Oprah Still Influential

me and Oprah

In one of the most attention-getting books on food and nutrition to have been published in the last decade, The End of Overeating, Dr. David Kessler puts forth the idea that even though the individual ingredients in food might not be overwhelmingly attractive, the ways in which they are combined or “layered” be very dangerous.

Seemingly, when sugar, salt, and fat are mixed together with certain complex techniques, there is a witches’-brew effect, where the finished product becomes more than the sum of its parts. The New York Times reviewer Tara Parker-Pope phrased it like this:

Foods that contain too little or too much sugar, fat or salt are either bland or overwhelming. But food scientists work hard to reach the precise point at which we derive the greatest pleasure from fat, sugar and salt… By combining fats, sugar and salt in innumerable ways, food makers have essentially tapped into the brain’s reward system, creating a feedback loop that stimulates our desire to eat.

What they want to create is an irresistible multisensory experience, and they succeed. What the consumers end up with is a bad case of “conditioned hypereating,” the inability to stop even when the body know it has had enough. The brain wants to continue receiving those jolts of pure pleasure, and it overrules the whole intricate system of chemical checks and balances that is supposed to keep us from running amok at the buffet table.

Dr. Pretlow notes that “conditioned hypereating” is indistinguishably similar to addiction, a word which Dr. Kessler refrained from using in his book, and says:

Once the brain realizes that hyperpalatable foods ease sadness, stress, and boredom, the brain undergoes changes to keep the “comfort eating” behavior going, resulting in addiction.

Food addiction is an increasingly recognized but still unpopular paradigm in America. Some parents and even some health professionals don’t want to admit the terrible power that “comfort eating” can hold over a vulnerable child or an adult in a dysfunctional life situation. But why should we be surprised that millions of people are addicted to substances that are both legal and easily available?

Another food researcher described how people self-medicate with foods to achieve an ideal combination of stimulating and sedating effects. The same dark science exists in the hard-drug world, too, in a concoction called a “speedball” that combines cocaine for the “up” and heroin for the “down.”

When Oprah Winfrey started her own network, the OWN, one of the things she brought to the screen was a “docu-series” called “Addicted to Food.” It focused on eight central participants and followed their progress through the Shades of Hope treatment program. Many viewers reacted positively to the message that recovery is possible even for the most seemingly hopeless. The page that describes the docu-series has also collected comments from its fans, and here are some examples of their painful admissions:

I am becoming my worst enemy…
My food addiction is consuming my every waking moment…
I am miserable.
It’s always a battle, always a roller coaster.
I can do good for a while, then I go the opposite way.
I am in a self inflicted hell.
Sometimes I just wonder how I can go on another day.

Addicted to Food” obviously resonates with a segment of the population. Oprah has personally interviewed a 24-year-old food addict named Josh, who used to weigh 547 pounds and got down to 259 via an inpatient rehabilitation program. One of the roots of his emotional pain was the big secret he had been keeping — that he was gay. “I hid behind the fat guy,” he said. Resolving that helped a lot. As many recovering addicts have found, an authentic life reduces the amount of emotional distress, and reduces the desire for comfort eating.

Your responses and feedback are welcome!

Source: “How the Food Makers Captured Our Brains,” The New York Times, 06/22/09
Source: “About the Show,” Oprah.com
Source: “One Man’s Struggle to Overcome Food Addiction,” Oprah.com
Image by letsgoeverywhere (Aviva West).

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