Excessive stimulation of the pleasure centers caused by energy-dense foods can lead to compulsive consumption of high-calorie foods. A recent study shows that this addiction is due to the activation by junk food of the same mechanisms that are involved in addiction to hard drugs, such as heroin and cocaine.
Foods that contain high amounts of sugar and fat are very pleasing to the brain because we are biologically programmed to like these sources of calories.
However, this attraction is exploited in an outrageous and irresponsible way by the junk food industry, which continues to offer a whole range of foods containing extraordinary amounts of sugar and fat, very often at low prices.
When consumed from time to time, these products represent treats and do not cause any harmful impact
on health: there is no problem in buying it occasionally to have fun. However, many people struggle to control this innate craving for sugar and fat. The intensity of pleasure associated with the consumption of foods that contain these substances is so powerful that it can disrupt our internal control mechanisms involved in appetite regulation and thus cause an overconsumption of calories that leads to an excess of weight: this is one of the sources of the global obesity epidemic.
Junk food: a real drug that has effects on the brain and behavior
To determine the mechanisms responsible for this addiction, American researchers have examined the behavior of animals having easy access to certain high-calorie foods such as sausages, bacon or cheesecake. Their results were published in one of the world’s top scientific journals, Nature Neuroscience. They observed that these animals abandoned their normal balanced food and very quickly acquired the habit of consuming this fatty food compulsively, so much so that they became obese shortly after the start of the study.
Curiously, the acquisition of this excess weight coincided with a deterioration of the cerebral circuits responsible for the sensation of pleasure associated with food, which caused the establishment of a vicious circle: by consuming these hypercaloric foods excessively, the sensation of pleasure they bring became increasingly weak, prompting the animals to compensate for this drop in pleasure by eating even more. Such changes are in every way similar to the events that take place in the brains of animals that have access to hard drugs like cocaine or heroin!
The animals’ dependence on food was such that they were willing to risk an electric shock rather than stop eating: after conditioning the rats to fear shock at the sight of a red light, the researchers observed that the animals that were eating normally stopped eating when the light came on; obese animals, on the other hand, were unimpressed and preferred to continue eating.
Taken together, these observations therefore illustrate the addictive potential of high-calorie food and suggest that the development of obesity involves mechanisms similar to those involved in addiction to psychoactive drugs.
Children get used to junk food very early
The activation by high-calorie food of the centers of the brain involved in feelings of pleasure reminds us that what we eat has a great influence on our well-being, both physical and mental. The development of a real addiction to these unhealthy foods is particularly problematic if it occurs in childhood, because it risks promoting the early development of obesity and the premature appearance of the many diseases that are associated with excess. weight.
As parents, we seek by all means to make our children aware of the dangers of addictive substances such as cigarettes, alcohol and the many recreational drugs. Now we have to add junk food to this list.
Johnson and Kelly. Dopamine D2 receptors in addiction-like reward dysfunction and compulsive eating in obese rats. Nature Neuroscience