Chasing the Junk Food Dragon: How Junk Food Affects Brain Like Heroin


A snap of a dazed and skeletal addict after copping. Credit: Religion Compass

Before you or your child dig into that plastic jack-o-lantern (or its post-consumer equivalent) full of sugary snacks, you might do well to check out former FDA Commissioner David Kessler's new book The End of Overeating. The book highlights the addictive nature of junk food, showing how these processed, nutrient deprived products are consumed to overcome a craving rather than sate hunger.

A piece in Science News that highlights a study done by the independent, not-for-profit Scripps Research Institute, seems to bore out Kessler's claims. The study shows how brains respond to sweet, salty and fatty processed food the same way it does heroin. Like heroin, the junk food junky needs more as time wears on. The article explains, "Pleasure centers in the brains of rats addicted to high-fat, high-calorie diets became less responsive as the binging wore on, making the rats consume more and more food." After just 5 days of eating a junk food diet, scientists found "profound reductions" in the sensitivity of their brains' pleasure centers.

More sobering still is the intractability of this pleasure-numbing phenomenon. When the junk food group of rats were deprived of their junk food and were only given nutritious food, the now-obese rats refused to eat. "They starve themselves for two weeks afterward," Scripps' Paul Kenny says. "Their dietary preferences are dramatically shifted."

The environmental ramifications of this phenomenon are clear: in chasing the junk-food dragon, the junk food junky needs more and more calories, which require more resources, more food processing, more packaging, increased health problems, etc. And while this study is about rats, it doesn't take much of an intellectual leap to see that this same effect is at play with America's--and many other nations'-- increasingly corpulent population.

So today, as you contemplate gorging on mini Snickers and Three Musketeers, think of the strung out and obese rats, and, for the sake of your health, for the sake of the environment, just say no.

Via Grist and Science News