Study Says Junk Food Is as Addictive as Heroin or Cigarettes

Is junk food as addictive as heroin or cigarettes? Previous studies have shown similarities between drug abusers and compulsive eaters, but a new study published in Nature Neuroscience provides evidence that those who are addicted to junk food experience similar cravings as drug addicts, require increasingly larger amounts of food to feel good and even have a harder time quitting.

Paul M. Johnson and Paul J. Kenny of the Scripps Research Institute in Florida gave certain rats food with high-fat content such as candy bars, bacon and cheesecake. These foods triggered the release of dopamine, a neurotransmitter in the brain that acts as a chemical reward system. In order to feel good, the rats came to depend on higher quantities of the junk food -- just like drug users who need to increase their intake to get high -- because their dopamine receptors were becoming depleted.

Rats that had junk food available to them throughout the day not only became obese, but they also turned into compulsive eaters and would not stop eating even when they knew they would get electric shock. But perhaps the most disturbing finding of the study was that, while it took only two days for the depleted dopamine receptors in rats addicted to cocaine or heroin to return to baseline levels, it took two weeks for the obese rats to return to their normal dopamine levels.

Any person who has ever tried to lose weight can attest to the difficulty of staying on a diet and the internal struggle each time a hunger pang hits. But while former smokers and drug addicts have the option of quitting cold turkey, the compulsive eater can't stop eating food altogether.

Should Junk Food Be Regulated Like a Drug?

If overeating is an addictive behavior, should the government control it in some way? Narcotics are outlawed unless prescribed by a doctor and while alcohol and tobacco are legal, they carry restrictions and are often taxed heavily to deter people from indulging.

There are incentives for taking similar measures with junk food. After all, obesity-related health issues cost the U.S. an estimated $150 billion each year, according to a recent study by the Department of Health and Human Services. An estimated two-thirds of American adults and one-third of children are obese or overweight. And some studies suggest that, by 2020, 45% of Americans will be obese.

Yet, as Coca-Cola Co. (KO) chairman and CEO Muhtar Kent said, "I have never seen it work where a government tells people what to eat and what to drink."

While Coke, PepsiCo (PEP) and Dr. Pepper Snapple (DPS) have applauded themselves for removing sugary drinks from schools, they have vehemently opposed a proposed soda tax like the one floated by New York's governor David Patterson.

Salty and high-calorie foods are also under attack. A recent study from the American Medical Association's Archives of Internal medicine suggested that governments tax pizza, too.

Some companies are proactively altering their ways (perhaps in the hope that their products avoid getting hit with a hefty tax.) Already ConAgra Food's (CAG), Campbell Soup's (CPB), Sara Lee (SLE) and Unilever (UN) are reducing salt in their foods.

But if food is as addictive as this study suggests, will any of these measures make a difference? Like most monumental social changes it will likely depend on educating consumers about healthy food choices. Eventually, demand for healthier foods will prompt food makers to adjust and offer healthier options.

Sara Lee should probably start with its cheesecake -- it was one of the most well-loved junk food items among the rats.

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