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with Pamela Peeke, MD, MPH, FACP

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Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Junk Food Junkie: Food Addiction is Real

Have you ever felt like you were addicted to certain foods? You know the feeling. You pop a candy in your mouth and you’re off and running on a binge. You can’t have just one chip or a serving of ice cream. One taste and you eat a mountain of it. Or, you’re doing really well on your healthier lifestyle journey and then one day you decide to stray a bit.

Perhaps you’re stressed out or maybe you thought “Hey, I’ve been doing really well and I feel like taking a ‘vacation day’ from my program and eat whatever I like.” And then you have that piece of cake or cookie and even after gulping down everything in sight, it’s still not enough.

Here’s the good news. You’re not crazy. You could be addicted. Researchers at the Scripps Research Institute have just published a study that explains why you eat so compulsively around particular foods. You may actually be a junk food junkie!

This exciting new study was funded by the National Institute of Drug Abuse, part of the National Institutes of Health (NIH). Since drug addiction and obesity are major national problems, researchers set out to see if brain changes that take place in drug addiction were present in the obese. Prior studies have shown that both drug addiction and obesity were associated with a dysfunction in the brain’s reward system. The more you indulge in drugs or sugary-fatty foods, the higher your reward threshold and the more you want. It becomes an vicious cycle of trying to curb a craving that can never be fully satisfied.

In this study, one group of rats was fed a normal diet with limited access to junk food. They gained some weight but did not become obese. The other group of rats was also fed their usual food but was allowed unlimited exposure to real junk food, including candy, cake, bacon, sausage and more. Over time, the rats were observed to find the junk food tasty, and their consumption continued to increase, resulting in obesity.

What was really interesting was the fact that the rats kept coming back for more despite the fact that electric shocks were administered to them if they did. And I’m sure you’re sitting out there saying “Yep, reminds me of the time when through snow, sleet, and pouring rain, I made it to the store to satisfy my craving for candy, ice cream, pizza, chips or whatever.” We’ll do anything to scratch that addictive itch.

Now for the coup de grace. After 40 days, the researchers took all of the junk food away and replaced it with the normal healthy rat food. Guess what? The obese rats went on a hunger strike for two weeks and refused to eat it. Hah! That’s like being forced to go on a “diet” when all you can think of is scoring food for your next binge. Eventually the rats settled down and reluctantly shed pounds as they acclimated to their usual food. But, I’ll guarantee you if the junk was placed in the cage 2 months from now, the rats will reawaken those taste memories in a heartbeat.

So what gives? What is happening here? The researchers found that special dopamine receptors (dopamine is the ‘pleasure’ brain neurotransmitter) became suppressed as the rats became more obese. The reward system, in essence, begins to deteriorate. When this happens, the rats begin to eat compulsively, desperately seeking the taste reward they crave and finding that it takes more and more junk food to achieve the goal. This is exactly what happens in humans addicted to cocaine or heroin. Other studies have noted that certain foods can be addictive. Rush University researchers have found that these foods include sweets, sweet/fat combos, and potentially processed and salty foods. Sounds like the usual binge foods.

What does all of this mean to you? Well, I’m sure that many of you are just wiping the shock right off your faces. You’ve known intuitively that certain foods are nothing but binging trouble and so you steer clear.

You’ll probably also notice that it’s never tuna on a bed of greens or oatmeal that gets you going. Instead, it is as the science has shown, refined sugars, high fats as well as processed foods that will set you off into an addictive compulsive eating craze. Here are some tips to help you navigate the treacherous waters of addictive eating.

1.  Make a list of any foods that lead to overeating and/or binging. You know what they are. Some of you are sweet eaters, others like starches, and still others have problems with both. Sit down and write them out. Be aware and keep these foods out of your house and stay away from them at restaurants and social gatherings.

2. Do not fall for the “just one little bite” lie. It’s like an alcoholic saying “just one little drink” or a drug addict’s “just one hit” rationalizing. Don’t try it. You’ll lose every time. If it’s an addictive food, you’re having even a small amount may awaken the beast and set you off into a regrettable binge.

3. Get the right attitude. You’re not being deprived of a tasty delight. You’re saving yourself from a shame and guilt-filled binge, and all those extra pounds of body fat.

4. Summon a support team. If you’re really having issues with these foods, then put together your own A-Team. You can draw upon people who show compassion and want to support your efforts to withdraw from these foods. Family, friends, expert counselors, medical and fitness professionals, dietitians and groups like Overeaters Anonymous may be good resources.

5. Be patient and persistent. You need to give your body enough time to adapt and adjust to healthier foods. Even the rats needed 2 weeks to get over their food strike! Keep plenty of fresh produce and lean protein around and plan your meals and snacks so you’re not left in the lurch with only the addictive stuff to choose. You can do this!

What junk food do you want to give up? Comment on this blog post on the Diet Exchange.

Posted by: Pamela Peeke, MD at 8:09 am

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