Monday, September 19, 2011

Junk Food "as Addictive as Cocaine"?

A recent study in the journal Nature Neuroscience seems to indicate that junk food may not simply be bad for us, but may also be highly addictive - producing brain chemistry changes that are similar to those observed in people addicted to nicotine, cocaine and other drugs. The study by Paul Kenny and Paul M Johnson of of Scripps Research Institute, offered rats a choice between healthy, nutritious food and a selection of salty, high calorie snack-foods including bacon, sausage, chocolate and even cheesecake. The rodents quickly developed a preference for the snacks and became obese and "dependent" on ever increasing amounts of junk foods.

"Most people who are overweight would say, 'I would like to control my weight and my eating,' but they find it very hard to control their feeding behavior," says Kenny. But eating can trigger the release of dopamine, a feel-good neurotransmitter in the brain. This internal chemical reward, in turn, increases the likelihood that the associated action (eating junk food, in this case) will eventually become habitual through positive reinforcement conditioning. If allowed to continue (and lets face it, we are all encouraged to continue by non-stop, 360 marketing), stopping can be every bit as difficult as ending a drug habit. "Counseling techniques, therapy and even pharmaceutical treatments that have shown success for substance abuse might show promise for those who struggle with overeating," Kenny notes.

If the original study seems a bit technical, here is a more accessible summary from Scientific American. The bottom line? Its likely that overeating and eating too much of the wrong things can be an addictive cycle, and that many people simply will not be able to break the cycled by willpower alone.

Monday, September 12, 2011

United Nations to Focus on "Lifestyle" Diseases

Noting that nearly 2/3 of all deaths worldwide are now caused by "lifestyle" diseases such as cancer, diabetes, heart and lung disease, UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon announced a UN-sponsored summit in September to bring focus to the need to combat these diseases. The "big four" non-communicable diseases "have emerged relatively unnoticed in the developing world and are now becoming a global epidemic," Moon said.

Thirty six million people died from these diseases in 2008, according to a UN report, representing 63% of the 57 million deaths globally that year. Almost 80% of these deaths were in the developing world, and 9 million of them were men or women under 60 years old. Ban went on to say that the rapidly increasing magnitude of non-communicable diseases is fueled by rising risk factors including tobacco use, unhealthy diet, lack of physical activity, obesity and harmful alcohol use — and is driven in part by an aging population, the negative impact of urbanization, and the globalization of trade and marketing.

Professor David Bloom of the Harvard School of Public Health is leading a project to estimate the global economic burden of non-communicable diseases. His preliminary results indicate that the economic burden is substantial and ""will evolve into a staggering economic burden over the next two decades" that could have a huge impact on economic development and fighting poverty. Bloom said his researchers estimate a loss of economic output amounting to $35 trillion during the 25-year period from 2005 to 2030 due to a key group of non-communicable diseases — diabetes, ischemic heart disease including strokes, cerebral vascular disease, chronic destructive pulmonary disease, and breast cancer. To put this number in perspective, $35 trillion is seven times the current level of global health spending, and 15 times the 2011 value of all the overseas development assistance in the world over the past quarter century.

What does this mean to you? It means that the things that are most likely to shorten your life, kill you and take you away from your friends and loved ones are all things that are, largely if not completely, under your control. Tobacco use, an unhealthy diet, a lack of physical activity, chronic obesity and harmful alcohol use are all things you can do something about. Any time you choose. Just go and do it.