high-fat, high-calorie foods affect the brain in much the same way as cocaine and heroin. When rats consume these foods in great enough quantities, it leads to compulsive eating habits that resemble drug addiction, the study found.So if addiction to cocaine and cheesecake relies on the same biological mechanism, will public policy eventually treat them similarly, and if so which path will we choose? Indeed, there are more similarities between junk food and controlled substances than first meets the eye, reports CNN:
Doing drugs such as cocaine and eating too much junk food both gradually overload the so-called pleasure centers in the brain, according to Paul J. Kenny, Ph.D., an associate professor of molecular therapeutics at the Scripps Research Institute, in Jupiter, Florida. Eventually the pleasure centers "crash," and achieving the same pleasure--or even just feeling normal--requires increasing amounts of the drug or food, says Kenny, the lead author of the study.
"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."
Obesity, like drug addiction, is both bad for the individual and costly for society. If both problems stem from the same source, will we change drug policy to treat controlled substances like we do fatty foods, where the emphasis is on personal freedom, tax policy and public education, or will we treat fatty foods like illegal drugs, policing individual consumption and enforcing penalties for producers and consumers of unhealthy products? Or are there distinctions besides brain chemistry that justify different legal approaches for heroin and Twinkies? What do you think?
The fact that junk food could provoke this response isn't entirely surprising, says 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 says.
Coca leaves have been used since ancient times, he points out, but people learned to purify or alter cocaine to deliver it more efficiently to their brains (by injecting or smoking it, for instance). This made the drug more addictive.
According to Wang, food has evolved in a similar way. "We purify our food," he says. "Our ancestors ate whole grains, but we're eating white bread. American Indians ate corn; we eat corn syrup."