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Study: Junk Food Can be Addictive

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Editor's note: This is the updated version.

A new animal study published online March 28 in Nature Neuroscience suggests something many Americans would have bet the farm on:  that eating junk food can be addictive. 

The study showed that rats allowed unlimited access to junk foods like bacon, sausage, pound cake, candy bars and other deplorably unhealthy fare gained weight quickly.  

And that’s not all; the worst part is that the rats became so addicted to the junk food,  they began compulsively eating it, despite the fact that they received an unpleasant electric shock to their feet if they consumed more than was allowed. 

In contrast, rats that were given a healthy diet and only limited access to junk food did not gain much weight; more impressively, they knew when they needed to stop to avoid a junk food hangover. 

ice_cream_811011808.jpgPaul Kenny at Scripps Research Institute in Jupiter, Fla and colleagues observed that the rats on the junk food diet became so addicted that they went on a hunger strike and refused to eat anything for two weeks after the researchers stopped giving them food with no particular nutritional value. 

The researchers found the rats under the influence of junk food the dopamine D2 receptor in the brain's reward system suppressed; compulsive eating soon followed. 

To confirm that the suppression of the receptor may be the cause of the junk food addiction, Kenny used a virus to artificially suppress the receptor implicated in addiction to cocaine and heroin that had been previously introduced to other lab rats. 

Phenomenally, the  researchers observed that these rats soon began eating junk food compulsively. 

This is an animal study; the findings may not apply to humans.  However, there is that altogether reasonable possibility that they just might.

This is not the only study suggesting that food can be addictive.  Corsica JA and Pelchat ML from Rush University Medical Center in Chicago published an article in the March 2010 issue of Current opinion in gastroenterology reviewing previous studies and identifying many foods that can be addictive.

According to the authors, foods that are potentially addictive include sweets, carbohydrates, fats, sweet/fat combinations, and possibly processed and/or high salt foods.

The support for the food addiction theory comes from alterations in neurochemistry (dopamine, endogenous opioids), neuroanatomy (limbic system), and self-medication behaviors, Corsica and Pelchat say.

By David Liu and editing by Rachel Stockton

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Subscribe to comments feed Comments (23 posted):

Aaron on 03/29/2010 10:58:38
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Princeton Neuroscience Institute have been studying signs of sugar addiction in rats for years.

They found that rats displayed all of the 3 classic symptoms of addiction...to sugar

http://www.healthhabits.ca/2008/12/15/is-sugar-addictive/

In addition to the effect of brain chemicals, researchers have also been looking on the effect insulin plays on junk food addiction

http://www.healthhabits.ca/2008/11/13/why-do-i-crave-carbs/
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aarghawk on 03/29/2010 12:01:37
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Have you been under a rock.....or a twinkie ? It is the additives, chemicals and preservatives people are addicted to. Don't you people ever read/listen/watch Michael Pollan??!!! Wake up and eat REAL food!!! The Food Industry has a mighty powerful lobby!
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lurker on 03/29/2010 12:07:38
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There's a serious factual error in paragraph two. Bacon and sausage are actually GOOD for you. Pound cake and candy bars are junk food, though ...
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Donna on 03/29/2010 12:08:14
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In other news, scientists have announced that the sky appears to be a light blue color, confirming earlier suspicions.
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Cajun Chef Ryan on 03/29/2010 12:16:45
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What? Junk food is addictive? Who knew? We don't need to waste money on rat research to find out that junk food is addictive. The food industry and government agencies have proven this for the past 80 years, junk food sells, and Americans like it!
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braindrain13 on 03/29/2010 12:19:02
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This isn't news. It's the beginnings of propaganda from healthcare reform bill. Think about it: if the government is in charge of healthcare, it is in charge of what people choose to consume. Much like a parent who says "As long as you live under my roof you'll live by my rules!" It's the "nanny state." I'd like to see them try to outlaw Doritos.
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April on 03/29/2010 12:23:44
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A definition of the word "addiction": the state of being enslaved to a habit or practice or to something that is psychologically or physically habit-forming, as narcotics, to such an extent that its cessation causes severe trauma.

The ludicrous thing about saying food is "addictive" is the fact we would die if we gave it up completely.

The problem I'm having with this article is the use of the word "addiction". Food, in and of itself according to this definition, is most certainly "addictive".

Perhaps it would be better to write something like, "sugar creates overt cravings for more and more sugar" rather than bandying around a harder hitting, but much more imprecise word.
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StvenC on 03/29/2010 12:32:42
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Yes, we already knew that some people eat junk food compulsively, even when they know it's bad for them, and get upset when somebody tries to do something good for them. What we didn't know was that the chemical conditions marking this attitude could be identified and manipulated. In the same way, we know that some people defend the current health insurance system compulsively, even when they know it's bad for them, and get upset when somebody tries to do something good for them. The chemical reasons for this are still a mystery.
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shereeta young on 03/29/2010 12:37:15
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While it is true that we do need food to live, what we don't need are all of the transfats, cholesterol riddled,sugary snacks, and processed food that a lot of people are obviously addicted to. This country is full of people with weight problems because they eat compulively and they are not eating veggies now are they? NO. Food alone is not addicted but the additives, sugars, salts, and fats (all the things that make it taste good) are. It's just too bad that exercise isn't.
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WR Burton on 03/29/2010 12:38:40
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This is exactly the evidence we need to put the FDA in charge of our food intake. Wake up Congress! ... Oh, that's right, the FDA like the EPA doesn't need Congress. Since, the government is in charge of our health care now and responsible for keeping the costs down, they have the RIGHT to make sure we are not harming ourselves with Hagen Daz and Twinkies. What a wonderful world!
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Steven Glenn on 03/29/2010 12:54:11
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It seems that the word "addiction" has now been completely drained of all meaning. To say that junk food is "addictive" in the same sense that nicotine or heroine are addictive is ridiculous. When was the last time you saw someone reduced to homelessness because they spend all of their money on snickers bars? When was the last time you heard of a woman prostituting herself on the street for Junior Mints? Please stop reporting this kind of nonsense.
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Tyrus on 03/29/2010 13:12:30
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In "The Secret Life of Plants", published back in 1973, Tompkins & Bird, links were suggested between chemical fertilizers and mental defects in our culture, that pollutants, thus by extension a polluting diet, can effect us both physically and mentally on a cultural level. So, these findings, while apparently fresh as data, resonate with observations at least a half a century old.
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deborah conner on 03/29/2010 13:13:02
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Looking at the hard definition of addiction, this experiment does demonstrate the physical changes referred to as "tolerance": "... the dopamine D2 receptor in the brain's reward system [was] suppressed." Further, the suppression of the receptor by junk food was confirmed: "Kenny used a virus to artificially suppress the receptor implicated in addiction to cocaine and heroin that had been previously introduced to other lab rats." Please stop politicizing everything.
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henwhisperer on 03/29/2010 13:16:52
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As if GMOs and fake food science (like this article) weren't enough, now we have to worry about nano-titanium dioxide that is being used without indication of such on product labeling. Those green peppers and other veggies from Latin America are sprayed with it so they will keep their 'just picked' luster.
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john on 03/29/2010 13:26:09
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Um - let me get this right. Some folks are worried about the government getting involved in what makes you healthy? Have you guys actually looked at what was passed? The republicans are the ones after healthy habits, and passing you to different risk pools ( more expensive) if you don't comply. If anything the health care plan as passed seems pretty mute on the point since healthy or no the behavior is a preexisting condition.
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sbirtwell on 03/29/2010 13:46:20
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Those of you who believe the government is in charge of what we consume, think again. It s the big industry leaders that fund the government campaigns that are really in charge. Like the dairy industry for example. Do you really think the government cares what we eat? What do they get out of it? The dairy industry, on the other hand, makes millions of dollars through propaganda and brain washing to make you believe milk does the body good. Ask any respectable health care professional and they will tell you (behind closed doors) that its not true. The dairy industry spent millions of dollars getting women to eat more dairy by falsely linking it to weight loss- meanwhile, breast cancer, Crohn's disease, diabetes, heart disease and many more diseases, scientifically linked to dairy consumption, are rising in women at alarming rates. Coincidence? Not likely....So, yes, the chemicals, the sugar, the immune system repressing additives are probably what's "addictive" but its not the government making these strategic media moves. Artificial sweetener is a lot more affordable to produce than sugar is to harvest and process. Do you really think its better for our kids to be drinking crystal light rather than apple juice? Research has linked many artificial sweeteners not only to cancer but also to damage to the brains neurological receptors, creating effects similar to MS and retardation. But its cheaper. Its been identified as one of the top 3 most toxic carcinogens that we can consume, but we give it to our children daily. The government doesn't care. The public cries about obesity, so that's what the government spins around the table. But its the big money industries that pull the strings. Its like the x-files- the truth is out there, but its up to us to find it. We certainly aren't going to get it from the media, or from the government.
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Paul on 03/30/2010 03:46:10
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Ummmmmm, doughnuts

Just great, first they eliminate normal healthy food and try to stuff us full of aspartame and high fructose corn syrup then when people get fat and unhealthy they want to develop a pill for it which will probably turn out to be worse than the disease.

Yes food is addictive, I've been on it myself for quite some time.

There’s an interesting post over at the Health Journal Club that makes the case that people should just not eat anything that wasn’t a food 100 years ago. Gets rid of the aspartame, bleached GM flour, high fructose corn syrup garbage they try to pass off as food these days. If interested you can read on it here,

http://healthjournalclub.blogspot.com/2010/01/100-year-diet.html
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Kim Pottage on 04/05/2010 19:31:49
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From a neurobiology perspective, this is very compelling research. While many people may write off the claim that junk food is addictive as common knowledge, the important part of the publication is that the chemical state in the brain that causes overeating has been pinpointed. It is interesting to learn how strong the responses to high-fat, high calorie foods actually are, including the hunger strike that was evoked by switching out the junk food for regular food. The fact that the dopamine D2 receptor is also involved in cocaine and heroine addiction demonstrates just how intense cravings for unhealthy food can be. It gives insight into why so many people cannot simply give up eating junk food, and probably is a significant part in the obesity epidemic in the United States. The other important thing to think about with this type of research is what role it will play in the treatment of obesity. Obviously drug companies will be salivating at the thought of developing drugs to prevent over eating in similar ways that other drugs try to treat cocaine addiction. This seems a little extreme in most cases, but maybe these possible future medications will replace high-risk weight-loss surgeries, or prove more effective than currently marketed obesity drugs.


You mention other previous studies suggesting addictive food consumption that may entail items such as sugar, carbohydrates, fats, sweet/fat combinations, and possibly processed and high salt foods. Have these studies proposed which foods have the most impact on a person's brain chemistry? Is there a specific combination of food components, for instance a calculated ratio of fats to sugar, that increases consumption? It seems that some of the foods given to the rats, like bacon and sausage, were higher in fat to sugar ratio than others, such as pound cake and candy bars. Maybe sugar is more of a culprit than fat in this study. It would be plausible that the next step tests only rich fatty foods, like fish and full fat dairy, for their effects on food addiction. Expanded research on this topic could lead to great advances in curing and understanding obesity as it relates to behavior and the brain.
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addiction center on 04/08/2010 14:12:34
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Junk foods will always be junk foods: less or no nutrient value and from the term itself junk. Who knows what the manufacturers of these junk foods have added on their products so that consumers will compulsively come back to repetitively buy their products. Well, lets give the benefit of the doubt to them.
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personal injury Houston on 04/16/2010 06:36:16
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Junk food is just not good for our health.It is interesting to know about a research related to junk food.Yes it is true that sometimes people get addicted to junk food and gain their weight because of it.
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PVC Flooring on 04/16/2010 07:17:17
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It seemed as if, the more weight they gained, the more they had to eat to get the same level of satisfaction—like junkies who always need a bigger hit to maintain the same high.
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PVC Flooring on 04/16/2010 07:20:40
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This study does hold object lessons for the human obesity crisis.
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zj on 09/07/2010 02:32:24
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