CM . . .
. Volume XX Number 1. . . .September 6, 2013
Hijacked: How Your Brain is Fooled by Food.
David A. Kessler. Adapted by Richie Chevat from The End of Overeating.
Toronto, ON: Tundra Books, 2013.
185 pp., hardcover & EPUB, $21.99 (hc.).
ISBN 978-1-77049-503-6 (hc.), ISBN 978-1-77049-505-0 (EPUB).
Nutrition-Psychological aspects-Juvenile literature.
Food habits-Psychological aspects-United States-Juvenile literature.
Obesity-United States-Juvenile literature.
Food-Marketing-United States-Juvenile literature.
Grades 7 and up / Ages 12 and up.
Review by Joanne Peters.
I got the idea to write this book while watching a daytime talk show. On the show a psychologist was talking about why so many North Americans are overweight. He asked for a volunteer from the audience. A large, well-dressed woman named Sarah stood up. The psychologist asked Sarah to talk about her problems with weight.
At first, Sarah was all smiles. “I eat all the time,” she said with a nervous giggle, “I eat when I’m hungry; I eat when I’m not hungry. I eat when I’m happy; I eat when I’m sad.”
Then the psychologist asked Sarah to describe how she felt about herself.
The sunny smile on her face faded. Sarah said she felt like a failure. She called herself “fat” and “ugly”. She said that she ate too much even though she knew it wasn’t good for her. Afterward, she often felt angry with herself for not being able to stop.... The psychologist asked how many in the audience had ever felt like that. About two-thirds raised their hands. They all had a problem with overeating.
What exactly is “overeating”? David A. Kessler, author of Hijacked: How Your Brain Is Fooled by Food, defines it as a situation where “people eat all the time, whether or not they’re hungry. It’s when people feel they have lost control and have to eat matter how bad it is for them.” (5) Not surprisingly, all that non-essential food intake is leading to obesity, and with obesity comes a sequelae of potential health problems: diabetes and heart disease being the two most common. There’s also increased susceptibility to some forms of cancer, and arthritis and joint degeneration, the resulting wear and tear from carrying around those extra pounds (or kilograms).
Kessler, a pediatriacian and a graduate of Harvard Medical School, has served as the dean of medical schools and was a former commissioner of the US Food and Drug Administration. However, he freely admits that he has struggled with his weight and with overeating. Knowing the health consequences of the problem was not enough to push him away from the table. In fact, his personal struggle with the problem became the reason for his investigation of why North Americans overeat and why so many are now so grossly overweight. In 2009, he published The End of Over-Eating: Taking Control of the Insatiable North American Appetite. Hijacked, an adaptation of his original book, is designed for younger readers born into and living in a culture of processed food, fast food, and non-stop food availability.
The book is divided into four parts: “Sugar, Fat, Salt”, “How the Food Industry Targets You”, “Understanding Overeating”, and “Food Rehab”. It is Kessler’s argument that North Americans have become food addicts due to the food industry’s deliberate manipulation of the content of food: “foods are designed and sold to us in ways that make us want to eat more.” (7) Food manufacturers have learned – apparently through trial and error, rather than through brain research (26) - that three ingredients make us want to eat more and more, even when we aren’t even hungry: sugar, fat, and salt. This unholy trinity stimulates the brain’s reward centres, ultimately re-wiring the brain and changing behaviour so that people eat, even when their energy needs have been satisfied. Historically, sugar was a rarity, salt was a highly prized commodity, and fat was almost a luxury. For centuries, foods with sugar and fat were “special” (think of all those seasonal cookies, enjoyed at holidays such as Christmas), treats to be enjoyed occasionally, rather than as items for everyday consumption.
However, improvements in agricultural methods, industrial production, as well as the ability to ship food items far beyond their immediate production location have exposed people to new and different foods, as well as making them more available for consumption. Other changes in society have also changed the way people eat, as well as what they eat: North Americans spend a significant portion of their food budget on restaurant food, whether dining in or taking it out to eat at home, at work, or at leisure. Cooking at home and “slow food” demands time, and North Americans are time-starved; as a result, supermarkets stock convenience foods of all sorts, fully prepared meals (boxed or frozen), and “snack” items which can be eaten on the run.
It’s not just the deliberate re-engineering of food content – the layering of sugar, fat, and salt – that makes some items darn near irresistible. There are other types of processing: bulking up chicken meat with salt and chemical-engorged water so that “it seems like you’re getting more. Also, water makes food softer and easier to chew.” (65) That’s what fast food is all about: creating food that can be wolfed down as quickly as possible, leaving you wanting more. Food manufacturers have also zeroed in on the concept of food as entertainment. We’re not talking about Food Network and similar television shows. It’s about making the experience of consuming food, particularly in restaurants, to be an entertaining experience, a “reward we ‘deserve’” (74). It’s certainly not about social interaction around a dinner table or the discernment of fine ingredients in a lovingly-cooked meal. And the association between food and fun starts when kids are small, eating sugar-infused cereals like Lucky Charms, Cocoa Puffs and Froot Loops, packaged in brightly coloured boxes illustrated with cartoon characters. Face it, when’s the last time you saw a fun and exciting bag of large-flake oatmeal?
Nevertheless, Kessler points out that not everyone becomes an over-eater. The section entitled “Understanding Over-Eating” provides valuable insights into self-identification of the problem, as well as the factors which enable some people to manage food in a responsible and healthy fashion If recognizing the problem is halfway to solution, then the final section of the book, “Food Rehab”, offers help on how to re-train one’s food choices. Behavioural change is never easy, and Kessler is realistic: “I’m not going to tell you to never eat an ice-cream cone or any other processed food. I will tell you that the most important thing you can do is discover other foods that you enjoy that are good for you. You need to “want” something more than high-fat, high-sugar foods.” (136)
Anyone who is around adolescents knows that food is an important aspect of their life, and especially, their social lives. Today’s teen has a busier schedule than many of their parents had when they were at that age; fast food, snack food, and energy drinks which can be consumed on the run to their next class, activity, practice or game, all fill a need to get fuelled up, even as they create or reinforce bad eating habits. When adolescent growth stops, they’ll no longer be able to pack down the potato chips without seeing the result on the bathroom scale or in the pants that are just a bit snug. Struggles with weight will begin (along with accompanying self- and body-image issues). These young people are the target audience for Hijacked. The book is short (176 pages, plus Acknowledgements and Index), accessible (the text uses an easy-to-read font, with plenty of highlights for key points in need of reinforcement), and direct (Kessler is forthright about his food struggles and speaks to his audience with empathy and understanding.)
Although the book is definitely targeted at younger readers, adult readers would enjoy it, too. Consciousness of just how much the food industry has done to food makes one think twice before reaching for that bag of (name your favourite snack food). Teachers of high school nutrition classes will find it a useful resource, as would anyone working with students struggling with eating issues. Finally, I hope that the title and the stylized burger on the front cover will catch the eye of students who are junk-food junkies and constant snackers.
Joanne Peters is a retired high school teacher-librarian who resides in Winnipeg, MB.
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