Editor's Note: Pity they had to subject a bunch of rats to show what Neal Barnard and other researches have already proven in a human situation: that certain unhealthy foods are addictive, the best way to deal with them is to avoid them. To watch Dr. Barnard speak about this exact issue, click here.
Scientists have finally confirmed what the rest of us have suspected for years: Bacon, cheesecake, and other delicious yet fattening foods may be addictive.
A new study in rats 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.
Doing drugs such as cocaine and eating too much junk food both gradually overload the so-called pleasure centers in the brain, according to Paul J. Kenny, Ph.D., an associate professor of molecular therapeutics at the Scripps Research Institute, in Jupiter, Florida. Eventually the pleasure centers "crash," and achieving the same pleasure--or even just feeling normal--requires increasing amounts of the drug or food, says Kenny, the lead author of the study.
"People know intuitively that there's more to [overeating] than just willpower," he says. "There's a system in the brain that's been turned on or over-activated, and that's driving [overeating] at some subconscious level."
In the study, published in the journal Nature Neuroscience, Kenny and his co-author 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.
Not surprisingly, the rats that gorged themselves on the human food quickly became obese. But their brains also changed. By monitoring implanted brain electrodes, the researchers found that 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. "Their attention was solely focused on consuming food," says Kenny.
In previous studies, rats have exhibited similar brain changes when given unlimited access to cocaine or heroin. And rats have similarly ignored punishment to continue consuming cocaine, the researchers note.