Eating with your eyes… Ka-min-gu 30

December 5, 2009 at 2:56 am 1 comment

We used to average 20 to 30 chews per bite of food. Today, it’s six.

It’s almost predigested. It’s like we’re eating baby food all the time. We’re just constantly stimulating ourselves. We’re eating for reward—not for fuel or nutrition…

In an interview with Educational Online about healthy eating in our school system, David A. Kessler—former commissioner of the FDA, former dean of the medical schools at Yale and the University of California—explains how modern food hijacks our brains.

…On the basis of past learning, memories, and experience, you get cued. A cue could be a sight, smell, time of day, or location. For example, I walk down a street that I walked down six months earlier. I’ve forgotten entirely that on that previous walk, I went into a store that sold chocolate-covered pretzels. Now that I’m back on that street, I start thinking about chocolate-covered pretzels. That’s a cue.

You associate these cues with the actual food itself. That cue focuses your attention. It stimulates thoughts of wanting. You get this momentary pleasure from responding to the cue—by eating the chocolate-covered pretzels. The next time you get cued, you do it again and repeat the cycle. The behavior becomes both conditioned (learned) and motivated (driven). Once you lay down those learning circuits and those motivational circuits— certainly if you do it in childhood as it’s happening today—they stay with you for a lifetime.

Kids are the most vulnerable. When I was growing up, I wasn’t being constantly bombarded by food. It wasn’t available on every corner, in every gas station, during most of our waking hours. Now our kids are growing up, not just with food that’s been highly developed to be stimulating—layered and loaded with fat, sugar, and salt, which stimulates intake—but they’re also constantly bombarded with food cues.

An average 2-year-old knows how to compensate for his or her eating. If the child eats more calories at lunch, he or she will typically eat fewer calories later on in the day. But by 4 or 5 years old, children lose the ability to compensate because they’ve been exposed to diets that are high in fat, sugar, and salt. They’re now eating for reward—and not for fuel.

With advances in brain imaging technology, researchers have discovered that fat, sugar, and salt stimulate the brain in ways similar to drugs and sex. Says Dr. Kessler:

My colleague, Dr. Gaetano Di Chiara, one of the great pharmacologists, studies the effect of cocaine and amphetamine on the brain. He finds that cocaine and amphetamine elevate the brain’s dopamine circuitry. Dopamine is the chemical that locks in your attention, that gets you focused on the drugs and drives wanting.

We always thought that food gave you a little bump in dopamine the first time, but the second and third times it did not. So I said to Gaetano, let’s not use just one ingredient, let’s make the food highly palatable; let’s take fat and sugar, put them together, and see whether we can get rises in brain dopamine. And we got exactly that—not only the first time, but repeatedly.

My favorite observation from the below video is Dr. Kessler’s quip that modern food visually stimulates us, but no longer satisfies us.

Visually appealing and nutritionally unsatisfying food doesn’t have to make us fat, though: to cut down on obesity, the Japanese government has launched “Ka-min-gu 30,” a public health campaign that advocates chewing every bite of food 20-30 times before swallowing.


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Financial Education Learning to learn as a child prodigy

1 Comment Add your own

  • 1. jleeger  |  December 5, 2009 at 3:26 pm

    Right, but what difference does it make if you’re still eating baby food? Until the structure of US society supports buying, preparing, and eating whole foods, any attempts to convince people to do otherwise will be merely cosmetic.


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Jason R. Atwood

I'm an avid trail runner and doctoral student at U.C. Berkeley who studies motivation and the relationship between the mind and body. This blog is a forum to share research, news, and musings about these topics of interest. More

Play is the beginning of knowledge.

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