UW Today

November 4, 2015

Krispy Kreme crack and luxury food fever: new book links overeating to consumer culture

News and Information

In an era of Fitbits, Skinnygirl margaritas and kale mania, isn’t overeating simply a failure of willpower, an unwillingness or inability to make good choices?

It’s not that simple, says Kima Cargill, a professor of clinical psychology at the University of Washington in Tacoma. In her new book “The Psychology of Overeating,” Cargill places the blame for gluttony squarely at the feet of a culture gorged on consumerism. She contends that abundance of variety, lax regulation and sophisticated branding and marketing conspire to push Americans to overeat.

OvereatingCargill views an appetite for food as part of a broader desire to consume other items, from alcohol to designer clothing to luxury vacations. And while other research on overeating tends to emphasize neurochemistry and individual behavior, Cargill’s book focuses on the cultural and economic forces that she believes are the primary culprits in Americans’ overeating.

The food industry creates “hyperpalatable” foods — high-sugar, high-fat and salty foods that make us crave more of the same — and uses manipulative marketing practices to sway customers, Cargill writes. Noting Starbucks UK’s claim that it offers 87,000 possible drink combinations, she argues that personalization, convenience and misleading nutritional claims are among the powerful techniques the food industry uses to prompt consumers to pack in more.

Cargill, who has been studying the psychology of food since starting at the UW in 2002, said the motivation for her book came from the growing outrage she felt as a consumer.

“When I go to the grocery store, it’s almost this exercise in decoding propaganda,” she said. “I feel like I’m on this high alert of reading labels and putting a lot of effort into figuring out how they’re trying to trick people. I felt manipulated, and I wanted that story to be told.”

Cargill, who will be speaking at Town Hall Nov. 11, answered a few questions about her book for UW Today.

Q: The book posits that overeating, like overspending, is a result of consumer culture in the U.S. Why did you decide to approach the topic from that perspective?

KC: For two reasons. One is that I think we are so deeply immersed in consumer culture that it can be hard to see its effects, so I wanted to call attention to that. Two, because the discipline of psychology has a tendency to overemphasize the individual without looking at cultural and economic contexts. The research on overeating, for example, often focuses on either willpower or neurochemistry, but I wanted to look at how those individual factors interacted with the culture and politics of food.

Q: The book details various tactics food companies use that lead people to overeat, from offering an abundance of variety to sowing nutritional confusion. Is there a way to counteract these influences?

KC: It’s really hard! I’m someone who knows a lot about nutrition and even I feel like a trip to the grocery store is an exercise in decoding propaganda. It’s exhausting! Obviously the best way to counteract these influences is to avoid buying packaged foods as much as possible, but that isn’t realistic for a lot of people.

Kima Cargill will discuss the link between consumer culture and overeating at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, Nov. 11 at Town Hall in Seattle. Tickets and information online.

Other strategies are doing things like reducing variety. For example, we know that when people have several flavors of ice cream to choose from, they eat more than when they just have one. So something as simple as getting one flavor at Molly Moon’s instead of two is a good protective strategy. Another good strategy is to wean ourselves from sweet beverages. Sugar-sweetened beverages, including juice and smoothies, aren’t very filling. Even worse, research shows that we wind up eating more later when we consume sweet drinks. There’s something about liquid calories that tricks the brain.

I also think it’s important for people to take more general steps to shield themselves from so much advertising. It’s everywhere now — even toilets! Now you can’t use the restroom in peace because marketers realized that they have a captive audience in public bathroom stalls. Because we are really desensitized to advertising it’s hard to be on guard against misleading and manipulative messages. I’ve followed an organization called the Center for a New American Dream for some time and their website has a lot of tips and videos for reducing consumerism and lowering your exposure to advertising.

Q: What role do food branding and marketing play in overeating?

KC: It’s the single cause of widespread overeating. Branding and marketing is what makes food so profitable for the food companies. With huge profits to be earned, they have the incentive to create so-called “hyperpalatable” foods — that is, foods that are engineered to be irresistible because of the combination of salt, sugar and fat.

You have to understand that there is an army of food scientists with Ph.D.s that created Jacked Ranch Dipped Hot Wings Doritos. And then there’s another army of expert marketers who created the packaging, commercials and social media campaign. That’s what you’re up against when you try and eat just one.

Q: You note that obese people are 22 percent more likely to declare bankruptcy than normal weight people. Is there a link between consumer debt and overindulging in food?

KC: Yes. Numerous studies have shown a relationship between obesity and declaring bankruptcy. We also know that past conditions of food insecurity are correlated with obesity and that past conditions of financial insecurity are correlated with stronger materialistic values.

Kima Cargill

Kima Cargill

Thinking about it more intuitively, we can imagine how a failure in reckoning — that is, some inability to balance the books — could lead to both overeating  and overspending. If we have the feeling that we can just buy whatever we want or eat whatever we want, there is no mental ledger there. There’s no sense that we have a finite number of calories to consume or a finite amount of money we can spend without going into the red.

I think this one of the things we lost as a culture with the demise of home economics classes. Of course there were a lot of other problems with home ec, but when done well, it can teach young people cooking, nutrition, budgeting and household management. There’s been a call to bring back gender-neutral home economics, which is an idea I’m really in favor of.

Q: You write that Big Pharma and Big Food have a symbiotic relationship and use similar tactics to create consumer demand. Can you explain that?

KC: Yes. Both industries use a lot of the same strategies which I detail in my book. One of those is the creation of phony grassroots groups that are really advertisements, but they are veiled as public service announcements. For example, when GlaxoKlineSmith got Paxil approved for social anxiety disorder, it was in their interest that more people get that diagnosis. The problem was that only about two people had ever heard of that disorder so they didn’t have any customers! What they did was to secretly create a group called Freedom From Fear that looked like everyday folks who wanted to reach out to other sufferers of that disorder. They never even mentioned Paxil, but they didn’t have to — it was the only medication approved for the disorder.

Similarly, an organization was formed recently called The International Food Information Council. It is supposed make health and nutrition information available to the public on its website in English and Spanish, but it says things like “the causes of diabetes continue to be a mystery.” It turns out that the council is funded by companies like Dr. Pepper Snapple Group, Kraft and Monsanto. These are companies that are knowingly making foods that lead to diabetes, which in turn profits the pharmaceutical industry because of the increased demand for insulin and other obesity-related treatments. So that’s what I mean when I say they have a symbiotic relationship.

Q: How does the culture of overeating impact disadvantaged people?

 KC: Well, I think everyone knows by now that higher quality food is generally more expensive, but that’s also given rise to a myth that there are no inexpensive, nutritious foods. That’s not true! The USDA has something called the Thrifty Food Plan that recommends eggs, ground turkey, cabbage, chickpeas and lentils that are low-cost and nutritious. The problem is that no one wants to eat those things! There’s just nothing sexy about turkey cabbage casserole .

That’s where consumer culture becomes part of the problem. We all want to belong. So if everyone else is eating Taco Bell and drinking Dr. Pepper, then we want to do that too. This can become even more important if you’re poor. Poverty  is an experience of exclusion, of being left out of what everyone else has. So being able to consume the branded foods and sodas that everybody else has can really bring a sense of comfort and belongingness.

The food and beverage industry exploits this, though. Soda manufacturers, for example, disproportionately target black children and teenagers with their ads for sugar-sweetened beverages. Black children and teens are more likely to live in poverty and they also see more than double the number of ads than do white children for Vitamin Water, Sprite, Sunny D, 5-hour Energy and Mountain Dew.

Q: You write that the proliferation of upscale stores like Whole Foods has created “luxury food fever” among wealthy Americans. What is luxury food fever, and how does it contribute to overeating?

KC: There are just a lot of wealthy people these days and they’re willing to spend money on special or exotic foods. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that — we can look across many industries and see that with global prosperity there are more buyers for luxury cars, properties, artwork and even fancy wine. I think where it’s more problematic is when these foods are presented as being healthy in some way. Like chocolate-covered goji berries or açai berry muffins. Most of the time it’s just an excuse to charge more for the product and it allows us to rationalize eating something that’s really just candy or cake and imagine it’s healthy.

Q: Is overeating a form of substance abuse comparable to alcohol or drug addiction?

KC: That’s a hot question right now! It certainly feels like food can be addictive. I heard Chris Rock say one time that it would not be surprising if it was discovered that Krispy Kreme donuts had crack in them. They are that good! They do almost have crack in them, though. The seductive combination of salt, sugar and fat activates dopamine — the same neurotransmitter that is rewarded by crack and other drugs. So there is some evidence for “food addiction,” at least in animal models, but the research is still pretty new for whether there is really such thing as food addiction in humans.

Incidentally, Krispy Kreme Donuts just got the naming rights for the University of North Carolina’s Children Clinic, so there’s another example of the connection between consumer culture and overeating.

Q: How difficult is it for informed and conscientious consumers to resist the cultural forces that drive overeating? Is it just a matter of making good choices?

KC: As Americans, I think we overestimate the power of good choices and individual behavioral change. It’s not that we shouldn’t try to make good choices or improve ourselves — of course we should! But the American narrative of personal transformation says that we can make ourselves into anything we want with enough hard work. This narrative comes from the frontier mentality and goes back to the colonists who arrived here from Britain  to remake themselves.

It’s an empowering narrative, but I think it offers false promises. More importantly, it takes our attention away from the systemic cultural and political forces that undermine our well-being. For example, if we hire a personal trainer or dietitian, that could be effective, but then we are not asking our congressional representatives  why soda companies can put vending machines in schools. We can go on a paleo diet, which might work, but then we’re not demanding that the FDA require companies to disclose the added sugars in food products. I could go on and on with examples, but my point is that when we focus too much on individual choice it lets the bigger players off the hook.