Junk Food As Addictive As Street Drugs
Scientists are increasingly becoming convinced that junk food can be just as physically addictive as street drugs like heroin.
Researchers at Rockefeller University have found that foods high in fat and sugar cause the brain to release many of the same pleasure chemicals that produce drug addiction, including cortisol, dopamine, galanin and serotonin. Over time, regular consumption of junk food can create imbalances in these chemicals, leading us to eat more and more in order to restore normal levels.
"They cause us to have more cravings," said Rosa Lopez, of the New York Department of Health. "There are physiological changes."
A recent study by researchers from the Scripps Research Institute confirmed this long-term effect by feeding rats either a healthy diet, a healthy diet plus limited amounts of junk food, or a healthy diet plus unlimited amounts of junk food. While rats in the first two groups remained healthy, rats in the third group binged on junk food and quickly became obese.
"You lose control. It's the hallmark of addiction," researcher Paul Kenny said.
When researchers then directly stimulated the pleasure centers in the rats' brains, they found that the obese rats needed more stimulation than the other rats to achieve the same effect. This suggests that their junk food diet had actually dulled their brain's pleasure centers, creating dependency.
"This is the most complete evidence to date that suggests obesity and drug addiction have common neuro-biological foundations," researcher Paul Johnson said.
Because ending a junk food addiction may be as difficult as quitting smoking, Lopez recommends tackling just one bad habit at first. Cutting out soda can be a good place to start.
"In some ways, you may have to view junk foods the way alcoholics anonymous views alcohol: one bite is too many, and a thousand is not enough," writes Jack Challem in his book The Food-Mood Solution.