Fatty Foods Can Be Addictive Like Cocaine

Posted Thu, 04/01/2010 - 9:36am by Fred Lee

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Most people will agree that eating sweet and/or high-fat junk food is enjoyable, and many of us, for better or worse, are familiar with its therapeutic effects. Beyond the awareness of consuming empty calories, as well as the commensurate guilt that come with it, the fact remains that comestibles like ice cream, cookies, and cakes are, plainly put, pleasurable experiences. They are so much so that some of us, myself included, will make the claim that they are addictive.

This, of course, may come across as simply a weak excuse to indulge in less than healthy behavior. Now, however, researchers are beginning to realize that fatty foods might truly have legitimate addictive qualities, comparable to the effects of such habit-forming drugs as cocaine and heroin. In fact, scientists believe that the molecular mechanisms that drive people to overeat are similar to the ones that push people into drug addiction.

The current data lends some credibility to the difficulties that may be involved in stopping junk food binging. Researchers arrived at their findings, published in the journal Nature Neuroscience, by studying animal models whose path to obesity coincided with an increasing chemical imbalance in the brain. Animals were fed diets that were based on the eating patterns that contribute to human obesity, which include ubiquitous foods that are high in calories and fat and are easy to obtain and consume.

These neural imbalances were focused in the regions of the brain’s pleasure centers. As they became desensitized and increasingly less responsive, they encouraged greater consumption in order to achieve the same desired effect. The end result is compulsive overeating, with the greater quantities of fat and calories leading to excessive weight gain and obesity.

The changes that occur in brain chemistry are identical to those seen in animals that over-consume cocaine or heroin and are believed to be the basis for drug addiction. This addictive quality can presumably be extended to junk food and the difficulties in avoiding them.

In the study in question, scientists observed that the animals consistently chose the unhealthiest food options and experienced rapid weight gain in a short amount of time. Interestingly, when the junk food was no longer made available and was replaced with healthier options, rather than modify their diets, they simply refused to continue eating. These same animals continued to over-consume the unhealthy foods even in lieu of punishment (electrical shock), highlighting the powerful influence that addiction can have.

The authors of the study describe the underlying basis of what is going on as being “lethally simple.” The brain modifies itself to certain reward pathways as a result of being overexposed to certain stimuli, whether they be cocaine or cookies. As a result, these circumstances lead to increasingly weaker responses such that the body craves more to achieve the same effect, thereby encouraging over consumption.

Furthermore, drugs and food share similarities in terms of how the brain responses. Certain neural receptors that are vulnerable to drug addiction were affected in a similar fashion by junk food, eventually leading to physiological changes to the way the brain reacts to both drugs and junk food. The findings therefore support the parallels between obesity and drug addiction.

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