Sunday 17 January 2010

David Kessler: "Food is like cocaine"

This blog has mentioned John Banzhaf's graduation from anti-tobacco fanatic to anti-food fanatic before. I haven't yet documented David Kessler's same slide down the slippery slope.

When he was in charge of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in the 1990s, Kessler made concerted attempts to bring tobacco within his regulatory domain (see Velvet Glove, Iron Fist, pp. 189-93). At around that time RJ Reynolds Tobacco placed ads in US newspapers, asking 'Today it's cigarettes - will high fat foods be next?'

It seemed an absurd comparison at the time but, as we now know, an assault on food was the 'next logical step' and, again, Kessler is involved.

On Thursday, Kessler appeared on Channel 4's Big Fat Diet Show, attacking the 'food industry' for making food enjoyable. This is what he said...

"Back 30, 40 years ago, what was the most salient stimuli [sic] for many people? It was tobacco. It was cigarettes. That hi-jacked our brains.

Today, what's the most salient stimuli [sic] for millions of people? It's food! That's hi-jacking our brains."

And when you get rid of food, what will be the next most salient stimulus? Do we keep going until there are no stimuli at all?

The reason food 'hi-jacks our brains' is because our bodies send signals to tell us when we need to eat and, when we do, our brains need to tell us we enjoy it. It's pretty simple, and pretty important. Pleasure is not a bad thing in itself, you know. 

"We now know that fat and sugar can stimulate the brain's neural circuitry like amphetamine and cocaine."

What he's talking about is dopamine, which is released in the brain and creates the feeling of pleasure. Kessler refers to cocaine to make it sound as if fat and sugar are evil and unnatural. It's a cheap trick. 

In fact, dopamine is released by doing virtually anything we enjoy, including watching television, playing sport, eating any type of food (so long as you like the taste of it), sex, smoking, a good joke etc. etc. etc. 

If someone ever tells you that [fill in the blank] acts like a class A drug, just walk away, because they're just talking about dopamine and they're using scare tactics. 

The drug references don't stop there...

The food industry has optimised food to achieve the maximal bliss point. They've constructed food to get us to keep on eating. It's this momentary hit. It's this momentary rush. And then you try to chase it again. We always knew that drugs can hi-jack our brain. Now we know that fat, sugar and salt - when put together in the right combination - can do the same.

A momentary "hit" that you have to "chase". Get it? Food = drugs. Let's regulate it! Needless to say, Kessler thinks that fast food is addictive and is paving the way for it to be taxed. Do this sound familiar?

His argument is hokum, of course. A war against anything that causes dopamine to be released is, by definition, a war on pleasure. People like Kessler insisted that they were not embarking on such a puritanical crusade in the 1990s when the tobacco issue came to a head (and he was explicitly warned about the slippery slope then. See this letter.)

Easting food is pleasurable. It's an evolutionary response to a biological necessity. The 'food industry' have made food that people want to eat. Nothing more, nothing less. 

Don't consume more calories than you will burn off. It's very simple but it's still a personal choice.

You can see Kessler's performance here (30 minutes in). Thanks to JB for the tip.


a.welch said...

just as a great deal of anti smokers are former smokers, Kessler has weight issues and instead of taking responsibility for putting the food in his mouth, he blames it on Big Food.

"Kessler was on a mission to understand a problem that has vexed him since childhood: why he can't resist certain foods......."

"At 5-foot-11, Kessler's weight has swung from 160 pounds to 230 pounds and back, many times over. He owns pants in sizes ranging from 34 to 42.

"I was a fat kid," he said. "I grew up in the world of Entenmann's cakes. I was pretty much of a science nerd. If you looked in my refrigerator in college, it was Entenmann's."

Every few years, Kessler would go on a diet and apply the kind of discipline that enabled him to earn a law degree from the University of Chicago while attending Harvard Medical School. "I'd lose weight and over time gain it back," said Kessler, who also completed a medical residency at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore at the same time he worked as a staffer to Sen. Orrin Hatch. "I couldn't control it."

The man who took on Big Tobacco was helpless when confronted with a plate of chocolate chip cookies. He couldn't focus on anything else until he had eaten them all.

"My weight was yo-yoing all the time," said Kessler, who estimates that 70 million Americans struggle with conditioned hyper-eating. "And I never understood why."

Mark Wadsworth said...

Agreed, they initially disguised this as a pro-health, i.e. anti-obesity thing, blended with an attack on "Big Food" (and big is of necessity evil, according to some people), but now it's exposing itself as a good old fashioned War On Fun.

"Easting food is pleasurable"?


Ben said...

I'm getting tired and fed up Pun intended) with this "fast food is addictive".

Is it the "fast" or the "food"?

After WWII (my family lived in Germany at that time), hamburgers were about the only meat we had on our dishes, because you could easily "stretch" them with soaked bread. Oh, and at that time, fat was part of the meat, because you ate what you could get.

Anonymous said...

Why do they hate us so? The revenge is going to oh so sweet...

Dick Puddlecote said...

That letter is priceless. I take it Kessler didn't bother replying?

Christopher Snowdon said...

I can't find any trace of a reply, Dick, so probably not.

Anonymous said...

Last week, I enjoyed a really nice meal at a restaurant at a very fair price. I hope to go back again and order exactly the same meal. I hope the experience will be similar.

One would hope that restaurants aim to achieve this effect. According to Kessler, though, that restaurant has manipulated me and gotten me addicted: I want to go back because, according to him, it's like me getting another hit off the crack pipe.

I suppose then that restaurants will be doing us a favor if they just serve us liquefied nutrients that come in a tube.

I know people who claim that they find eating foods they perceive to be healthy more pleasurable as eating foods they perceive to be unhealthy. So, are these people lying? How is it then that a fast food cheeseburger is equated with releasing dopamine but a salad or hummus is not?

If Kessler is right, then those who claim to enjoy a diet of "healthy" foods are somehow being dishonest. If Kessler is wrong, then a good salad is as enticing as a good bacon cheeseburger.

You can't have it both ways. If "healthy" foods are as enticing as "unhealthy" foods, then most people would simply eat "healthy" foods and McDonald's would sell hummus.

One could say that Kessler would contend that people have somehow been trained to believe bacon cheeseburgers are more fulfilling than salads, when really one is as fulfilling as the other.

But here's the thing: Kessler, quite conspicuously, doesn't make that contention. He claims that only "unhealthy" foods are addictive, but "healthy foods" are not. So, is he implying that a good bacon cheeseburger releases dopamine, but good hummus doesn't? If so, he's saying that "healthy" foods aren't as pleasurable as "unhealthy" foods.

What Kessler's assertions amount to is this: even if you eat a "healthy" diet, you are STILL too dumb to make decisons for yourself. Even if you have a "healthy" diet, you don't really enjoy it, and the world is just too full of hooks and snares for public health to let you go on without assistance.

Kessler's claims are perhaps as insulting to vegans as they are to meat eaters who enjoy daily fry-ups. Either way, you simply just don't know what the Hell it is you really enjoy, or what's good for you. WS.

Anonymous said...

So, Kessler is a self-flagellating "science nerd". A perfect example of the people in charge these days - the hall monitors of old.

Christopher, I wonder if you can see a time when all of this will end? God knows, I could do with some hope!

Dave said...

I bet this guy thinks the Aurora Borealis is an amazing "phenomena"! Seriously, are we supposed to listen to a guy who can't figure out, even for telly, the difference between "stimulus" and "stimuli". Is he supposed to have a science background? No matter, he's simply a purveyor of scare stories, no more no less.

Anonymous said...

After smoking,the spinning wheel of prohibitionism is running very fast


soon enough it is going to derail...