We tell ourselves we’re going to make good food decisions every time we go out, yet the second we see those cheese fries, something comes over us. All good intentions are forgotten. Our desire for junk food feels a lot like addiction, and it turns out, it just may be.
Research published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences studied the impact of feeding mice sweet, fatty foods over a 24-hour period. Doing this increased the level of dopamine—the feel-good chemical—in their brains and made them want to eat more. When scientists injected insulin into this pleasure center, the mice’s desire to eat more junk food was decreased.
“In an environment with easy access to highly palatable and energy dense food, food-related cues drive food-seeking regardless of satiety—an effect that can lead to obesity,” commented Dr. Stephanie Borgland, of Calgary University in Canada, in the study.
This isn’t the first time a correlation has been made between junk food and addiction. Earlier studies have shown people drawn to photos of fatty foods in the same way drug addicts were drawn to images of drugs. “Some studies make a case for the reward theory of food addiction, which correlates certain foods with increased dopamine levels. Dopamine is the chemical that mediates pleasure and motivation in our brains. The theory of food addiction is that sugar and other junk foods activate the release of dopamine. People eat these foods, get a dopamine rush and feel better, then eat increasing amounts to get the same experience they previously felt with less. Food addiction theory also points to changes in the brain as evidence of substance addiction,” says Dr. Nina Savelle-Rocklin, Psy.D. a psychoanalyst specializing in weight, food and body image issues based in Los Angeles. Sugar does change our brains, as do certain drugs. “In fact, any activity involving pleasure does so, including sex, exercise and spending time with friends. One study (Salimpoor 2011) proved that listening to music had the same impact on the brain as cocaine,” says Savelle-Rocklin.
Unfortunately, while we can cut drugs out of our life, it’s not so easy to quit sweet and fatty snacks cold turkey—as in everything, self-control and moderation go a long way, even with bottomless appetizers.