Can we humans really get as hopelessly hooked fatty fast foods and sugary snacks as a coke addict is to the white powder? Scientists at the Scripps Research Institute appear to think so, after releasing a new study this week that indicates high-fat, high-calorie foods cause chemical changes in the brain that get us hooked on the junk. Junk food, that is. That’s what happened to the lab rats in the study.
Researchers divided rats into three groups. All three were given unlimited access to standard rat food. A second group was also given restricted access to â€˜cafeteria-styleâ€™ foods (fatty meat, cheesecake, chocolate snacks, sponge cake) for an hour every day. The third group was allowed â€˜unlimited accessâ€™ to these choices.
The rats whose fat intake was restricted showed â€˜no adverse effectsâ€™ but the rats given free rein to gorge themselves on junk food quickly became obese. Over time, not even physical pain (of electric shocks) could keep the fat rats from going after the meat-and-cheesecake buffet.
Fat rat addicts wanted the junk even if it meant getting an electric jolt
When researchers applied an electric shock to the rats’ feet in the presence of food, the rats in the first two groups were frightened away. But the obese ones weren’t. â€˜Their attention was solely on consuming food,â€™ according to the study. The scientists say the fat rats brains’ chemical makeup had changed. Their brains need more food to trigger the release of Dopamine, the brain chemical that triggers pleasure and comfort. This same phenomenon causes drug abusers to keep increasing their dosage.
After the study, the researchers tried to put the fat rats on a nutritious dietâ€”what the research team called â€˜the salad bar optionâ€™â€”and the rats simply refused to eat. â€˜They basically starved themselves to death,â€™ said Dr. Paul Kenny, a neuroscientist who led the research.
Can we kick the habit?
So, is there any hope for those of us hooked on bacon double cheeseburgers and chocolate cheesecake? Yes, say the scientists. Like drug-users, over-eaters can overcome their addictions, though the brain makes it more difficult. Doctors may start exploring drug-addiction therapies to treat obesity, perhaps even searching for a pill that could blunt the pleasure of starchy carbs or unrefined sugar.
Hmmm. I think I’ll have a salad tonight and work my way toward a total brain detox.
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