How the Food Makers Captured Our Brains

Posted by Dr. Jonathan Walker on June 23, 2009 under Nutrition | Be the First to Comment

From the New York Times Health Blog:

As head of the Food and Drug Administration, Dr. David A. Kessler served two presidents and battled Congress and Big Tobacco. But the Harvard-educated pediatrician discovered he was helpless against the forces of a chocolate chip cookie.

In an experiment of one, Dr. Kessler tested his willpower by buying two gooey chocolate chip cookies that he didn’t plan to eat. At home, he found himself staring at the cookies, and even distracted by memories of the chocolate chunks and doughy peaks as he left the room. He left the house, and the cookies remained uneaten. Feeling triumphant, he stopped for coffee, saw cookies on the counter and gobbled one down.

“Why does that chocolate chip cookie have such power over me?” Dr. Kessler asked in an interview. “Is it the cookie, the representation of the cookie in my brain? I spent seven years trying to figure out the answer.”

The result of Dr. Kessler’s quest is a fascinating new book, “The End of Overeating: Taking Control of the Insatiable American Appetite” (Rodale).

During his time at the Food and Drug Administration, Dr. Kessler maintained a high profile, streamlining the agency, pushing for faster approval of drugs and overseeing the creation of the standardized nutrition label on food packaging. But Dr. Kessler is perhaps best known for his efforts to investigate and regulate the tobacco industry, and his accusation that cigarette makers intentionally manipulated nicotine content to make their products more addictive.

In “The End of Overeating,” Dr. Kessler finds some similarities in the food industry, which has combined and created foods in a way that taps into our brain circuitry and stimulates our desire for more.

When it comes to stimulating our brains, Dr. Kessler noted, individual ingredients aren’t particularly potent. But 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 and leaves us wanting more and more even when we’re full.

Dr. Kessler isn’t convinced that food makers fully understand the neuroscience of the forces they have unleashed, but food companies certainly understand human behavior, taste preferences and desire. In fact, he offers descriptions of how restaurants and food makers manipulate ingredients to reach the aptly named “bliss point.” 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.

The result is that chain restaurants like Chili’s cook up “hyper-palatable food that requires little chewing and goes down easily,” he notes. And Dr. Kessler reports that the Snickers bar, for instance, is “extraordinarily well engineered.” As we chew it, the sugar dissolves, the fat melts and the caramel traps the peanuts so the entire combination of flavors is blissfully experienced in the mouth at the same time.

Foods rich in sugar and fat are relatively recent arrivals on the food landscape, Dr. Kessler noted. But today, foods are more than just a combination of ingredients. They are highly complex creations, loaded up with layer upon layer of stimulating tastes that result in a multisensory experience for the brain. Food companies “design food for irresistibility,” Dr. Kessler noted. “It’s been part of their business plans.”

But this book is less an exposé about the food industry and more an exploration of us. “My real goal is, How do you explain to people what’s going on with them?” Dr. Kessler said. “Nobody has ever explained to people how their brains have been captured.”

The book, a New York Times best seller, includes Dr. Kessler’s own candid admission that he struggles with overeating.

“I wouldn’t have been as interested in the question of why we can’t resist food if I didn’t have it myself,” he said. “I gained and lost my body weight several times over. I have suits in every size.”

This is not a diet book, but Dr. Kessler devotes a sizable section to “food rehab,” offering practical advice for using the science of overeating to our advantage, so that we begin to think differently about food and take back control of our eating habits.

One of his main messages is that overeating is not due to an absence of willpower, but a biological challenge made more difficult by the overstimulating food environment that surrounds us. “Conditioned hypereating” is a chronic problem that is made worse by dieting and needs to be managed rather than cured, he said. And while lapses are inevitable, Dr. Kessler outlines several strategies that address the behavioral, cognitive and nutritional factors that fuel overeating.

Planned and structured eating and understanding your personal food triggers are essential. In addition, educating yourself about food can help alter your perceptions about what types of food are desirable. Just as many of us now find cigarettes repulsive, Dr. Kessler argues that we can also undergo similar “perceptual shifts” about large portion sizes and processed foods. For instance, he notes that when people who once loved to eat steak become vegetarians, they typically begin to view animal protein as disgusting.

The advice is certainly not a quick fix or a guarantee, but Dr. Kessler said that educating himself in the course of writing the book had helped him gain control over his eating.

“For the first time in my life, I can keep my weight relatively stable,” he said. “Now, if you stress me and fatigue me and put me in an airport and the plane is seven hours late – I’m still going to grab those chocolate-covered pretzels. The old circuitry will still show its head.”

Weight Loss and Breakfast: Eggs are Better

Posted by Dr. Jonathan Walker on April 21, 2009 under Nutrition, Research Articles | Read the First Comment

From the Healthhabits blog:


Need to lose a few pounds?

Try this…

Tomorrow morning, instead of wolfing down a bagel as you run out the door, scramble up a few eggs with some cheddar cheese and black forest ham.

According to a bunch of new studies, this high protein breakfast will help you manage your hunger while also reducing the amount of calories that you pack away throughout the day.

The Science

University of Conneticut researchers found that adult men who consumed eggs for breakfast:

  • consumed fewer calories following the egg breakfast compared to the bagel breakfast
  • consumed fewer total calories in the 24-hour period after the egg breakfast compared to the bagel breakfast
  • reported feeling less hungry and more satisfied three hours after the egg breakfast compared to the bagel breakfast
This study was presented at Experimental Biology 2009. This research builds upon previous work by Dr. Fernandez which showed how the cholesterol from egg yolks  improves the level of good (HDL) cholesterol.


A second study, published in the International Journal of Obesity, concluded that eating eggs for breakfast as part of a reduced-calorie diet helped overweight dieters lose 65 percent more weight and feel more energetic than dieters who ate a bagel breakfast of equal calories and volume.

And if that isn’t enough proof, you can check out this study which showed that getting your protein with breakfast was more effective at controlling hunger.

But what about the cholesterol?

For years, we have been told to avoid eating too many whole eggs.

We’ve been warned by the experts that the cholesterol found in those egg yolks are going to clog our arteries.

Maybe the experts are wrong.

New research (presented at Experimental Biology 2009) out of the University of Florida State  examined the relationship between cardiovascular disease (CVD) risk factors such as body mass index, serum lipids and levels of high-sensitivity C-reactive protein (hs-CRP), and the degree to which these factors are influenced by dietary intake of fiber, fat and eggs. The study found:

  • no relationship between egg consumption and serum lipid profiles, especially serum total cholesterol, as well as no relationship between egg consumption and hs-CRP
  • a positive correlation between dietary trans-fat intake (the margarine on your bagel) and CVD risk factors, as well as a negative correlation between fiber and vitamin C intake and CVD risk factors(6)

In additional research presented at Experimental Biology, investigators with Exponent, Inc. evaluated egg consumption data from the NHANES III Follow-Up Survey to determine the association between egg consumption and heart health. The researchers developed a statistical model which showed:

  • no increased risk of death from coronary heart disease with increased egg consumption
  • a reduced risk of mortality among men who consumed one to six eggs/week compared to less than one egg/week
  • a significant reduction in risk of stroke among women who consumed one to six eggs/week and one or more eggs/day

So, while I am not advocating that you chug back a dozen raw eggs at breakfast a la Rocky, I am suggesting that you replace your morning toast with an omelette.

Your shrinking love handles will thank you.

Muscle Cancer Away!

Posted by Dr. Jonathan Walker on January 16, 2009 under Nutrition, Research Articles | 3 Comments to Read

The benefits of strength training are well-documented and extensive. From increasing bone density to improving cholesterol, resistance training should be included in any exercise routine. Recent research is showing that people with more lean muscle mass may be at an advantage when it comes to fighting cancer.

A study in the British medical journal Lancet found that cancer patients with increased levels of lean muscle mass lived on average 10 months longer than those with lower muscle mass. While other studies have shown that people who exercise have lower levels of cancer, it is unclear whether lifting weights prior to or after the cancer diagnosis has the greatest effect.

The researchers still are not sure exactly what causes lean mass to have a protective effect. My take would be this- lean muscle mass increases our metabolism, burning fat. Stored fat in the body produces excess estrogen, which has been linked to certain cancers (this is one of the reasons Hormone Replacement Therapy in post-menopausal women increases the risk of cancer). So by reducing fat mass the progression of cancer is slowed.

We also know that fat tissue causes the release of a variety of chemicals called cytokines. These chemicals chronically increase inflammation in the body. It has been well demonstrated that inflammation is the root cause of many types of cancer, as well as cardiovascular disease, Type 2 diabetes, and obesity. People with more lean muscle mass have lower levels of inflammation, and therefore are better prepared to stave off diseases such as cancer.

So get started today! Don’t wait until it’s too late to begin anti-inflammatory (and anti-cancer) habits. Exercise regularly with weights, eat an anti-inflammatory diet (lots of fruits, vegetables, healthy fats and protein), and supplement your diet with quality nutritional products.

If you want the support of physicians trained in natural and preventative medicine, contact our office today. Dr. Walker and Dr. Sancetta can help develop a plan of action for you to achieve your goals!

Could Your Vitamins Be Causing Disease?

Posted by Dr. Jonathan Walker on January 7, 2009 under Nutrition, Research Articles | 2 Comments to Read

Some interesting research is being brought to the forefront in the synthetic vs. whole food supplement debate. The more time I spend studying, the more intuitive sense it makes to me that natural whole food supplements are superior to their synthetic counterparts. It is impossible to replicate in a lab the nutrients the healthy foods our bodies are designed to function on.

All of the nutrients in whole food supplements, like the Optimal Health Systems line we carry in the practice, are derived from natural sources. Also, the minerals in the supplements we use are bound with amino acids to significantly increase absorption.

These studies illustrate not only the possible superiority of whole food supplements, but also the potential dangers of synthetic vitamins.

Synthetic Vitamin C Supplements May Lead to Heart Disease

Researchers from the Institute for Health Promotion and Disease Prevention Research found that “regular intake of [synthetic] vitamin C pills may quicken the thickening of artery walls, a condition known as atherosclerosis”. Of the 573 men and women studied, those that had consumed at least 500 milligrams of ascorbic acid Vitamin C supplements a day, developed an inner artery wall layer 2.5 times thicker than that of people who did not take the synthetic supplements. However, the researchers found “no evidence that vitamin C from food caused heightened atherosclerosis progression. According to researcher James H. Dwyer, “When you take in vitamins from food, you take them in with a large number of other components of that food. It is plausible that the protective effective of a diet occurs because of the interaction of many components of those foods.”

Rado, Alicia. “Too much of a good thing? Large doses of vitamin C linked to atherosclerosis”. HSC Weekly, Feb 25, 2000; Vol 6, No 7.

Synthetic Vitamin E Harmful

According to a study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the synthetic form of vitamin E (alpha-tochopherol) does an incomplete job of neutralizing certain compounds and can actually block beneficial natural nutrients in the body. Stephan Christen, lead author of the study, said consuming over 100 international units of alpha-tocopherol may be harmful. Christen said he hopes vitamin/pill companies will soon begin adding gamma-tocopherol to their formulas so consumers can receive the full benefits from vitamin E.

Recer, Paul. “Vitamin E pills may pose risk.” The Arizona Republic, April 1, 1997.

Synthetic Vitamin C May Contribute to DNA Damage

According to an article published in the journal Science, researchers found that “the [synthetic] vitamin C pills taken by millions of health-conscious Americans may actually help produce toxins that can damage their DNA, a step toward forming cancer cells”. Ian A. Blair, the study’s lead author, said they found that synthetic “vitamin C was highly efficient in converting lipid hydroperoxide [a compound produced in the body from fat in the diet] into gene-damaging toxins.”

Recer, Paul. “Lab Study Finds Vitamin C Dangers.” The Washington Post, June 14, 2001.

Beta-Carotene Provides No Benefit in Cancer Prevention

“Former blue asbestos workers known to be at high risk of asbestos-related diseases, particularly malignant mesothelioma and lung cancer, were enrolled in a chemo-prevention program using vitamin A. [The goal of the study was] to compare rates of disease and death in subjects randomly assigned to [synthetic] beta-carotene or retinol.” Results of the five-year study “confirm other findings of a lack of any benefit from administration of large doses of synthetic beta-carotene.”

de Klerk NH et al. Vitamin A and cancer prevention II: comparison of the effects of retinol and beta-carotene. Int J Cancer 1998 Jan 30; 75(3):362-7.

Stop pain by….eating?

Posted by Dr. Jonathan Walker on November 19, 2008 under Back pain, Nutrition | Read the First Comment

You read that correctly. As you can probably imagine, WHAT you eat matters, but the idea is still pretty powerful. When you hear the phrase “You are what you eat”, do you actually think about what this means? As we’ll discuss today, this is very literally true, and has some incredible applications.

If you think back to eighth grade biology, you remember the pictures of a human cell. Big squishy round thing in the middle (nucleus), a covering that looks like it’s made of Skittles (cell membrane) and with a bunch of funny looking stuff floating around inside (endoplasmic reticulum, mitochondria, etc). It’s a whole lot more complicated than this, but that’s not the point. Each part of that cell is composed of fats and proteins that come from the food we eat.

The part of the cell that is especially important for our topic today is the cell membrane (the Skittle covering). The membrane is made of the fats that you eat, primarily omega-3 and omega-6 fats. If you’ve heard any thing about eating salmon or taking fish oil to increase he omega-3s in your diet, then you already know how healthy these essential fats are. Have you ever considered why?

                                                 The cell membrane (made omega-6s and omega-3s) is responsible for regulating inflammation in the body. When you think of inflammation you probably think of a sprained ankle or when you hit your thumb with a hammer. This is acute inflammation, and it’s normal and healthy. Chronic inflammation, on the other hand, is when your body is always producing low levels of pro-inflammatory chemicals. This chronic inflammation occurs when the cell membranes have too many omega-6s and not enough omega-3s. When the body is always inflammed this leads to problems such as heart disease, arthritis, chronic pain, even cancer.

This is why supplementing wiith omega-3s (fish oil, flaxseed oil) and eating foods rich in omega-3s helps to fight inflammation. Even more important is limiting the amount of omega-6 fats in your diet. These are found primarily in grains, vegetable oils, and processed foods. Studies have shown that a diet rich in omega-3s helps to prevent conditions ranging from heart disease to Alzheimers. In Europe, fish oil is prescribed to help patients recovering from a heart attack or stroke. In my practice, I’ve found patients who are supplementing with omega-3s have less pain and recover faster. If you have questions on what type of fish oil is best or how much is necessary for you, our staff can help you make good decisions.

So next time you’re about to eat another meal of processed, pro-inflammatory, omega-6 laden food, decide if you want to be eating to cause pain, or if you want to choose health! If back or neck pain is keeping you from doing the things you love, be aware that the inflammation in your body might be related to the inflammation from your plate!