Hitting the press this week, results of a peer-reviewed study from the Scripps Institute contending that Ho-Ho’s and junk food in general are food heroin.
The headline in Science News: “Junk Food Turns Rats into Addicts” made me want to pull up a Nutty Bar and read more. Investigators contend that if you give a rat bacon, a Ho-Ho or cheesecake, he’ll soon be knifing his fellow rats in the alley for more money for the vending machine.
To prove the addictive powers of junk food, researchers went to the grocery store and picked up a bunch of bad-for-you-but-oh-so-tasty foods like sausage, cake, bacon and Ho-Hos. They divided rats into two groups: unlimited junk food versus yummy “high nutrient, low calorie” chow.
What they found was the Ho-Ho rats started eating with abandon. They become compulsive about ingesting cheesecake, and they would even endure an electric foot shock to get their fix. Standard chow-fed rats who were allowed to have only the occasional nibble of something tasty and were not as willing to be shocked for the sake of a Frito.
As Ho-Ho rats continued eating, it took more and more junk to achieve a “high”. And once the junk food was removed and the rats were offered only the high nutrient, low calorie chow, they simply stopped eating; as I might if offered edible cardboard after cheesecake and Doritos.
Researchers suggested that this study was “the most complete evidence to date” suggesting that both obesity and drug addiction have similar neurologic causes.
Perhaps. These findings are certainly compelling, but it is important to remember that humans aren’t rats. Our brains are similar, not identical. Most humans won’t ever be addicted to anything. While rats are clever, humans are capable of informed, learned, nuanced behavior.
Are these studies a fair fight? There’s no question – at least in humans – that most would choose to eat something tasty versus something pasty, and that has nothing to do with addiction. Nevertheless, as I reach for another Tootsie Roll, I am unsettled. Am I an addict? Are you?
Victoria Rentel, MD (Student Health Services)