Addicted to Junk Food

From the August 2005 Trumpet Print Edition

Most can agree that junk food is not nutritious. However, there is another problem with high-fat, high-sugar foods like burgers and candy bars: They may also be addictive.

Researchers are looking into the possibility that a fast food habit may be more than just a craving. According to scientific studies, the chemical effects of fast foods are remarkably similar to those of certain illegal drugs, including heroin and cocaine.

High-calorie, fat-filled snacks, fast foods and junk foods stimulate the release of natural opioids in the brain. Opioids are naturally occurring compounds in the brain that produce effects similar to morphine or cocaine, though less intense.

When we binge on foods high in fat and sugar, we may be causing our brains to undergo processes that make it more difficult for us to go without more junk food.

The concentrated amounts of fat and sugar contained in these products can lead to withdrawal symptoms and the need for more and more junk food in order to satisfy the addiction and get the brain back to feeling “normal” (Daily Telegraph, London, Jan. 30, 2003).

Scientists claim eating fast foods stimulates instant satiation followed by a plunge in blood sugar, triggering a desire for another snack and starting the cycle all over again (Hamilton Spectator, Jan. 30, 2003).

Experimentation with animals has shown that binging on junk food leads to significant, long-lasting changes in brain chemistry, similar to the effects of morphine and heroin. According to Anne Kelley, a neuroscientist at the University of Wisconsin Medical School, snack foods can cause an actual change in “gene expression,” meaning that junk food fans can very easily become addicted to their snacks.