue, sparking the brain to say, “I want that again!” as you drive by a restaurant or plop before the TV.
“You’re not even aware you’ve learned this,” says Dr. Nora Volkow, chief of the National Institute on Drug Abuse and a dopamine authority who has long studied similarities between drug addiction and obesity.