Apparently, former FDA head David Kessler and I have something in common: chocolate chip cookies and a struggle to maintain a healthy body weight. The doc noticed he had an unreasonable attachment to chocolate chip cookies and set out to find out why. I, too, have struggled with cookie addiction. I work at a college and eat meals at the campus dining hall. I regularly find myself getting swayed by the cookie assortment. They are sugary, buttery disks of goodness (chocolate chip, oatmeal raisin, sugar cookies, white chocolate macadamia, butter toffee, chocolate white chocolate chip, M&M, etc.) and they provide the perfect end note to an otherwise drab (or even amazing) lunch. At the school where I previously worked, our office was down the hall from the cafeteria. A colleague and I regularly took a break around midafternoon for a cup of coffee and a cookie or two. Although two cookies a day may not seem like a lot, every ounce of those mid-afternoon cookies because as attached to me as I was to them; hence, a 30 lb weight gain in 18 months. It also fueled my desire to eat other foods that were carb-heavy and loaded with sugar, salt or fat. It set off cravings that were incredibly challenging to ignore.
Kessler investigated the addictive qualities of sugar, fat and salt and wrote about it in the book “The End of Overeating.” I still haven’t cracked open the book myself, but it’s sitting in my “to read” pile and will likely be bumped up in rank after reading this article in the New York Times Well section this week.
Here’s a thought-provoking passage from the article:
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.
It certainly makes me think twice about reaching for that gooey cookie and it makes sense out of the Pringles “once you pop, you can’t stop” motto.