Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Book: The End of Overeating by David Kessler

Former Food and Drug Administration commissioner David Kessler's book on overeating, which I finished a few days ago, has four main parts.

The first part is all about the brain chemistry of food. I suspect that many readers never got past this part, which is either too technical or not technical enough. It is too technical for the casual reader or the reader with no science background. For that reader, most of the jargon, and many of the pages, should have been cut. For me, it was not technical enough. Lots of jargon, but not enough substance and intuition so that I actually feel like I understand what is going on. Probably the best thing would have been to make the section in the main text shorter and less technical and then to provide a technical appendix for interested reader that would also serve the function of proving that Kessler had read the literature.

The second part is about the food industry, including both restaurants (mid-range chains like Chili's receive most of the attention) and makers of processed foods such as chips and cookies. The key missing link in the literature that tries to tie together the food industry and increased obesity is a trend break in food technology at around the same time as the trend break in obesity. Without some linking of the two time series, one is left wondering why the food industry did not always cause obesity. That case for temporal linkage is not made here, though Kessler does document the not-at-all surprising fact that the food industry focuses their product development on foods that people will want to buy, whether or not the products are good for the consumer when consumed to excess. The most useful thing I took away from bit was Kessler's summary of different food items with phrases like "salt on fat mixed with sugar layered on fat with salt". That kind of sentence summarizes an awful lot of what one can find at restaurants and in the supermarket.

The third section, which I found the most interesting and which should have been longer, provides a simple summary of the cognitive behavioral theory of weight loss. I had heard or read some but not all of this material before.

Finally, there is a short section on policy recommendations. Given that at one point Kessler thanks his good buddy Al Gore for help, and given that Kessler is a public health kind of guy, this could have been a lot worse. I actually had the feeling that the policy section was an add-on demanded by the (otherwise too easygoing) editor. Much of it centers of the provision of more information about calories at restaurants, a policy that may have modest effects at the margin but seems unlikely to substantially change the overall time trend.

I found two other reviews: the NYT review is overly deferential and not very informative. In contrast, reason provides a snarky and entertaining review that emphasizes (surprise!) individuals taking control of their own choices. There is also an official webpage for the book.

Bottom line: this book is probably not worth the time but on the other hand it is far better than most books about these topics. Are there better ones I do not know about?

1 comment:

Sasha said...

You should at least glance through Oliver's Fat Politics. It has a kind of Freakonomics flavor.