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.

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