Food resonates so large in our memory because food looms so large in our lives. The act of eating touches everything we experience, everywhere we go, everyone we know, and everything we feel. As much as we are what we eat, we are what we remember, which explains why most everyone has a food memory that helps define who they are.
In Michael Moss’s Hooked, his next book exposing the more reprehensible behavior of the food industry following up the wildly successful (and still unread by me) Salt Sugar Fat, he tells a story that I imagine will stick with me for quite some time. It’s about a man, who, “after bariatric surgery, nearly ate himself to death with baklava.”
Now. On the one hand, we all have to go somehow, and I can think of worse ways than death by baklava. On the other, the feeling of uncomfortable fullness is, like its opposite of extreme hunger and emptiness, painful and often psychologically torturous. I would imagine especially excruciating after weight-loss surgery. So what mechanism in his brain allowed it to happen? Knowing full well what he’d been through, what his body had endured in an attempt to change, and what the effect of so much (albeit delicious) baklava would be?
All to say, our relationship with “addictive” foods — namely those packed with massive amounts of the reward-inducing ingredients salt, sugar, and fat — is a complicated one. According to Moss, “Some of our greatest insight into food and addiction comes from experts who started out working on drugs, and through this they’ve learned that addictions share some things. Not all of us are affected to the same degree. Our vulnerability can change over time and with our moods. The environment matters greatly.”
Made worse because someone in a position to profit from it realized it: “The processed food companies know that their products, like drugs, affect some of us more than others, and thus they turn out ten thousand new items each year.” Just in case you ever wondered why we have a million varieties of Oreos, with new ones constantly rolling out. Or, worse and more heave-inducing, complex varieties of sugary breakfast cereals, like Cotton Candy Cap’n Crunch, an example he uses repeatedly here and which I didn’t know existed and somewhat regret learning about.
I’m not anti-all processed foods, and in fact I think most people greatly misunderstand what exactly processing is and how much it’s benefited eating habits and food availability globally. So I did take issue a bit here with his casual use of the term “processed” — although in his defense, this is just generally the way it’s used and understood.
I know what people mean, but there are degrees of processing. Whole wheat pasta is a processed food, for example. Do we consider no-salt-added, peeled, canned tomatoes processed? I would. You can roll your eyes and say OBVIOUSLY it’s all the “chemical” ingredient-laden, junky, colorfully packaged stuff with a cartoon character selling it, but I think this concept can be quite confusing for people. Food companies and “natural” obsessed influencers have muddied the waters. From reading this you get the impression that the general public is just whiplashing back and forth as food company-funded studies churn out different findings and then react to avoid bad publicity or litigation. First it’s fat, then it’s sugar, then it’s fake sugar, back to fat but now trans fat, and so on.
When in reality, which Moss states very well here, for most people it’s all a lot more complicated than whatever the trendy demon of the moment is and there’s a lot of evolutionary biology and psychology at play too (and to be fair, trans fats are still pretty much just flat-out bad).
Anyway, what’s processed is a minor point I guess, but I always think there needs to be clearer delineation between highly processed foods enhanced with unreasonable amounts of salt and/or sugar and intended to be consumed in quantities far exceeding any level providing nutritional benefits (the aforementioned Cotton Candy Cap’n Crunch) and understanding what good things processing has done for the global food supply. It’s not realistic to get most people to only eat things that have been yanked from the ground or grow on trees, so we need to get a bit more realistic too about our relationship with processing. (I’ll get off my soapbox now.)
Moss looks at the biological and psychological responses that happen when we encounter specific ingredients that act on us powerfully in ways that our beyond our control, exactly like drugs, alcohol, and tobacco, with sugar getting the most attention here. I think everyone can in some way relate to the strange grip of an addictive food, most likely sugar in some form, even if you’ve never felt that you fall onto the spectrum of disordered eating. Although Moss points out, and I agree, that that spectrum is much broader than people tend to realize. Per him: “To obsess about food — even if the obsession is aimed at controlling what we eat — is just another spot on the spectrum of disordered eating.”
And it is very much a bummer to have solid evidence, in the form of court cases and extensive scientific studies, that the food companies know how these foods are acting on us and the potential for them to become addictive to many. They’re counting on it, in fact. And they specially engineer foods to better hook consumers. Unsurprising that employees have migrated from Big Tobacco to Big Food. Different product, same processes.
They even know that the biology of our own bodies thwarts us, no matter how we might try to break dependencies and control weight:
Perhaps the most telling aspect of body fat is that it never really disappears, even if you lose weight. Rather, the fat cells just shrivel up and lie in wait for the nose and the mouth and the gut and the brain to conspire to get us to eat more than we need, when the excess energy will flood those deflated fat cells with fuel stored in the form of fat.
Knowledge is power, scary as it is to learn more about the manipulations at play here. If you’ve read a lot in this area it won’t all be entirely new, nothing felt particularly groundbreaking or shocking to me here. Moss does give some helpful and quite reasonable advice, recommending fixing “just one of our bad habits at a time,” a biggie being stopping “drinking anything with calories.” He also gives some valuable, proven tips about slowing down when it comes to eating and preparing food, learning to cook (I can’t stress the importance of this one enough, from my own experience breaking disordered eating), and avoiding anything that too-quickly and strongly affects your pleasure and reward mechanism. He says it more eloquently than that, but that’s the gist of how we can help ourselves despite the biology, chemistry, and marketing power against us.
published March 2, 2021 by Random House