Junk Food Addiction – A Growing Threat

Posted on December 19th, 2009
Posted in Eating Disorders

Junk Food Addiction – A Growing ThreatAre we really a nation of fatties, growing proportionately heavier each passing year? It would certainly seem so, based on evidence gathered in national nutrition and health surveys conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). In addition, numerous researchers have studied the phenomenon of overweight, obesity and other illnesses for decades, trying to unlock the clues to our insatiable appetites. One culprit isn’t that difficult to identify: junk food. In fact, it could be said that Americans, overall, have an addiction to junk food. Even more, the addiction is growing.

When Did the Trend toward Overweight Start?

Many authors point to the late 1980s as the start of the plumping of America. Among them is Dr. David Kessler, former head of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), whose book, The End of Overeating: Taking Control of the Insatiable American Appetite,” begins with some startling statistics. Citing CDC data on health and nutrition status of Americans from 1988-91 that showed one-third of the U.S. population aged 20 to 74 weighed too much, Dr. Kessler maintains that overweight numbers spiked during the period from 1960 and 2000.

In 1960, women between the ages of 20 and 29 had an average weight of 128 pounds. By the year 2000, the average weight for this age group had ballooned to 157 pounds. Similar trends occurred in the 40 to 49 age group, with average weight going from 142 in 1960 to 169 in 2000. Even more striking was evidence that adults with significant weight gain began with eating patterns established in childhood and early adolescence.

Certainly the availability of food, increasing portion size, the trend toward eating outside the home and the proliferation of fast-food and take-out restaurants that began in the 1970s had a lot to do with the burgeoning size of Americans. High-fat, high-sugar foods were, and are, cheaper than healthier alternatives. But if the food consumed was healthy and not loaded with salt, fat and sugar, the result may have been different.

But Dr. Kessler’s book is about more than simple statistics and history. He goes on to state that our bodies and minds are changed as we eat foods containing salt, fat and sugar. Some of the book’s chapter titles are quite revealing in themselves. Chapter Six is titled, “Sugar, Fat and Salt are Reinforcing.” Chapters 11 and 12 are “Emotions Make Food Memorable” and “Rewarding Foods Rewire the Brain.” Jump to Part Three and the titles get more specific, “Conditioned Hypereating Emerges” and “The Culture of Overeating.” But this is a book about what to do to counteract our propensity to stuff empty calories into our mouths, so the book then shifts toward “Food Rehab” in Part Five and “The End of Overeating” in Part Six.

What Makes Junk Food Addictive

Researchers James A. Cocores and Mark S. Gold, in “The Salted Food Addiction Hypothesis,” published in Medical Hypotheses (doi:10.1016/j.mehy.2009.06.09), put forth that addiction to salted food may explain overeating and the obesity epidemic. They conclude that “salted food may be an addictive substance that stimulates opiate and dopamine receptors in the brain’s reward and pleasure center more than it is ‘tasty,’ while salted food preference, urges, craving and hunger may be manifestations of opiate withdrawal.” Both, however, stimulate appetite, increase consumption of calories, and add to incidence of overweight, obesity and related illnesses, according to the authors.

In a recent article in Mother Nature Network, “Junk Food Junkies,” author Jessica A. Knoblauch reports on a study presented at the Society for Neuroscience that rats given an unlimited access to junk food displayed behaviors similar to rats addicted to heroin. Coauthors of the study were Paul Johnson and Paul Kenney of the Scripps Research Institute. The rats in the study were fed junk food diets consisting of items such as bacon and cheesecake, while the control group rats were fed healthy food. Predictably, the junk food rats became addicted as well as obese. They even continued to eat the junk food despite receiving a shock to the foot. Control-group rats, on the other hand, avoided junk food (which was not given to them initially) after receiving a foot shock.

Study researchers found that even weeks after the junk food diet was stopped, the addicted rats still had “reward pathway deficits.” As coauthor Kenney put it, “This is the hallmark of addiction.”

How Junk Food Harms the Body

Craving salt, sugar or fat, we seldom think about the consequences of indulging in our obsession for junk food. That’s a mistake, since eating junk food on a consistent basis not only contributes significantly to overweight and obesity, but also many health concerns.

  • High cholesterol – Cholesterol levels that are too high form plaque and constrict arteries. High cholesterol also affects the liver in that the strain of removing the cholesterol eventually damages the liver. Such damage has a long-term effect.
  • Heart attack – Plaque formation in arteries is a direct consequence of a consistent diet of junk food. Excessive plaque formation in heart arteries puts additional strain on the heart to pump blood upstream and downstream and often results in myocardial infarction, or a severe heart attack. Less well known is the effect of minor junk food consumption, although with the mounting evidence about the bad effects of junk food, it’s only reasonable to assume that consumption of junk food at any level is potentially unhealthy.
  • No energy – After you eat a pile of junk food – a whole bag of sugar-laden, packaged cookies, or bag after bag of highly-salted potato chips, Big Macs and fries, hot fudge sundae or bags of chocolate, etc. – you will probably feel a brief spike in energy. That will quickly be followed by a rapid decrease in energy level as the sugar, fat or salt high dissipates. The immediate satiation, while it feels good, doesn’t last and it’s loaded with empty calories – and no nutritional value. The result is that you soon feel weak or like you have no energy, and the cycle of eating junk food begins again.
  • Inability to concentrate – Another common effect of eating junk food is the feeling of shutting down. This applies to our brain’s ability to concentrate or focus. Loading up on fatty oils causes us to feel drowsy, as if all we want to do is sleep. Accumulation of fat after sustained periods of eating junk food causes blood circulation to slow. Lacking sufficient oxygen from proper blood circulation, brain cells go on a temporary hiatus. We’re unable to concentrate. All this is due to stuffing ourselves with junk food.

Steps to Avoid Junk Food

Regardless of whether junk food is an addiction or just bad conditioning or both, there are steps we can take to help eliminate or avoid junk food in our everyday lives. Some of these tips are self-evident, yet they are, perhaps, difficult to remind ourselves to do. Nevertheless, instituting some good habits in place of bad ones can go a long way toward curbing our appetite for so-called junk foods.

  • Get rid of junk food in the home. – Go through the entire house and eliminate any junk food that you have stashed in cupboards, drawers, the pantry, refrigerator, freezer and places like purses, briefcases and even the car. If it’s not there, you at least have a fighting chance to keep the empty calories from finding their way into your mouth when hunger cravings set in.
  • Replace junk food with healthy alternatives. – Countering the vacuum left by trashing the junk food isn’t as difficult as you think. There simply has to be a substitute. In this case, stock the refrigerator with fresh fruit and vegetables. Keep handy the fixings for salads, finger foods such as raw carrots and celery, snacks such as apples, oranges, grapes and berries.
  • Eat meals at regular times. – Having a routine and sticking to it are important to controlling the urge to eat anytime you feel like it. Make mealtime special with attractively arranged platters of vegetables and fresh fruit, lit candles, low music for ambience, and quiet conversation. When it’s something special, mealtime reinforces positive behavior. For example, associating eating healthy meals with feeling good is excellent conditioning.
  • Cut down exposure to junk food advertising. – This may be a bit more challenging, as it’s unlikely you can mute the television every time a fast-food or junk food commercial comes on. Still, it’s a good idea to attempt to do so, or change the channel during the commercial. Even better, if you have a DVR or Tivo, fast-forward to eliminate commercials altogether. If you don’t see it or hear it, you may help yourself and your family members to avoid the subconscious conditioning that presages binging on junk food.
  • Ensure healthy meals at schools. – Parents should work with school administrators to ensure that meals served at schools and at school events are healthy and not laden with empty calories, sugar, fats and salt. Insisting on educational materials in the schools on healthy eating alternatives is another proactive thing parents can do to help children learn about food and good eating habits.
  • Make fitness part of your life. – Instead of looking at exercise as a chore or associating it with losing weight or dieting, nutrition experts recommend that we develop an awareness of fitness and make it a part of our lives. It’s no secret that you feel good after strenuous exercise. That’s due to the endorphins released in our brain’s feel-good or pleasure center and it’s a natural and completely healthy way to reward ourselves while doing something beneficial. Walking, hiking, biking, swimming, playing golf, tennis or other sports is easy to do, alone or with friends, is generally no-cost or inexpensive (especially compared to expensive gym memberships), and can be easily slotted into busy schedules. It’s also fun. In no time at all, fitness will be a part of your regular routine.
  • Seek help from a registered dietician. – Managing a healthy diet and incorporating it into your lifestyle may seem like a monumental task. Get help from a registered dietician or talk with your general practitioner. They can assist you in creating a plan to eating healthy foods while still providing sufficient energy, nutrition and satisfying your hunger.
  • Enlist professional help for persistent addiction. – If none of the previously mentioned tips help rid you of your junk food addiction, go one step further and seek professional help in the form of treatment for an eating disorder. Even if you only get a consultation, use it to discuss what’s going on with you, the attempts you’ve made to overcome your non-healthy eating habit, and gain any insight you can into how to change your behavior. You may be able to benefit from short-term outpatient treatment, attendance at 12-step group meetings or other counseling.

Getting Over Junk Food Addiction

Finally, recognize that addiction to junk food didn’t occur overnight. It took time, years of conditioning that probably began in childhood or early adolescence. It will take some time to overcome as well. Don’t look at addiction to junk food as a lack of character or willpower. It isn’t either of those. But it is an addition, nonetheless. While it may have biological and/or familial or social origins, addiction to eating junk food is as real as addiction to any other substance.

In summary, eliminate access to junk food, replace junk food with healthy alternatives, incorporate fitness into your life, and seek professional assistance to help change unhealthy eating habits. Above all, stay positive, be motivated, and give your new focus on eating healthy time to work.

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