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In The News: Food Addiction, Redux

Posted Mar 28 2010 10:01pm

fast food collection on on white backgroundWhen it comes to food addiction, I firmly stand in Marion Nestle’s “mostly skeptical” camp.

Alas, CNN.com (via Health.com) is sharing the conclusions of a rat study conducted at the Scripps Research Institute which found that “bacon, cheesecake, and other delicious yet fattening foods may be addictive.”

More specifically, “[the] new study suggests that 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.”

One of the most eye-rolling components of these articles is that the foods referred to as “high-fat and high-calorie” are your usual suspects: cheesecake, frosting, sausage, bacon, etc.

Let’s not forget, though, that there are plenty of healthy and nutritious high-fat, high-calorie foods: coconut, almonds, cashews, pecans, walnuts, salmon, avocado, etc.

I have yet to hear someone who claims bacon is addictive also tell me they have a hard time saying no to an extra ounce of pecans, or that they find themselves gorging on salmon steaks.

Many of these foods, by the way, are not simply high in fat they are also high in added sugars.  So, why is fat being singled out as the “addictive” nutrient?

Some more details on the study:

“[Researchers] studied three groups of lab rats for 40 days. One of the groups was fed regular rat food. A second was fed bacon, sausage, cheesecake, frosting, and other fattening, high-calorie foods–but only for one hour each day. The third group was allowed to pig out on the unhealthy foods for up to 23 hours a day.

The rats in the third group gradually developed a tolerance to the pleasure the food gave them and had to eat more to experience a high.  They began to eat compulsively, to the point where they continued to do so in the face of pain.

When the researchers applied an electric shock to the rats’ feet in the presence of the food, the rats in the first two groups were frightened away from eating.  But the obese rats were not.

My main issue with these studies is that they truly leave me with a “so what?” feeling.  I have a very difficult time making parallels to human behavior.

Am I supposed to believe that an obese individual who is addicted (which is very different from emotionally addicted, which, to me, is more credible) to junk food will continue to wolf down bags of Doritos while bleeding from a shotgun wound?

Additionally, if the group of rats that developed this food addiction were able to binge up to 23 hours a day on a very small number of foods, how is that applicable to the human experience?

Another frustrating thing for me about these studies it lets food companies off the hook.  Can’t you just see it now?  “Oh, no, it’s not our 64 ounce sodas that contribute to obesity; it’s you addicts that can’t stop yourselves!”

Something else to ponder: all of these foods existed and were consumed long before obesity rates skyrocketed.

Thank you to Claudia Zapata, MS, RD, for tweeting the CNN article. You can follow her at @ClaudiaZapata.

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