Are You Addicted to Junk Food?

by Anne Bennett on March 31, 2010

Lulu just can't get enough of those chips!

Chips! Chips! Gotta have chips!

Many overweight people would like to lose weight but can’t because they say they are addicted to junk food.

It turns out that they may be right. New research suggests that junk food can alter our brain’s reward system so that we cannot stop eating certain foods even when we know we’ve had enough.

Researchers studied rats in varying eating situations. Rats given unlimited access to rich fatty foods rapidly gained weight and became so obsessed with eating that they would not stop even though they knew they were about to receive an electrical shock.

Rats given a healthy, balanced diet with only limited access to the junk food also gained weight (although not as much) but they were able to stop eating the junk food when they knew a shock was coming.

Here’s a conclusion I found surprising–when the obese rats’ junk food was taken away and they were given only healthy food instead, they went on a hunger strike and wouldn’t eat for several weeks!  It was junk food or nothing!

Researchers suggest that in humans, the addictive behavior of compulsive eaters is similar to that of drug addicts.  Our brains can become so over-stimulated by rich, energy-dense foods (or drugs such as heroin and cocaine), that its reward circuitry (which basically says, “Yeah baby, bring it ON!”) gets desensitized and requires more stimulation to operate. In other words, the more junk we eat, the more we need to satisfy us.

So are we hopelessly in the throes of candy, cake and cookies? Apparently not. Scientists think that, for now, the only way to reset the brain’s pleasure circuits is to abstain from the very foods that we crave and replace them with healthy foods, the ones that the bingeing rats turned down when their junk food was removed. It can be a slow, painful process, but in the long term, our brains will get the message and we won’t crave junk foods as acutely as we did before. At least, that’s the current theory. For a less academic wording of the research, go here.

Hmmm, I don't crave the chips any more. (Sigh!)

Hmmm, I don't crave the chips any more. (Sigh!)

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{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

Lin March 31, 2010 at 3:21 pm

Have you ever thought of putting LULU in comercials? Or is it Isabel? Sorry, I’m not sure whose who.
Guess it’s time to junk the junk food.

Georgia May 6, 2010 at 2:15 pm

The look in her eyes reminds me of how I feel when I know I must eat healthy food ! I share her pain 🙂

Jody August 21, 2011 at 5:03 pm

Intuitively, this makes so much sense to me. When I’m on a junk-food binge, no amount will satisfy me. Yet, when I’m in a healthy-eating mode for at least several days, I lose the craving.

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