Finding Our Way Back to Healthy Eating: A Conversation with David A. Kessler

Since there is a strong link between health and learning, our nation’s obsession with food containing salt, sugar and fat is creating a generation of unhealthy students. A study published in the April 5, 2006, issue of the Journal of the American Medi­cal Association found that 17.1 percent of children and adolescents ages 2 to 19 were overweight. Being overweight puts children and teenagers at greater risk for a number of serious health conditions. Type 2 diabetes; risk factors for heart disease, including high blood pressure; other health conditions including asthma and sleep apnea, and psychosocial effects such as decreased self-esteem have been associated with childhood obesity in recent studies. Fortunately, healthy eating and a physically active lifestyle can help children achieve and maintain a healthy weight and reduce obesity-related chronic diseases.

The article below from Educational Leadership magazine features an interview with the former commissioner of the Food & Drug Administration, David A. Kessler, who says the pattern today is “eating for reward–not for fuel or nutrition.” He enlisted the help of his colleague, Dr. Gaetano Di Chiara, a pharmacologist, who found that salt, sugar and fat–ingredients laded in today’s highly processed food–are addictive substances, not unlike cocaine and amphetamine in their ability to elevate the brain’s level of dopamine, a chemical responsible for cravings. In the interview, Kessler said:

“Kids look at that huge plate of food now and say, “That’s what I want.” That’s a hard cycle to break. And it’s having a profound effect on their health. In the past, adults would get type 2 diabetes in their 40s or 50s, then live for two or three decades with the disease, developing eye disease, kidney disease, cardiovascular disease, and other complications. But kids are now getting type 2 diabetes—at 10 years old!”

Kessler contends that helping our kids make healthier choices holds “profound implications for schools,” whose aim should be to teach nutrition and offer healthy lunch programs. He says, “The greatest gift you can give someone is to lay down healthy eating patterns from the beginning, to find foods that are rewarding as well as healthy.”

  • How can we help educate students and families early on about the importance of forming healthy eating habits for school and life success?
  • What role does emotional intelligence play in helping students adopt behaviors that lead to optimal health and fitness?
  • How can we better incorporate student success programs into our curriculum, such as LifeBound’s People Smarts book, that help students develop their decision-making skills?

Amy M. Azzam
December 2009

Our kids eat too much—and what they’re eating drives them to eat even more. In this interview with Educational Leadership, David A. Kessler, former commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) under Presidents George H. W. Bush and Bill Clinton, discusses why so many people overeat and what we can do to help children develop better habits.

In his new book, The End of Overeating: Taking Control of the Insatiable American Appetite (Rodale, 2009), Kessler describes how processed food and changing lifestyles are setting people up for a lifetime of food obsession.

Kessler is a lifelong health advocate. Under his watch, the FDA enacted regulations requiring standardized nutrition labels on food. He’s also known for his role in the FDA’s attempt to regulate cigarettes. Dr. Kessler is a pediatrician and has served as the dean of the medical schools at both Yale and the University of California.

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