Junk Food Addiction and Diet Deprivation: Two Sides of the Same Coin?

Lynne Murray says:

I’ve recently come across articles about the seemingly unrelated topics of engineering food to be addictive and conditioning teenagers to be lifelong dieters. The first common element that struck me was disconnecting the body’s natural relationship with food and turning it into a marketable commodity.

Food consultant Howard Moskowitz, who earned his Ph.D. in experimental psychology at Harvard, is famous in the industry for the concept of “the bliss point.”

“More is not necessarily better,” Moskowitz wrote in his own account of the Prego [pasta sauce] project. “As the sensory intensity (say, of sweetness) increases, consumers first say that they like the product more, but eventually, with a middle level of sweetness, consumers like the product the most (this is their optimum, or ‘bliss,’ point).”

The biggest hits — be they Coca-Cola or Doritos — owe their success to complex formulas that pique the taste buds enough to be alluring but don’t have a distinct, overriding single flavor that tells the brain to stop eating.

On the surface, designing a perfectly addicting snack looks like the opposite of this sad story of a teenage Biggest Loser victim celebrating her birthday:

Did she have cake? Well of course not, the show has taught her that she doesn’t deserve cake if she wants to be “healthy”. Instead her trainer, after an “exhausting workout”, gave her, “a tiny, sweet mandarin orange with a birthday candle stuck into it” which according to Sunny, “was, hands-down, the best birthday cake I’ve ever tasted”.

Many viewers and readers will certainly regard this teenager’s fervently coached extreme exercise and deprivation as the “cure for obesity,” which is frequently assumed to be “induced” by junk food.

But I couldn’t help noticing how similar the perceived trigger for obesity (junk food) and the perceived cure for obesity (deprivation) were, especially in how they build on each other and how they are presented.

Emerging research on food addiction suggests that processed salty, fatty or sweet foods of any kind — also called “hyperpalatable foods” — can trigger brain responses similar to those created by controlled substances in addicted individuals.

People react differently to processed foods than they do to foods found whole in nature, says Ashley Gearhardt, an assistant professor of clinical psychology at the University of Michigan.

“It’s something that has been engineered so that it is fattier and saltier and more novel to the point where our body, brain and pleasure centers react to it more strongly than if we were eating, say, a handful of nuts,” Gearhardt said. “Going along with that, we are seeing those classic signs of addiction, the cravings and loss of control and preoccupation with it.”

While engineers fabricate the foods that facilitate uncontrollable binges, limiting food consumption itself provides the starvation mindset most likely to lead to bingeing. A ten-year study at the University of Minnesota following dieting teenagers documented what many of us have found through bitter experience, and what the HAES community has been saying for decades:

The use of dieting and unhealthy weight control behaviors is common among teenagers and may counterintuitively lead to weight gain through the long-term adoption of unhealthy behaviors such as binge eating, reduced breakfast consumption, and lower levels of physical activity.

Four major similarities connect scientifically engineered junk food and food deprivation programs which are commonly called “dieting”:

  1. Detaching the person from trusting their body and its normal hunger patterns
  2. Setting up an infinite loop cycle as the diet-binge-diet-binge processes alternate over and over again.
  3. Giving the customer the illusion of control, while controlling them.
  4. Providing maximum profit to the marketers.

I do not believe in a horrible conspiracy betweem junk food engineers and diet-pushers. I think that most people and businesses are not organized or cooperative enough to perpetrate conspiracies. Instead, I believe these two groups of marketers are pursuing the same population (people who eat) with equal cynical ruthlessness, and that’s why their tactics converge.

Thanks to eleyan for the food engineering link and to my web diva for the Biggest Loser pointer.