The Axis of Food Evil: Fat, Sugar and Salt

The axis of evil food ingredients: fat, sugar and salt.
The axis of evil food ingredients: fat, sugar and salt.

Once we're grown up we're all individually responsible for what we eat. But what about those people who tempt us with all these delicious no-no's? Shouldn't they share at least a part of the blame? Serena Altschul has been looking into that:

The next time you come down with a case of the munchies, consider calling on Dr. David Kessler.

He and Altschul recently made a take-out run to some of America's most popular dining spots - the ones whose ads promise total tastebud-overload, like Chili's, Friday's, and Applebee's.

We brought back loads of goodies, but Dr. Kessler provided the real food for thought.

"The fat, the sugar and salt have been layered and loaded into this food," he said. "If I just gave you a package of sugar and say, 'Go have a good time' - "

"I'd pass," said Altschul.

"That's not going to do it for you, right? But when you think about it, I mean, what is this? It's the multi-sensory experience. It's the roller coaster in the mouth."

In the brain, too, in the so-called "hedonic hot spots" - regions that respond to hedonistic behavior, whether it's taking recreational drugs or eating food with complex flavors.

"Do you look at food as if it were a drug?" Altschul asked.

"It affects the same circuits in the brain," Dr. Kessler said. "It affects the learning memory, motivational, habits, circuits. It activates those circuits. Difference is, food we need to live. We need food to survive."

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Dr. Kessler's recent book, "The End of Overeating" (Rodale), is the latest salvo in a career-long crusade to improve public health.

You may remember him from his years as commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration, when he waged war on big tobacco.

Now, Dr. Kessler's gunning for what he believes to be another culprit. You might call it an "axis of evil ingredients": fat, sugar and salt, which Dr. Kessler says stimulates you to eat more.

"So even though we're talking, right? You really have your attention focused on those buffalo wings," he said.

"It's true, this has to be one of the more difficult interviews I've done," Altshcul said. "I love wings. Isn't that terrible?"

"Right, and so it shows you how your brain works," he said.

But is it fair to demonize the food industry for selling us treats we're more than eager to eat?

After all, restaurant owners say they're simply in the business of giving customers what they want.

"If we're not responding to customers we won't be in business very long," said Michael Gibbons, chairman of the National Restaurant Association - and a restaurant owner himself. "So if we see the trend towards more nutrition, more nutrition information, more options, more alternatives on the menu, that's where we're going."

Gibbons points out that Americans now get one-quarter of all meals from restaurants - and that healthy choices are becoming more prominent on menus.

But a look at nutrition guides from a few popular chains shows that high-fat, high-salt offerings still rule the day.

"A lot of people will say, 'Why isn't willpower enough? What wrong with good old willpower?'" asked Altschul.

"Once your brain is activated, if you just try to fight it you're going to end up wanting it more," Dr. Kessler said.

But to the restaurant association's Michael Gibbons, when it comes to avoiding temptation, common sense is the best prescription.

"I don't like to think of us as being helpless to resist," Gibbons said. "I mean, again, I'm not a scientist, I'm not a doctor, but I believe I can make my own choices. I think I'm independent and I have the ability to reason and make choices that I think are wise."

So as Americans continue to get more and more meals from restaurants, the question of mind-over-mozzarella sticks will grow ever-larger - and if we're not careful, so will our waistlines.

For more info:
"The End of Overeating" by Dr. David Kessler (Rodale Books)
National Restaurant Association

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