Many foods are more addictive than smoking. How to break unhealthy eating habits?

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Ever wondered why it’s so hard to eat just one Dorrito, Oreo or M&M? Why do we crave sugar and salt when we know  healthier options are available? The answer lies in the addictive nature of sugar and salt, and the intense and immediate pleasure they provide. Sugar impacts the brain 20 times faster than nicotine, and foods that are highly processed and sweetened are the most addictive. That’s all according to Michael Moss, whose new book is  “HOOKED: Food, Free Will, and How the Food Giants Exploit Our Addictions.” 

He examines the science behind addictive foods, and how they are engineered to trigger the brain’s “on switch.” He writes, “For the first 4 million years of our existence, it was our addiction to food that enabled us to thrive as a species. It’s only now, for the past 40 years, that being hooked on food is causing us so much harm.” 

Also, mindful eating and rituals can help us slow down and think about what we eat. Lynn Rossy is a psychologist and author of “Savor Every Bite: Mindful Ways to Eat, Love Your Body, and Live with Joy.” She explains how eating on the go and the diet mentality have stripped us of a healthy relationship with our food. 

KCRW’s Jonathan Bastian talks with authors Michael Moss and Lynn Rossy.

The following interview excerpts have been abbreviated and edited for clarity. 

KCRW: Describe what happens when we eat a potato chip.

Michael Moss: “I'm one of the incredibly lucky people who can open a bag of potato chips and put their hand in, have a handful, and put the bag away. … I apologize to people who can't do that. However, I do love them [chips]. And speaking to the scientists who invented potato chips would cause me to have cravings, appreciating everything that goes into it. 

We can talk about the noise that potato chips make. They discovered that the more crunchy [sound] potato chips have, the more we will eat. We can talk about the fact that potato chips actually have a lot of sugar in them in the form of very refined potato starch that when it hits the gut, [it] starts acting much like table sugar will. 

But one of the things that's most powerful in dealing with the brain is the salt on the surface of the chip that [the] industry calls that the flavor burst. 

One of the hallmarks of addiction is speed. Drug researchers know that the faster a substance hits the brain, the more apt we are to lose control over our willpower ...and to act impulsively [and] compulsively. 

And it turns out, there's nothing faster than food in the way it hits the brain. Here’s what happens. You put the potato chip in your mouth and tongue. Salt being on the surface touches the taste buds. The taste buds don't send the salt to the brain. … They'll send a signal to the brain right through the tastebuds system, through a neurological system. 

Some scientists did a really interesting study for sugar as well as salt, where they put sugar or salt on the tongue and asked people to push a button when they tasted the salt or the sugar. The result was they were pushing that button in less than one second because of the system we have in place to get us to like sugar and salt, sort of biologically. 

What's really important, though, is that cigarette smoke can take as long as 10 seconds to fully activate the brain, compared to eight-tenths of a second for sugar or salt. Alcohol and drugs are kind of somewhere in between. And with [that] information, I started looking at fast food and fast groceries with a whole new understanding. 

Because speed is everything when it comes to these products, not just the manufacturing process, or the convenience in the packaging that lets us open and get the food out almost instantaneously, but the speed with which we eat them mindlessly. Snacking has become this fourth meal in America. On average, we're now getting something like 550 calories a day, a quarter of all the calories we get from snack foods that we're eating, which by definition, we’re eating fast and hitting the brain fast.

Michael Moss burning a bag of Fritos. Credit: Will Moss. 

Talk about how we can reclaim a healthier relationship to food. You come at this from a mindfulness approach. Can you tell us a little bit about how we can begin to rethink this? 

Lynn Rossy: “Mindfulness is this skill that we can all learn, which helps us to be present for our bodies and present for our food, and present, really, for the whole aspect of eating, which includes our emotions around food. It includes our thoughts around food, it includes our memories about food. So it's very complex.”

We hear a lot about the mindfulness movement, whether it's through yoga or meditation. And I'm glad you talked about the complexity of it in food. Because maybe it's more than just taking a breath before we eat. There's a lot more tied into this, isn't there?

Rossy: “Yes, because you bring your whole being to the dinner table. If you even sit at the dinner table, which a lot of people don't anymore when they eat, but wherever you go to sit down to eat, you're bringing your day ... [and] all of the things that happened to you up until that point to that meal. And unless you really stop and take a breath and consider, ‘Why am I even reaching for food?,’ you could be reaching for food for a lot of different reasons. 

You could be reaching for food because you're physically hungry, which is great. But you could also be reaching for food for some kind of comfort, or because you're stressed, because you're bored. Just because food is there, you might be reaching for it. So just taking a mindful pause, and taking a breath to activate that parasympathetic nervous system, which is your rest-and-digest response, you're really taking that moment to consider what really is going on right now. So it's an important step.”




Andrea Brody