Monday, April 5, 2010

Should Unhealthy Eating be Treated as an Addiction?

A new study suggests junk food addiction might be similar to drug addiction.

As America’s obesity epidemic continues, the government has launched many initiatives to help citizens gain better control over their waistlines: They’re working to improve school lunches so that children get nourishment and not diabetes; they’ve written provisions into the recent health care reform legislation requiring disclosure of calorie counts at restaurants and on packaging so that people understand what they’re putting into their bodies, etc. But now one study is suggesting that constantly eating junk food could actually be considered an addiction on the same level people are addicted to cocaine or alcohol. Will it affect how health officials approach regulating junk food and appealing to people to eat better?

According to TIME magazine, “researchers at the Scripps Research Institute in Jupiter, Fla., examined three groups of lab rats that were fed various diets for 40 days. One group was given typical rat chow only; a second group was offered rat chow, plus a buffet of bacon, sausage, cheesecake, chocolate frosting and other delectable goodies for one hour a day; and a third group was allowed extended access to the fatty buffet for up to 23 hours a day.

The extended-access group began consuming twice as many calories as the other rats, and, not surprisingly, became obese. The limited-access rats, meanwhile, developed a binge pattern of eating, consuming most of their daily calories during the single hour they were allowed in the junk food "cafeteria."

But what shocked the researchers was that extended-access rats also showed deficits in their ‘reward threshold.’ That is, unrestricted exposure to large quantities of high-sugar, high-fat foods changed the functioning of the rats' brain circuitry, making it harder and harder for them to register pleasure — in other words, they developed a type of tolerance often seen in addiction — an effect that got progressively worse as the rats gained more weight.”

Of course, there are limits to such studies, particularly when they’re not performed on actual humans. But reconsidering how to approach the obesity epidemic isn’t an absurd idea – certainly treating alcohol addiction as a medical condition is more effective than simply trying to shame people into not drinking, which is essentially the culture we have now with unhealthy eating.

Approaching overeating and junk food as a mental health issue isn’t entirely new territory – it brings to mind the infamous “Twinkie defense” used by Dan White, who was being tried for the murders of San Francisco Mayor George Moscone, and City Supervisor Harvey Milk – White’s lawyers alleged that White’s diet switch to junk food and sodas contributed to his incapacitated mental state at the time of the killings. He was convicted only of involuntary manslaughter.

Photo credit: Larry D. Moore

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