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The Point of No Return
Where fat, salt and sugar meet is a place that makes our toes curl in pleasure. But once you’re hooked, is there any going back?
Remember your very first trip to a fast-food joint? I do. With near-frightening clarity.
I was 8 years old. One day while out shopping, my mom took me to a magical, American restaurant with some very golden arches on their signage. There, she ordered me a cheeseburger and fries.
What followed next changed the trajectory of my life.
Up to that moment, the food I ate was either freshly prepared at home or there would be a trip to some restaurant once in a while where for the most part real, fresh ingredients were used.
But when I took that first bite of my cheeseburger, my very existence seemed to have lit up. I actually remember every part of that moment, including where we sat, the decor, the smells, all of it.
You see, that bite had everything I had ever loved to taste, but all in one! Never before did I taste something that had so much delicious saltiness, sweetness and richness caressing my tongue at the same time. It was an utter revelation. I found a paradise I never knew existed.
From that day forward, I was hooked.
So hooked in fact that by the time I was 16 years old, the very yellow place with its welcoming, beckoning golden arches were my consistent go-to. And I mean for everything.
I’d skip afternoon classes just to go to the location nearest to my school. There, I’d order 8 burgers of varying sizes (no fries, I’m not a total pig thank you very much), go home and eat them all while watching TV.
My addiction to increasing amounts of the stuff became secret eating. That’s when you hide your sins from other people.
Not long after polishing off my family of burgers, my mom would come home from work. Like always, she asked me if I’m hungry and I would lie that I am. Then, I would also polish off a full dinner with the 8 burgers from earlier probably nowhere near completing their process of digestion.
Unsurprisingly, by age 17 I tipped the scale at over 300 pounds.
I’m not really certain if my food addiction was necessarily sparked by that first-ever trip to the world’s most famous fast-food chain, but what I am certain of is that it didn’t help.
The bliss point
This lovely-sounding term was coined by Howard Moskowitz, a US market researcher and psychoanalyst. Mr. Moskowitz was known for his work in creating soft drinks and pasta sauces. He came up with the term ‘bliss point’ to describe the ultimate level of saltiness, sweetness and richness that makes food taste just right.
It’s the point at which the perception of the food we are eating is that the taste and mouthfeel isn’t too much or too little in any direction. The Goldilocks zone of flavor.
Human biological evolutionary systems are vulnerable to this combination. Detecting this bliss point initiates our reward mechanism in the form of a shot of endorphins. We then remember the intense reaction that this food gave us and we want to do it again.
This need for repeating the bliss is a product of a neurotransmitter named dopamine which also makes us feel good.
When the food industry figured this out, there was no looking back.
Tasty - so what’s the catch?
When junk food companies and restaurants create their products, it’s done with the goal of including at least two of the three magic components to optimize this bliss point.
Dr. David Kessler, former head of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and known for his work in regulating cigarettes and tobacco in the US, has also written extensively on the subject of food additives to make food more addictive.
His book The End of Overeating talks about this bliss point being a direct cause of obesity in the US. One quote from him in particular resonated with me:
“The trio of salt, fat and sugar in restaurant and processed foods conditions us to eat more, in a manner that changes our brain circuitry. Children may develop a pattern of overeating and obesity that they might retain for life.”
As someone who is a food addict and has struggled with obesity and self-image, I’ve known this for a long time. Obesity is not genetically predetermined as a lot of folks believe. Obese people are a product of their environment just like any other person who is trying to self-medicate for an emotional issue.
Corporations that create junk food get you to form an addiction to their products with the goal of selling more of them. And it’s not just junk food anymore. Sugar is a great example. Foods that never used to have sugar in them in the past now do. Most commercial breads now contain sugar. Some Yogurts have more added sugar than ice cream!
And it’s not because it’s “cheap filler”. It is because it’s an addictive substance that will get you to crave and buy more.
Numbers are us
In Western society, few of us have not been exposed to the addictive pleasure and utter satisfaction that junk food can provide. I am a statistic where this is concerned. In many ways you probably are too. And we are paying the price with weight-related complications on the rise.
So do we have to live without that taste and mouthfeel that makes our eyes roll back in pure indulgence? Of course not. Besides, you’re probably already hooked, and like me, have been since your very first bite long ago.
Dr. Kessler sums it up perfectly: “for the first time we can actually tell people that predisposition to eating unhealthy foods is not your fault., but just because something is not your fault doesn’t mean you shouldn’t take steps to protect yourself.”
Controlling the beast
The culprit is lab-designed, processed food. Anywhere from chips to fast-food chain products. But beware of the wholesome-sounding staples (such as the bread and yogurt mentioned earlier) too.
The simplest way to control the intake of processed food is to avoid the real junk-ey stuff completely in favor of fresh, whole foods and short ingredient lists with easy-to-pronounce ingredients.
If you wish to go further than this and get into the more granular stuff, the focus would be on saturated fat, added sugar, sodium. Some general framework:
Less than 10% of daily caloric intake should come from saturated fat
Less than 25 g of added sugar per day
Less than 2300 mg of sodium per day
Last but not least (and this one is tougher to me than any of the others): eating mindfully.
If you have to have that junk snack or meal, remove as many distractions from eating as possible. Focus on the flavor of the food and enjoy each bite. You’ll have a better chance of not overdoing it.
The bottom line
There simply is no way to compete with the sheer size, power and draw of the food industry. Their ads, sponsorships and affinity marketing with all types of groups that make them look like a natural part of our lives exist everywhere.
Becoming aware of how we are being manipulated can change how we view what we put in our mouths. If we treat junk food with respect and only indulge as infrequently as possible, we don’t necessarily have to give it up entirely.
So go ahead, enjoy those favorites that conjure childhood images or give you that warm hug from the inside that you may need at that moment. After all, you only live once. But be mindful of the food you eat and you’ll give yourself the best chance to make this one life a healthy one.
The End of Overeating - Taking Control of the Insatiable American Appetite, David A. Kessler Rodale Books.: Emmaus, Pennsylvania, USA.2009. p. 320$25.95 ISBN: 978-1-60529-785-9
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