David Kessler Visits University for Food Day

The former FDA commissioner discussed how to end overeating and obesity in the United States.

David Kessler
Former FDA commissioner David Kessler leads a lecture on how to stop overeating in the U.S.
October 28, 2013

By Julyssa Lopez

David Kessler, bestselling author and the former Food and Drug Administration commissioner, is credited with pioneering the FDA’s regulation of tobacco products. Now, he’s undertaking a new challenge: Ending obesity and overeating in America.

Dr. Kessler discussed his mission on Thursday at the Jack Morton Auditorium during the George Washington University’s Food Day. He drew from research he uncovered while writing his book, “The End of Overeating: Taking Control of the Insatiable American Appetite.”

President Steven Knapp opened the event with brief remarks on ways the university has tackled some of the food problems that Dr. Kessler addresses in his book.

“Our students have been very intensely engaged in thinking about and advocating for food-related issues for a number of years now,” he said, listing examples like the GW Food Justice Alliance’s community garden and the Urban Food Task Force’s integrated food project with Foggy Bottom’s School Without Walls Senior High School.

Dean of the School of Public Health and Health Services Lynn Goldman, a former colleague of Dr. Kessler's, detailed his accomplishments as FDA commissioner.

“Dr. Kessler has played an extremely important role in ensuring that the public’s health is protected and safeguarded from a number of hazards,” Dr. Goldman said. “He has turned his focus to the issue of food and the problems we have societally with a mass epidemic of obesity not only in the United States, but also globally.”

Dr. Kessler’s dynamic discussion integrated slides, personal anecdotes and a direct conversation with the audience—he posed questions to guests throughout his talk, soliciting ideas and opinions. He focused on two central pieces of America’s overeating problem: What has led to weight gains across the U.S. population and why some people eat even when they’re not hungry.

He showed the audience two graphs illustrating differences in American weight patterns today compared to the previous generation. Americans enter their adult years about 18 pounds heavier now, and they continue to gain weight throughout their middle age years. In the 1950s, the weight of an adult would plateau after a person reached his or her 30s.

Much of these trends have to do with our inner biology and how our brains have been conditioned, Dr. Kessler explained. He discussed the difference between liking and wanting food. Sweetness drives wanting. Dr. Kessler said that studies show fat and sugar cause bumps in the brain’s dopamine. The more fat and sugar one consumes, the more consistently brain dopamine rises.

“I thought I was eating for satiation. I thought I was eating for nourishment. I didn’t realize I was eating for stimulation,” Dr. Kessler said.

Additionally, Dr. Kessler examined what motivates overeating in people who report a loss of control, a lack of satiation and preoccupation with thinking about food. People are wired to respond to the most salient stimuli in their environment, Dr. Kessler said, and certain cues trigger the amygdala—the part of the brain that processes memory and emotional reactions—to activate hunger. These cues include smells or familiarity with restaurant-filled areas.

He described immediately craving dumplings after getting off an airplane—a cue caused by smells and his brain's familiarity with airport restaurants that  activated his wanting food.

“Next time you get hungry, think about the cue,” Dr. Kessler said. “Your brain is being activated to respond to those cues.”

In the last four decades, the food industry has played a huge role in people’s appetites and changing the type of diet the country enjoys. To sell more food, restaurants fill menus with easily consumed quick bites that are high in fat and salt. Dr. Kessler, who went dumpster diving to collect ingredients in fast food, described the way a chicken appetizer is cooked at the restaurant chain Chili’s. He said the chicken is injected with flavorful liquids and juices, and then fried in even more liquids.

“What are we really eating? Fat on fat on fat on sugar on fat on sugar and salt,” he said. “Food has been designed to achieve a remarkable salience.”

Additionally, fast food restaurants have become ubiquitous throughout the country. With eateries covering city blocks everywhere, a person can grab a snack at any time during the day. This results in people eating more frequently and at less regular times.

The solution to overeating will rely on changing social norms and food regulations. Despite the difficulties, Dr. Kessler remembered being at the forefront of smoking regulations. That battle seemed impossible. But if mass opinion could be changed about smoking, attitudes may also change toward food consumption.