Are Cupcakes Like Crack?

January 31, 2012

“After all, you don’t see newspaper headlines about obese people holding up convenience stores to feed their potato chip habit.” —Kelly Luck

Most people don’t really believe that junk food is addictive. They think fat people just have no willpower. Sure it tastes good, but you can master it. Look at all the skinny people on TV!

But still, the rising rates of obesity have gotten national attention. Our government can’t ignore it much longer because they are footing the tab for more and more people’s health care. Why won’t people just eat right and exercise more like the experts are telling them too?!

Maybe because the answer is yes, cupcakes are like crack. Here is the News Release from The Scripps Research Institute that makes this claim.

Articles heralding the new discovery appeared in news publications around the world, focusing on the point obese patients have been making for years – that, like addiction to other substances, junk food binging is extremely difficult to stop.

The study goes significantly further than the abstract, however, demonstrating clearly that in rat models the development of obesity coincides with a progressively deteriorating chemical balance in reward brain circuitries. As these pleasure centers in the brain become less and less responsive, rats quickly develop compulsive overeating habits, consuming larger quantities of high-calorie, high-fat foods until they become obese. The very same changes occur in the brains of rats that overconsume cocaine or heroin, and are thought to play an important role in the development of compulsive drug use.

Other points of interest from the article: rats who become accustomed to eating junk couldn’t stop eating it even if they learned to associate painful shocks with the unhealthy foods. If the addictive food was taken away and replaced with healthy food (“‘the salad bar’ option”), the rats stopped eating altogether for two whole weeks! They couldn’t even overpower their natural instinct to survive if it meant replacing junk with a healthy diet.

Now compare these rats to the young girl in yesterday’s article. I’ll admit it… my first instinct was to say that mom should have cut off her nugget supply a loooooong time ago. A kid is not going to let themselves starve, after all! But how many of you moms out there would have had the fortitude to watch your child refuse food for a whole week, much less two?! It’s easy to say, “Well I would never let this happen.” But here’s the thing… it is happening. If you feed your kid (or yourself) a mix of frozen meals, take-out, and boxed foods, you are creating a junk food addict.

On the November 8, 2011 episode of The Biggest Loser, contestants met with Dr. H and his guest Dr. Linden, a brain scientist from Johns Hopkins. Here’s what he had to say:

Typically, a lean person will crave a food much less than an obese person, but they’ll get a greater pleasure response. So obese people don’t overeat because they want food more – it’s that their level of satisfaction is so much less.

The visuals on the show really helped hammer his point home. They showed the brain scan of a thin person eating a burger. The firework show going on in his pleasure center got smaller as he ate. Basically, he derived satisfaction from his food, and could stop when his desire was satisfied. But in an obese person, it was the opposite. The blazing ring of pleasure got bigger as he ate! The more he ate, the more he wanted! It kind’ve broke my heart. Now, we can’t know from this study whether a person is born that way, or whether somewhere along the way he got broken by bad habits. But it does put things into perspective.

I think it’s official. Food addiction is real and we have to start addressing the problem before it’s most obvious symptom manifests. Obesity is not just a moral failure or a lack of willpower. Obesity is the result of a fractured relationship with food. It really is easier for a skinny person to stay skinny than for a fat person to just stop eating.

So tomorrow… I am going to get away from the science and get personal. I think we shall call it tomorrow’s feature: “From Skinny Kid to Fat Chick.”

P.S. This topic reminds me of a documentary I watched at some point last year that discussed the correlation between the FDA’s dietary recommendations, and the rising obesity epidemic. If anyone knows which documentary I am referring to, please remind me, as that will be a topic I’d like to discuss later.

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