I am not making this up. There is such a thing as chocolate-covered bacon. It’s apparently been around for years, featured at the Wisconsin State Fair and other fine culinary gatherings. Chocolate-covered bacon is the holy trinity of junk food: salt, fat and sugar, all in one divine morsel. A heart attack on a plate.
The appeal of this concoction would be no surpise to Dr. David Kessler. The Harvard-trained doctor, lawyer, former Yale Medical School dean and commissioner of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration believes that this junk food combo – salt-fat-sugar – actually stimulates our brain to crave more.
Dr. Kessler’s book, The End of Over-eating, claims that foods high in salt, fat and sugar actually alter the brain’s chemistry in ways that compel people to over-eat. He told the Washington Post:
“Much of the scientific research around over-eating has been physiology – what’s going on in our body. The real question is what’s going on in our brain?”
He also sees parallels between the tobacco and food industries. He claims that both are manipulating consumer behaviour to sell products that can harm our health.
And with one out of every four Canadians now considered obese, the manipulation is working. Says Dr. Kessler:
“One-third of Canadians who were classified as normal weight a decade ago are now overweight. The upward curve is especially evident in the younger population, with the number of overweight and obese children, ages 7 to 13, increasing by as much as 300% in just two decades.”
Dr. Kessler found that “highly palatable” foods – those containing fat, sugar and salt – stimulate the brain to release dopamine, the neurotransmitter associated with the pleasure centre:
“In time, the brain gets wired so that dopamine pathways light up at the mere suggestion of the food, such as driving past a fast-food restaurant, and the urge to eat the food grows insistent. Once the food is eaten, the brain releases opioids, which bring emotional relief. Together, dopamine and opioids create a pathway that can activate every time a person is reminded about the particular food. This happens regardless of whether the person is hungry.”
Staying with our lovely bacon theme, these ‘highly palatable foods’ include candied bacon ice cream, bacon-infused vodka, brioche bread pudding smothered in bacon sauce, bacon mints, and ‘Baconnaise’ (which Jon Stewart described as “for people who want to get heart disease but are too lazy to actually make bacon!”)
Dr. Kessler estimates that for 85% of us, the key to stopping this cycle is to rewire the brain’s response to food — not easy in a culture where unhealthy food and snacks are cheap and plentiful, portions are huge, and consumers are bombarded by junk food advertising that links these foods to fun and good times, he says.
Deprivation only heightens the way the brain values the food, which is why dieting doesn’t work. The self-described former ‘fat kid’ who has himself yo-yo dieted for years, Dr. Kessler’s own weight has fluctuated from 160 – 230 pounds, so he knows full well just how hard it can be to turn down the chocolate-covered bacon.
What’s needed instead is a perceptual shift:
“We did this with cigarettes. It used to be sexy and glamorous, but now people look at smoking and say, ‘That’s not something I want!’
“We need to make a cognitive shift and change the way we look at food. Instead of viewing that huge plate of nachos and fries as a guilty pleasure, we have to look at it and say, ‘That’s not going to make me feel good. In fact, that’s disgusting.’ “
“The food that this industry is selling is much more powerful than we realized. I used to think that I ate to feel full. Now we have the science that shows we’re eating to stimulate ourselves. And so the question is: what are we going to do about it?”
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- Chocolate-Covered Bacon – and Other Ways To Alter Your Brain Chemistry
- How To Stare Down That Plate of Chocolate Chip Cookies
- What Overweight Women May Have in Common with Drug Addicts