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Compulsive Overeating and How to Stop It

A former FDA commissioner explains why people overeat -- and how to end poor eating habits.

Alternate Views on Overeating

Adam Drewnowski, director of the Center for Public Health and Nutrition at the University of Washington, isn't convinced.

"Yes, we like it, yes, we eat it, maybe our brains light up in response to it," Drewnowski says. "Are we addicted? No. Do we have to make it the mainstay of our diet? No."

Drewnowski, who is studying connections between poverty and obesity, contends other factors are making Americans fatter. His most recent study, published in the May issue of the Journal of the American Dietetic Association, examined the eating habits of 164 adults in Seattle. People with higher education and incomes were most likely to eat a lower-calorie, more nutritious diet, and to buy more costly food, according to the study.

"People who are obese are the ones who have no money, no education, eat cheap sugar and fat, and live in neighborhoods where cheap sugar and fat are the only things available," Drewnowski says. "We say they should choose better. But in our society, they have no choice."

Kessler allows that his theory of how biology drives overeating doesn't apply to everyone. He estimates that 70 million Americans are susceptible. Others, he says, don't respond to food stimuli in the same way, something that scientists haven't been able to explain.

Nora Volkow, director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse at the National Institutes of Health, sees similarities between situations that trigger drug abusers and those that make some people automatically order popcorn when they see a movie.

"It's the same biological mechanism," says Volkow, who studies dopamine connections to drug abuse and obesity.

The institute is studying brain chemistry to develop strategies to help people control those urges to overeat.

"People need to learn to handle their eating behaviors better," Volkow says. "Be aware of your conditioned responses. You can avoid that activity."

Taking Control of Your Eating Habits

Kessler believes conditioned hypereaters can take back control. He also calls for the food industry to take another look at how it makes and markets products that he believes manipulate eating behavior.

"It's become pretty egregious across the board," he says. "You look at most appetizers and main dishes at where America eats, and they're just layered and loaded with fat and sugar and salt. And it's not obvious."

An industry spokesman contends that Kessler's book doesn't reflect efforts to provide more nutritious food.

"He's got it backwards when it comes to the food industry's role," says Brian Kennedy, director of communications for the Grocery Manufacturers Association, a trade group for food and beverage companies. "We have heard our consumers and policy makers loud and clear, and are providing consumers with more products and healthier choices than ever before."

Kennedy points to other factors that cause people to become overweight, including lack of exercise.

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