Your Brain on Fake Food

April 7, 2011 · 23 comments

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New research published in the Archives of General Psychiatry by scientists at Yale University indicates that there is actually neural activity similar to drug addiction when a tempting food is presented. Researchers studied 48 young women of various weights. Using functional MRI (fMRI) the investigators were able to document the parts of the brain that are activated when a person sees a tempting food.

In this study they used a chocolate milk shake versus a tasteless solution. The team found that seeing the milkshake triggered brain activity in the anterior cingulate cortex and the medial orbitofrontal cortex. These are the areas in the brain that have been implicated in a drug addict’s craving for drugs. Furthermore, the brain activity was elevated in the women who had scored higher on an assessment that measured signs of addictive behavior. The researchers concluded that their findings support the theory that compulsive food consumption may be related to “…elevated activation in reward circuitry in response to food cues and reduced activation of inhibitory regions in response to food intake” (own emphasis).

Addiction causes people to react with physical, psychological and behavioral changes when exposed to the substance. The mass marketing, and the availability of cheap “good tasting” foods at every corner can make it very difficult for some people to control their eating behavior. This research indicates that this is not just a “lack of self control”. It demonstrates that there is an actual neural component to compulsive eating that is similar to that of substance dependence. In light of the increasing awareness of the exploding obesity epidemic in this country, this is an important finding. This science can be used to illustrate to lawmakers how the powerful food industry manipulates and engages susceptible people with advertising and food cues. It’s no secret that food companies have been doing this for years. But here again (see my post about food coloring and the followup), we now have science to back up what concerned parents have been saying for years. Those Saturday morning commercials for candy and sugary cereals are all directed towards children.

To take this one step further, there is also plenty of scientific evidence showing that people who have an “addictive personality” are also susceptible to sugary foods. A report published in the Journal of Psychoactive Drugs in June, 2010 illustrated that many studies have shown that a high number of alcohol-dependent and other drug-dependent individuals have a sweet preference, especially for foods with a high sucrose concentration (refined white sugar). Additionally, human and animal studies have shown that in some brains, the consumption of sugar-rich foods or drinks precipitates the release of euphoric endorphins and dopamine (the feel good chemicals) within the nucleus accumbens, in a manner similar to the response to some recreational drugs. The scientists found that the brain pathways of drug and sugar addiction involve similar neural receptors and neurotransmitters. There has actually been visual documentation of craving, tolerance, withdrawal and sensitization in specific areas in the brain. Furthermore, there appears to be cross sensitization between sugar addiction and narcotic dependence in some individuals. In the last two decades research has noted that specific genes may underlie the sweet preference in alcohol- and drug-dependent individuals, as well as in biological children of paternal alcoholics.

Do you think that food corporations don’t know about this research? Of course they know about the addictive nature of chemically enhanced and sugary foods! They have known it for years. Each year they introduce more additives to the food supply (condoned by the FDA). This is reminiscent of the tobacco companies covering up the facts of the addictive chemicals in tobacco.We have an obesity epidemic in this country, and doctors, scientists and politicians are suddenly wondering why. The fact is, people MUST stop eating foods laced with additives in order to have any chance of beating the vicious cycle of chemical addiction that leads to obesity. The addictive nature of these chemicals reach out to include not only alcohol and substance abusers, but they insidiously pull in the average person who eats commercially prepared foods. Sadly, the food supply in this country is so laden with these toxic ingredients, it would take a major overhaul to remove them.

The issue of the addictive nature of processed foods goes way beyond the obesity problems. Clearly, these chemicals initiate behavioral problems in susceptible individuals. These problems can affect their personalities, drawing them into unhealthy lifestyles. It all goes back to the same concept. Eat real food that is minimally processed, cooked at home and locally grown. By doing so, you can protect your brain, your behavior and your health.

This post is linked to: Fresh Bites Friday, Fight Back Friday, Fat Camp Friday, Fun with Food Friday, Sugar-Free Sunday, Midnight Maniac, Meatless Monday, Melt in Mouth Monday, Mangia Monday, Monday Mania, Mouthwatering Monday, Tuesday Night Supper Club, Made From Scratch Tuesday, Tasty Tuesday Parade of Foods, Tasty Tuesday, What’s Cooking Wednesday, What’s on the Menu, Real Food Wednesday, Gluten-Free Wednesday, Full Plate Thursday, Tip Day Carnival, Simple Lives Thursday. Frugal Follies, Pennywise Platter, Food Trip Friday

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{ 21 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Tracee April 8, 2011 at 2:30 pm

I have to wonder is processed foods aren’t setting kids up for drug addiction. In our area meth is rampant, but so is diabetes, obesity, soda/processed food consumption, adhd and cancer. It’s hard not to think it’s all connected and yet most “experts” will insist it’s voodoo.

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2 Jill April 8, 2011 at 3:49 pm

Hi Tracee,
That’s why this study (and studies like it) are so important. The “experts” don’t get the message unless it is presented in a scientific study.

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3 Amy Love @ Real Food Whole Health April 8, 2011 at 7:45 pm

Hey Jill- this is great- so informative and interesting. You know, a couple of years ago, I was doing some part-time surveys/product reviews for some different companies.

One day they called about a food study- a taste test- which sounded perfectly innocent. Then she proceeded to tell me that they were going to put leave-in conditioner in my hair, strap on a cap wired with electrodes and record my brain pattern while I tested the food. I am NOT kidding! I was really freaked out and never did another study EVER again. There is just something SO wrong with that…

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4 Jill April 8, 2011 at 8:38 pm

Hi Amy,
So what was the point of the study? What were they testing? I’m glad you found the article interesting. I think this research is so important.

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5 Miranda April 8, 2011 at 9:15 pm

Thanks for this info. I truly said yesterday that I think I am addicted to sugary foods. I know it is so not good – and I am going to challenge myself to a sugar free diet for a week soon. I did it last summer for a few weeks when I was on the South Beach Diet. Tough, but it really works to make you healthier. Thanks for sharing this knowledge with Fat Camp Fridays!

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6 Jill April 9, 2011 at 11:51 am

Hi Miranda,
Do it! It is hard, but you will feel so much better!

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7 Debbie Arnold April 9, 2011 at 10:00 pm

Would you mind if I put this as a guest post on my school blog?

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8 Jill April 9, 2011 at 11:15 pm

Hi Debbie,
That would be fine! Can you send me the address of the school blog? I’d love to take a look! And could you please link back to my blog? You can email me directly at: Jill@RealFoodForager.com

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9 judee@glutenfreeA-Z April 11, 2011 at 8:35 am

I know when I take a bite of sugar or highly processed foods, it just leads me to want more and more. It is addictive. I teach high school and it is scary to see the diet of our kids.There are so many who struggle with ADD and concentration issues. But as you said, “The mass marketing, and the availability of cheap “good tasting” foods at every corner can make it very difficult for some people to control their eating behavior” It is a difficult battle for parents of even young children. Thanks for some great information.

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10 Jill April 11, 2011 at 2:08 pm

Hi Judee,
It is a battle for some parents. Others just don’t get it. sometimes I have to tell parents who consult with me, that they are the parent and they are the ones who are in charge. Kids should be taught to make “healthy choices,” but young children need the parent to guide them. I often “rant” about social situations and young children.It is the adults who insist upon supplying sugary snacks and sugary drinks at every event. Please, don’t get me started…

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11 kristin April 11, 2011 at 5:12 pm

like others have commented – the addiction to sugary, processed, fattening food is overwhelming, especially if it is so easily accessible & triggering your brain.

this article is great… you always post good ones. i love reading them & gaining more knowledge & insight into these topics.

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12 Jill April 11, 2011 at 6:12 pm

Hi Kristin,
Thank you for your kind words. I’m so glad you like the articles!

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13 Shu Han April 13, 2011 at 11:07 am

Thanks for sharing such an interesting article! I hope that with more and more research people will find more reasons to stay away from processed junk!

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14 Jill April 13, 2011 at 11:33 am

Hi Shu Han,
Yes, I hope so as well! I’d like to see a lot more honest research on this subject. By the way, I loved your coconut butter!

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15 Miz Helen April 14, 2011 at 2:13 pm

Hi Jill,
This is a very interesting article. As Americans we have become so dependent on our government to make our choices, and sometimes they have not been in our best interest. This is very important and informative information that we all need to make better choices for ourselves and our families. Thank you so much for sharing with Full Plate Thursday and hope to see you next week.

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16 Donna@My Tasty Journey April 15, 2011 at 11:51 am

Thank you for this article, Jill. I struggled almost all of last year with binge eating and feeling like my brain would NOT stop telling me that I NEEDED Chocolate, salt, sweet, salt, etc. This year I decided to cut out AS MUCH (without making myself crazy) processed foods/artificial sweetners as I could and the results are insanely miraculous. It’s scary the things they post as healthy (splenda) to know thier overall effects. Thanks again! (sorry for yammering on:)

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17 Jill April 15, 2011 at 8:08 pm

Hi Donna,
Thanks so much for sharing your experience. It is typical to crave more sugar and junk when you eat it. It is hard to cut it out but the cravings do go away the longer you stay away from it. Good for you!

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18 Rachele April 16, 2011 at 8:39 pm

Powerful article. Would you agree that all foods are addictive? Whether they’re healthy or not. I eat local, fresh food from our farmers and I end up craving those types of foods. If our local farmers would advertise their fruits, veggies and dairy like these big corporations do, I think I’d always feel the need to eat!

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19 GM April 17, 2011 at 1:30 pm

I’m someone who actually is addicted to sugar. I think the big difference in real food vs artificial is having the power to say no and turn it down. If you’re reaching for the steak, not realizing you’ve even eaten it until you’re on the last bite, then you might have a problem. If you see a juicy steak after you’re full and you can easily turn it down then you’re good. I use steak as an example because they are good for us. Imagine the same scenario with ice cream, potato chips, or Starbucks. The problem with junk is that it’s hard to say no. It’s hard to stop yourself or even know when enough is enough. The foods themselves enable bad eating habits.

Cravings are natural. Our bodies tell us what we need. I don’t think it’s bad to crave foods. I think its bad if you’re craving them in exclusion of other things.

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20 Jill April 17, 2011 at 2:21 pm

Hi GM,
So true.Thanks for your wise words.

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21 Jill April 16, 2011 at 10:07 pm

Hi Rachele,
I don’t think all foods are addictive — they do not all stimulate those parts of the brain involved in addiction. Cravings can come from other things like candida overgrowth for example. But craving real food is probably a good thing!

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