*Junk Food and Cocaine

Yummm. Junk food. Rats like it too. In fact rats, given unlimited access, like it so much they can’t get enough. The pleasure they derive from it, like a drug high, diminishes over time, and they frantically seek to get it back, eating more and more, even if attempts are made to deter them through physical pain. Poor lil rats. They don’t deserve it. And neither do humans.

This is the result of a recent study, published in Nature Neuroscience by Paul J. Kenny, an associate professor of molecular therapeutics at the Scripps Research Institute. He and his co-author studied 3 groups of rats for 40 days in their lab. One group got rat food. Another group got bacon, cheesecake, frosting and other unhealthy delights for an hour a day. The third group could gorge themselves up to 23 hours a day.

These rats got fat. Very very fat. But their brains also changed.

Writes Sarah Klein in CNN:

They began to eat compulsively, to the point where they continued to do so in the face of pain. When the researchers applied an electric shock to the rats’ feet in the presence of the food, the rats in the first two groups were frightened away from eating. But the obese rats were not. “Their attention was solely focused on consuming food,” says Kenny.

In previous studies, rats have exhibited similar brain changes when given unlimited access to cocaine or heroin. And rats have similarly ignored punishment to continue consuming cocaine, the researchers note.

The reason is that food, like cocaine, has become processed in such a way that the best bits, the elements that create the most pleasure in the brain, are refined, sending the signal: get more of this, no matter what.

The moral of the story is what we all know, eat whole foods, unprocessed foods, fruits, vegetables, whole grains. But, unlike cocaine, processed sugars and fats are all around and nicely packaged. So what to do as a parent?

I’d like more information. Does this effect on the brain only occur at a certain point of free access to junk? (OMG think of the teenagers!) What are the least brain stimulating treats that I can offer my kids? Are home baked cookies better than store bought in their dopamine effects? Is salt as addictive or only if combined with fat?

An inquiring mind wants to know.

H/T The Situationist

8 responses

  1. Lilian, I could not agree more about junk food, and some time ago we banished it from the kitchen almost entirely. It is an ongoing problem – what to feed our children (and grandchildren). At the moment, I am keeping fresh fruit and veggies around in abundance and making cookies and breads whenever possible, opting for natural sweeteners and unbleached or even gluten-free flour.

    Fat and sodium are toxic by themselves, but together they are lethal. We have to read food labels carefully and try to make the best possible choices for ourselves and our little ones.

    1. Cate, if you have any good cookie recipes to share, I’d love to hear them. During the holiday, our kids are getting chocolate from every which where. Naturally they want to sample it.

  2. Very interesting. I’ve thought recently about what I would feel like if I radically cut down on the amount of sugar I consume. I’d like to try the experiment, but … it’s hard! Not as hard as giving up a drug addiction, but still!

    1. Dorothy, it would be interesting just as an experiment to see what it would be like to cut out sugar for a limited time. I wonder what the effect would be. I’ve heard people say they have more energy. I have less sugar than average, but I’m guessing it’s probably more than I realize.

  3. Sometimes cutting out the sugar is a mandate—diabetics must deal with this news all of the time. I’ve watched those I’m close to struggle with this, but ultimately change for the better. It’s a difficult fight, one I don’t often win entirely (I do like chocolate, and I do like cookies). But I keep waging the war.

    1. Beth–dark chocolate is loaded with antioxidents. It’s a health food. :)

  4. Oh my god, what a disturbing and sickening study. Lilian, have you heard about the recent findings around Jamie Oliver’s school lunches campaign in the UK? I read something last week that test scores in schools where kids now get the Jamie Oliver menu have markedly improved. I think it stands to reason that food with no nutritional value will occasion a kind of mental malnourishment, we already know there are certain foods that better feed the brain, so you can imagine its being starved instead. So grim it makes me want to cry.

    1. Di, I haven’t heard of it. Thanks for mentioning it. I’ll have to look it up.

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