I‘ve always had a sweet tooth and there were times when it seemed I just couldn’t stop myself as I was eating my favorite chocolate <insert anything made of chocolate here>. Even though I knew I was stuffed I’d still want to cram more chocolate cake, cookies, ice cream, etc. etc. into my mouth. It just tasted so damn good and I could not help myself – I NEEDED THAT CHOCOLATE CAKE! Eventually I turned to fitness and got my nutrition in order and the taste for these sweets and other junk foods have mostly gone away. At first it was a struggle with willpower but over time my “want” to be healthy and look good outweighed the “want” for bad, unhealthy, junk foods. But I’d be lying if I said I have never again craved any of the cakes, cookies, pizza, fast food, etc. – I guess there will always be that craving for those kinds of foods, and at times I will partake in a small taste to get rid of that urge. I’m lucky I guess because I don’t really have an addictive personality -with anything really, so that may have made it easier for me to “detox” from these toxic foods. However, a lot of people struggle everyday to avoid eating bad foods – as if they are addicted to the food and they feel helpless in trying to control themselves.
Well now a new study in rats from researcher Paul J. Kenny, Ph.D. of the Scripps Research Institute in Jupiter, Florida, states that unhealthy, fatty foods may indeed be as addictive as drugs like cocaine and heroin. Doing drugs such as cocaine and eating too much junk food both gradually overload the so-called pleasure centers in the brain. Eventually the pleasure centers “crash,” and achieving the same pleasure–or even just feeling normal–requires increasing amounts of the drug or food. Writing in the journal Nature Neuroscience, Kenny and his co-author suspect the same chemical changes that happen to rats when they devour unhealthy foods might also be happening in humans.
“People know intuitively that there’s more to [overeating] than just willpower,” he says. “There’s a system in the brain that’s been turned on or over-activated, and that’s driving [overeating] at some subconscious level.”
In the study Kenny and his co-author studied three groups of lab rats for 40 days. One of the groups was fed regular rat food. A second was fed bacon, sausage, cheesecake, frosting, and other fattening, high-calorie foods–but only for one hour each day. The third group was allowed to pig out on the unhealthy foods for up to 23 hours a day.Not surprisingly, the rats that gorged themselves on the human food quickly became obese. But their brains also changed. By monitoring implanted brain electrodes, the researchers found that the rats in the third group gradually developed a tolerance to the pleasure the food gave them and had to eat more to experience a high.
And like heroin addicts hungry for the needle, food-addicted rats are not deterred by the threat of excruciating pain, the researchers found. When they zapped the rats’ feet with electric shocks, they only paused from their gnawing. “Their attention was solely focused on consuming food,” Kenny said. In previous studies, rats hooked on heroin or cocaine exhibited similar brain changes – and also didn’t appear to care about the consequences.
The findings of the Scripps scientist came as no surprise to Dr.Gene-Jack Wang, M.D., the chair of the medical department at the U.S. Department of Energy’s Brookhaven National Laboratory, in Upton, New York.
“We make our food very similar to cocaine now,” he told Health.com. “We purify our food. Our ancestors ate whole grains, but we’re eating white bread. American Indians ate corn; we eat corn syrup.”
Although he acknowledges that his research may not directly translate to humans, Kenny says the findings shed light on the brain mechanisms that drive overeating and could even lead to new treatments for obesity.