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David Kessler: Fat, Salt and Sugar Alter Brain Chemistry, Make Us Eat Junk Food

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Kessler's aggressive approach toward the tobacco industry led to billion-dollar settlements between Big Tobacco and 46 states and laid the groundwork for legislation now pending in Congress that would place tobacco under FDA regulation.

Kessler, 57, sees parallels between the tobacco and food industries. Both are manipulating consumer behavior to sell products that can harm health, he said.

Whether government ought to exercise tougher controls over the food industry is going to be the next great debate, especially since much of the advertising is aimed at children, Kessler said.

"The food the industry is selling is much more powerful than we realized," he said. "I used to think I ate to feel full. Now I know, we have the science that shows, we're eating to stimulate ourselves. And so the question is what are we going to do about it?"

The idea for the book came seven years ago as Kessler was channel-surfing and came across an overweight woman named Sarah on "The Oprah Winfrey Show." While Sarah was successful in nearly every aspect of her life, she tearfully told Winfrey, she could not control her eating.

Kessler was mesmerized by Sarah -- she was describing his own private struggle. "I needed to not only figure out Sarah -- I needed to figure out myself," he said. "Little did I know it would lead me into real fundamental issues of what makes us human and how our brains are wired."

At 5-foot-11, Kessler's weight has swung from 160 pounds to 230 pounds and back, many times over. He owns pants in sizes ranging from 34 to 42.

"I was a fat kid," he said. "I grew up in the world of Entenmann's cakes. I was pretty much of a science nerd. If you looked in my refrigerator in college, it was Entenmann's."

Every few years, Kessler would go on a diet and apply the kind of discipline that enabled him to earn a law degree from the University of Chicago while attending Harvard Medical School. "I'd lose weight and over time gain it back," said Kessler, who also completed a medical residency at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore at the same time he worked as a staffer to Sen. Orrin Hatch. "I couldn't control it."

The man who took on Big Tobacco was helpless when confronted with a plate of chocolate chip cookies. He couldn't focus on anything else until he had eaten them all.

"My weight was yo-yoing all the time," said Kessler, who estimates that 70 million Americans struggle with conditioned hyper-eating. "And I never understood why."

He embarked on a mission to figure it out while serving as dean of the medical school at Yale University and later the University of California at San Francisco. UCSF fired Kessler from his position as dean in December after he alleged financial malfeasance at the institution. The university maintains there were no financial misdeeds; Kessler says he was forced out because he blew the whistle. He remains on the faculty at the medical school and lives in San Francisco with his wife, Paulette, a lawyer. They have two grown children, both of whom live in Washington.


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