Public Health

Budget, 4th of July weekend and Kessler’s book on overeating

July 6, 2009

home_july_flag_blog.jpgJuly 4, 2009

Chapel Hill was very quiet over the weekend. Everywhere I went, people said things like “Everyone is away this weekend.” I kept feeling the need to say, “Well, not everyone is away!” Watching part of the DC Capitol celebration on TV, a place we have been several times, I thought what a strange, unsettling year it has been. In general, the American people have confidence in this new President. And there have been some positive economic indicators, but there sure aren’t any sustained positive signals.

We are preparing to implement permanent budget cuts at UNC and in our School, on top of the temporary cuts we already have sustained. Many of us now spend most of our time in budget discussions. Trying to cut 10% or more without damaging the core functions of the School is really a challenge. Although no one wants to pay more taxes, cutting spending alone is not going to solve our problems. It seems like time to raise taxes, including on foods like sugary soft drinks, and get on with it. See Governor Perdue’s cogent message.

kessler-photo.jpgThe End of Overeating

That’s the title of the provocative new book (Rodale Press, 2009, NYC) by David Kessler, MD, former head of the FDA. I read the book over the weekend. Kessler makes a compelling, well-documented case that the food industry has engineered foods so that we want to overeat. His premise is that the industry has figured out how to make foods that are highly palatable and available. He points out through interviews and data that we now face “the taco chip challenge every day-the challenge of controlled eating in the face of constant food availability.” (p.128)  40 years ago, this wasn’t a daily challenge; now it is. By engineering the balance of fats, sugars and salt, the industry makes foods we crave, foods that may taste luscious but are dripping in empty calories and low nutritive value, are readily available, associated with positive emotions and in portions that are more than we need for weight maintenance, let alone weight loss. Over the years, as our faculty members Barry Popkin, PhD, Carla Smith Chamblee Distinguished Professor, nutrition, Penny Gordon-Larsen, PhD, associate professor, nutrition and others have shown, we have been eating more sugary drinks, larger portions and getting less exercise. It is a perfect storm to create the overweight and obesity epidemic that now envelops us.

I don’t want to demonize an industry. Many food companies have become more conscious of the obesity problem, and they have made changes. Kessler says we need a social consensus about the problem. He said we especially need to change our thinking about “big food.” We must work together on interventions for individuals, communities and policy changes that incentivize positive choices. Our School is perfectly positioned to lead the way.

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The views expressed in this blog are Barbara Rimer’s alone and do not represent the views and policies of The University of North Carolina or the Gillings School.