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Can junkfood be addictive

Fast food ‘as addictive as heroin’Are you addicted to fast food?

Hamburgers and French fries could be as addictive as heroin, scientists have claimed.

Researchers in the United States have found evidence to suggest people can become overly dependent on the sugar and fat in fast food.

The controversial findings add weight to claims that over-eating is simply down to a lack of self-control.
Some animals – and by extension some people – can become overly dependent on sweet foodDr John Hoebel, Princeton University

It may also explain soaring rates of obesity in the western world.

Dr John Hoebel and colleagues at Princeton University in New Jersey based their theory on a study of rats.

‘Cold turkey’

They found that rats fed a diet containing 25% sugar are thrown into a state of anxiety when the sugar is removed.

Their symptoms included chattering teeth and the shakes – similar to those seen in people withdrawing from nicotine or morphine, according to researchers.

Dr Hoebel said he believed high-fat foods stimulate opioids or ‘pleasure chemicals’ in the brain.

“The implication is that some animals – and by extension some people – can become overly dependent on sweet food,” he said.

Further studies published in New Scientist magazine back up this theory.

Ann Kelley, a neuroscientist at the University of Wisconsin Medical School, the behaviour of rats after the were given sweet, salty and fatty foods.

She found a link between the brain’s pleasure chemicals and a craving for this type of food.

She stimulated the rats’ brains with a synthetic version of the natural opioid enkephalin. This caused rats to eat up to six times their normal intake of fat.

In addition, Dr Kelley identified long-lasting changes in rats’ brain chemistry – similar to those caused by extended use of morphine or heroin.

Dr Kelley said: “This says that mere exposure to pleasurable tasty foods is enough to change gene expression and that suggests that you could be addicted to food.”

However, other experts expressed doubts over whether people can become addicted to food.

Michael Jacobson, executive director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a nutrition lobby group in Washington DC, said there was a lack of evidence.

“I think the burden is on advocates of the addiction argument to provide evidence of addiction,” he said.

Dr Jeane Randolph, from the University of Toronto, dismissed the theory. She said fast food causes blood sugar to peak and then plunge, creating a natural desire for another snack.

“It’s a set-up for a late-afternoon binge rather than addiction,” she said.

Can You Be Addicted to Junk Food?

For Cari Banks, one of the hardest things to say no to is food.

“I could eat half a pack of Oreos and milk and consider it nothing,” she said. “I would eat it, pretty much without thinking.”

But new research shows Banks’ sweet tooth could actually be more like substance abuse.

Dr. Joe McClernon at Duke University studies the brains of people who are addicted to drugs, such as the nicotine in cigarettes. He says that for many obese people, junk food can trigger the same response in the brain.

“You can see activation when smokers are looking at pictures of people smoking, and the same thing when overweight individuals look at food cues,” said McClernon, an associate professor in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at Duke University Medical Center and director of the Health Behavior Neuroscience Research Program. “We see activation in areas involved in visual attention.

“We also see activation in both cases in a region called the striatum,” McClernon added. “It’s the part of your brain that tells you whether something is something you want to go after, or if it’s something you want to avoid. But it’s also the part of the brain that’s involved in learning habits.”

A new study by researchers at the Scripps Research Institute in Florida found similar results in rats. Pleasure centers in the brains of those fed high-fat, high-calorie food became less responsive over time — a signal that the rats were becoming addicted. The rats started to eat more and more. They even went for the junk food when they had to endure an electric shock to get it.

“Your brain reacts almost identically to [that of] a cocaine addict looking at cocaine,” said Dr. Louis J. Aronne, a clinical professor at Weill Cornell Medical School and former president of The Obesity Society. “And the interesting thing is that someone who is obese has even more similarity to the cocaine addict. … In many ways, they can be addicted to junk food.”

Addiction Treatments Could Fight Obesity

For Banks, the trigger foods are mostly high fat and high calorie. She has been trying to fight her cravings for three months, eating a special low fat diet as part of a Duke study funded by the Atkins Foundation.

“It was a month into the diet that I could eat one slice of pizza and be OK with that one slice and not have to eat half the pizza,” Banks said. “Or eat half a cup of ice cream and not have to eat half the gallon.”

Obesity researchers believe treatments used for addiction recovery may hold promise in fighting obesity.

“We know that people can learn new ways to live that are healthier,” McClernon said. “That’s part of the challenge right now is developing new techniques and new diets that help people learn those new ways of responding to food.”

Breaking the Junk Food Habit

So what can be done to break the junk food habit before it gets out of control? Dr. Eric Braverman, a professor of neurosurgery at New York Presbyterian Hospital, offers these tips:

Instead of sugar, try using Stevia, a high-fiber, no-calorie sweetener. According to the World Health Organization, no more than 10 percent of calories should come from sugars. That translates to a maximum of 12 teaspoons of sugar in a 2,200-calorie diet.

Don’t let your beverage choice ruin your chances for weight loss. Diet sodas are not the answer. Even though they have no calories, diet sodas contain phosphates that can damage teeth and bones as they deplete calcium, raise blood pressure and harm brain chemistry.

Instead of salt, use flavorful spices such as cinnamon, rosemary and cayenne pepper. They are packed with nutrients. Salt can cause blood vessels and organs to swell and bloat, and slows down metabolism. Increased salt consumption can also lead to more bad food choices, because the more salty foods you eat, the more powerful your cravings can be.

Instead of saturated fats, use olive and safflower oil . Olive oil is one of the healthiest fats around, and should be stored at room temperature. Safflower oil is best for cooking and is high in omega-3s. Fat consumption is integral to good health, and eating the right quantities of the right fats can crank up metabolism and increase the amount of body fat burned during exercise.

For more information on Dr. Eric Braverman or his book, “The Younger, Thinner You Diet,” please visit www.pathmed.com.

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