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Tackling Obesity with Neuroscience and Clever Design Good Books: David Kessler's The End of Overeating

Learn what David Kessler thinks we should do about our addiction to food and the country's burgeoning obesity problem.

You should judge this book by its cover. Chip Kidd created the design for David Kessler, former Food and Drug Administration Commissioner and the author of The End of Overeating. As Kessler says, "If you understand this cover, you understand the neuroscience of eating."

What do you see? Only an estimated 15 percent of the population can resist carrot cake. Your brain is wired to crave sugars, salt, and fats. Dopamine levels increase when you eat something desirable and repeatedly eating desirable stimuli—carrot cake, carrot cake, carrot cake—strengthens the neural circuits. The result: over-eating.

I heard Kessler last month at MIT's Knight Science Journalism Food Boot Camp, a week-long seminar covering everything from the history of food processing, E. coli, and the Food and Drug Administration to childhood obesity, food marketing, and the role of genetics play in our ability to taste flavor. Clearly, though, one of the most pressing questions and challenges facing scholars, public health officials, and journalists today is obesity.

Obesity isn't exclusively caused by genetics since genes have not—and cannot—change in four decades. It’s not because we're lazy. "If obesity were simply a question of diet and exercise," Kessler says, "then we wouldn’t have this problem." But still, there appears to be a underlying biological factors that lead to a perceived loss of control around eating, a lack a satiation, and a preoccupation with food.

Here's where the neuroscience comes in. Because the brain's amygdala responds to the anticipation of food and because food is the most socially acceptable salient stimula—pasted on buses, on storefronts, all over the Internet—our brains are constantly being activated. Even with the right tools and messages about healthy eating, you can’t expect individuals to protect themselves once they have this neural circuitry laid down. Kessler says, "You can’t turn this neural circuitry off. You need this to live." Unlike the narrative of AA, which demonizes alcohol addiction, demonizing a food "addiction" can lead to anorexia and, consequently, is not a good solution.

What is the solution? Kessler advocates for real foods—the eventual rise of the carrot over the carrot cake—and a culture that fosters that. And, he says, "If I had unlimited funds, I would run the campaign against big food—supersized portions." Let's hope any subsequent campaign takes a note from his book cover and deftly blends neuroscience with good design.

Book design by Chip Kidd/courtesy of Rodale Press.

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