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"When in Doubt, Add Bacon and Cheese": How the Food Industry Hijacked Our Brains and Made Us Fat

The food industry has changed American eating habits and helped create the country's No. 1 public-health issue.

Anjali Kamat:While the House of Representatives hopes to hold a vote on health care reform this September, the Senate is considering a bill that concentrates on preventing people from getting sick. The draft legislation would provide up to $10 billion a year for a prevention-and-public-health-investment fund that would include a focus on curbing obesity.

Some Senate Republicans have opposed the bill as wasteful spending, but a new report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention warns that the direct medical costs of obesity total about $147 billion a year. That amounts to 9 percent of all U.S. medical costs. It's also over $50 billion more than the annual spending on cancer.

CDC Director Thomas Frieden noted that, "Obesity, and with it diabetes, are the only major health problems that are getting worse in this country."

Speaking at the country's first obesity conference last week, Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius said: "If there was an epidemic of little kids getting cancer, it would be a national crisis. But because it's obesity and the damage doesn't come until later in life, we've been slow to act."

Amy Goodman: In the midst of this national focus on obesity, today we'll speak with a man who's spent the last seven years trying to understand how the food industry has changed American eating habits, made certain foods difficult to resist, helped create the country's No. 1 public-health issue.

Dr. David Kessler is former commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration under Presidents George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton. He is a pediatrician and served as the dean of the medical schools at Yale and the University of California, San Francisco. His latest book is called The End of Overeating: Taking Control of the Insatiable American Appetite . Dr. David Kessler joins us now from the LinkTV studios in San Francisco.

We welcome you to Democracy Now , Dr. Kessler. You say the three major culprits are salt, sugar and fat. And you're saying it's the food industry that's as bad as Big Tobacco in addicting Americans. Explain your argument.

David Kessler:Fat and sugar, fat and salt, fat, sugar, and salt stimulate us to eat more and more. Does the food industry understand the inputs? Absolutely. They understand that fat, sugar and salt stimulate us, and they understand the outputs. They understand we keep on coming back for more and more.

Have they understood the neuroscience? Have they understood how fat and sugar work? I don't think so. But we now have that science. But what's important is the fact that they have figured out -- they've learned it experientially -- what works, and they construct food to stimulate us to eat more.

AK: Can you talk about the neuroscience behind this? What happens when we keep eating fat, sugar and salt over and over again? What happens in our brains?

DK:We just published an article. Not the typical scientific title, it's called "Deconstructing the Vanilla Milkshake." What do you think it is about the vanilla milkshake? Do you think it's the sugar, the fat or the flavor that stimulates you to come back for more? Which one do you think it is -- the sugar, fat or flavor?

Goodman:Which is it?

DK:It's the sugar. The sugar is the main driver. But when you add fat to the sugar, it's synergistic. With my colleague Gaetano Di Chiara -- Gaetano studies the effect of amphetamine and cocaine on brains' dopamine circuits. Dopamine is responsible for focusing your attention on a specific stimulus. And we always knew that amphetamine and cocaine raise the brain's dopamine level.

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