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.