The brain is a complex and fascinating muscle, and a new study (report here) has demonstrated more than ever the effects eating junk food has on our pleasure and reward sensors. According to this research, the brain responds to junk food – in this case, Oreo cookies – in the same manner it responds to illicit drugs, that is, one hit is generally not enough.
So, how do we know? Researchers have shown that the pleasure centre of the brain, the nucleus accumbens, becomes just as activated in response to Oreos as it does to cocaine and morphine. The caveat here is that the small study has only, to date, been conducted on rats. The theory is however, if performed in humans, the results would be the same, and this goes a long way in explaining our undeniable urge to finish the whole block of chocolate, or whole packet of chips, without stopping at one or two.
During the study, when given the high-fat, sugary treat, the Oreos activated the reward cells in the rats’ brain more so than both cocaine or morphine, suggesting that this “sweet spot”, as food scientists call it, of the perfect combination of fat and sugar, is scientifically irresistible to our taste buds and brain reward centre.
So where does this leave us? Some commentators suggest that this discovery could have sweeping public health ramifications. Perhaps former Mayor Bloomberg was on to something with his failed soda ban – if humans are physiologically unable to stop themselves consuming foods and beverages that are appealing taste-wise but incredibly unhealthy for us, is it the role of government to step in and regulate how much of this junk we can buy? It opens the Pandora’s box of food legislation, and reignites the debate as to whether junk food should be heavily taxed, aka cigarettes and booze, so as to discourage consumption.
Whichever side of the fence you personally sit on with this argument, the research is alarming. If people cant help themselves, who will? Adding to this complex diaspora is the fact that junk food is arguably more cost effective, not to mention marketed much more, to lower income families, or those who simply aren’t interested enough in healthy eating to educate themselves about making healthful choices.
The biggest take-away from this? Food addiction is probably real, as least physiologically. Oh, and like humans, the rats gravitated to the creamy interior of the Oreo too.