Kids are Wired to Pack on the Pounds

According to KidsHealth, a child health website sponsored by the Nemours Foundation, 1 out of 3 children in the U.S. are now considered overweight or obese, and that number is growing rapidly. ONE OUT OF THREE. That means that when your child sits in his classroom and looks to the right and left, one of those kids – maybe him – is too fat.

Yes, I said the ‘f’ word. Not chunky, or chubby, or big-boned, or solid, or plump, or heavy, or stout. Fat. Because the first step to solving a world-wide epidemic is recognizing it and calling it what it is. Euphemisms allow us to distance ourselves from the emotional impact and encourage inaction. So let’s just face it: we have become a nation of FAT people. Why? How did it happen?

I recently read a powerful book called The End of Overeating, by Dr. David Kessler, the former Food and Drug Administration Chairman. In the book Dr. Kessler describes his own ongoing battle with overweight and his self-described “powerlessness over the chocolate chip cookie”. This irresistible attraction to sweets led him to spend the next seven years trying to figure out why it was so.

In a manner he compares to the tobacco industry, and how they’ve perfected ways to deliver nicotine and make their product as addictive as possible, Dr. Kessler describes how food manufacturers, with the help of food scientists (talk about creating bad karma), have combined and created foods in a way that taps into our brain circuitry and stimulates our desire for more.

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.

Precisely engineered foods contain just the right combinations that cause us to reach the “bliss point”, a state of near drug induced stimulation that keeps us coming back for another hit. A good example, says Dr. Kessler, is the Snickers candy bar. As we chew it, the sugar dissolves, the fat melts and the caramel traps the peanuts so the entire combination of flavors is blissfully tasted at the same time. Nirvana!

And though we are all vulnerable to the lure of these carefully created food drugs, Dr. Kessler says there is hope. We have the ability to go through “food rehab” and retrain ourselves to avoid the foods that trigger our dependence and overeating.

So for parents, and let’s face it … here I’m mostly talking about us moms who are responsible for the vast majority of food preparation, that means we’ve got some rethinking to do. Yes, I know, once again I’m suggesting an added burden, a new load of guilt, something we need to change to avoid burning in mommy hell. Sorry, this one does fall largely on us.

Think about retraining the family brain. When you shop, look for foods with the least amount of engineering and fewest ingredients. Beware of the evil salt-sugar-fat combinations, and when you see them (and particularly when you eat them) note how they may tend to induce powerlessness. Consider the foods we tend to lose control with:  I’ve never eaten just one scoop of Ben and Jerry’s (where’d that pint go?) or just a few Thin Mint Girl Scout cookies.

Add interesting tastes and flavors via spices to simple foods. Train your brain to appreciate varied tastes without the need for the dangerous stuff. It’s all about retraining and habit. Do it for yourself. Do it for your kids. Do it for our fat-and-growing-fatter country! If David Kessler can resist that second (and third and tenth) chocolate chip cookie,  maybe we can, too.

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Rachel Zahn, MD is a pediatrician turned health writer who had three kids during medical school and pediatric training—crazy, huh?

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