AustinPUG Health

AustinPUG Health

I don’t know about you, but I love me some junk food. Crunchy chips, chewy candies, sweet cookies – I adore them all. I’ve got such a sweet tooth, in fact, that battling against the compulsion to indulge in too much junk food has been an ever-present part of my life since I was old enough to find the many secret spots in which my mother hid treats for fear of me doing away with them.

Because I’ve worked hard to maintain an active lifestyle, I’ve always managed to avoid gaining any amount of weight, but I was never unaware of my seemingly unique ability to devour a party-sized bag of potato chips without even noticing. As the developed world’s increasing obesity rate shows, though, that ability wasn’t so unique, after all.

Junk Food Understanding Junk Food Addiction


Okay, so we’ve established that many of us simply eat too much junk food, often getting fat in the process. We tell ourselves that we could stop any time, and maybe we could – but we too often don’t. We tend to feel irritable or incomplete if we’re not able to grab a sweet or salty treat when we want it, sometimes even ending with a headache or other physical symptom before we locate a hidden treat or make an unexpected trip to the local grocery store..

Sound familiar? Even if you’re not a junk food lover yourself, you may have dealt with a drug addict at some point in your life – if so, that experience must surely be ringing a bell for you right now. And, just like our insight into the dangers of drug abuse, modern neuroscience is helping us to understand why people are addicted to junk food, giving us the power to better fight our urges for unhealthy deliciousness.

From the position of someone who doesn’t indulge in excessive amounts of chips or chocolate, it can be easy to judge those who do as simply uncaring, or lazy, or lacking will power, but that attitude isn’t fair, and the facts prove it. Yes, we all need to take responsibility for ourselves – more on that below – but that doesn’t mean that we don’t all need a nudge in the right direction sometimes, no matter our chosen indulgence.

The key to empowering us all is understanding the facts behind our behavior, whether we’re discussing an addiction to junk food or any other substance. The proof is in the science; read on to learn about one of the most compelling studies done on the link between our brains and our eating habits.

What is Junk Food, Exactly?

First, let me clarify exactly what foods I’m referring to when I use “junk food” as an umbrella term: any food that has little or no nutritional value, being consumed for reasons other than simple nourishment. While we typically mean to refer to prepackaged snacks and treats, the term also applies to meats, like sausage and bacon, that contain far more calories than they’re worth in nutrition.

In order to help you visualize the entire food group, here are a few examples of high-calorie, low-nutritional value junk food:

  • Potato chips
  • Milk chocolate
  • Cookies, doughnuts, and other baked sugary treats
  • Sausage, bacon, fatty ground beef, and luncheon meats
  • French fries and other fried foods

The Study: How Junk Food Addiction Changes Your Brain

The study we’ll focus on here was conducted in 2008 and 2009 by researchers with the Scripps Research Institute in Jupiter, Florida, and later published in the well-respected and peer-reviewed journal Nature Neuroscience.

Focusing their attention on rats, our rodent cousins that have much smaller, but similarly functioning brains, researchers separated their subjects into two groups. The first group was fed a healthy diet with very limited access to junk food, while the second group had their regular diet offset by lots of high-calorie foods, including bacon, cake, chocolate, and sausage.

Once a feeding routine had been established, the researchers broke out the good old-fashioned electric shock in order to see if they could dissuade members of each group from eating the unhealthy foods. During time spent eating junk food, a shock was applied to each rat, eventually allowing them to forecast the shock simply by associating it with the taste and smell of high-calorie foods.

Given what we know of human eating habits, you may not find the results so surprising: the rats who had limited access to unhealthy foods were found to avoid it, obviously associating the snacks with pain. On the other hand, the rats who indulged in junk food regularly continued to overindulge, showing aversion to being shocked, but not enough to keep them from continuing to eat it, despite the pain that they knew was coming.

The results of the junk food study were compared to those from similar research conducted on the effects of cocaine and heroin on the brains of rats, and, of course, they were shown to be entirely alike, proving that the word “addiction” is no less appropriate when used regarding eating habits than it is when used to describe continuous use of hard drugs.

I think it’s fair to say that if you’ll indulge in a substance even while knowing that you are at risk of suffering horrible pain, with your brain showing unique activity all the while, you are addicted to that substance.

There are a few ways that we can interpret those results as far as detailed changes in the brain go, and it will take further, more detailed neurological study before we can claim to truly understand the processes behind the results, but there can be no doubt that long-term changes in brain activity and behavior result from a steady diet of unhealthy foods.

Personal Responsibility is Still Key

Unfortunately, it can sometimes feel natural to jump to the conclusion that being physically addicted to an action or substance relieves us of responsibility, giving us the excuse to proceed on the same seemingly inevitable path. This cycle is what keeps users of drugs like nicotine and cocaine coming back for more even when their conscious mind creams “no” – the very same cycle that is causing obesity rates to skyrocket through junk food addiction.

The truth is, every action that you perform is linked mysteriously, but entirely, to your brain. Whether you’re picking a piece of rogue lettuce from your teeth or performing open heart surgery, your brain activity can easily be monitored as it processes information and gives commands. We’re not yet able to understand what it all means, but there can be no doubt that your brain is a key player in everything that you do, and that changes in brain function can similarly change behavior.

This truth either relieves us of personal responsibility for every action, or none of them, and obviously a society whose citizens take no responsibility for their actions simply isn’t feasible. If you find yourself overweight or otherwise in bad health due to a junk food addiction, you’ll need to take the necessary steps to phase that part of yourself out, rewiring your brain to accept new habits as you replace junk food with other snacks or activities.

Keep in mind also that there’s no need to never taste chocolate or feel the wonderful crunch of a potato chip between your teeth again; you simply need to practice extreme moderation. That is definitely easier said than done, but there are things that you can do to ease the pain of giving up junk, helping you to reclaim your body and health with as little discomfort as possible!

Categories: Health concerns

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