It's not surprising that processed foods are designed to foster addictive behavior -- robbing us of our health, serenity and hard-earned cash. Sugar, fat, salt and artificial flavors are manipulated in such a way that after one taste, consumers just cannot help themselves and a vicious cycle begins. Not only ingredients, but texture, shape and 'mouth feel' are all heavily researched and refined to create a highly pleasurable experience as well. Even though the average American does not view junk food as an addiction, researchers have discovered unhealthy food can actually seize the brain in the same way nicotine, cocaine and other drugs do -- leaving us at the mercy of cravings and binges.
Processed food - The devil is in the details
Consider "sensory-specific satiety." Industry developers label this holy grail the 'bliss point.' The idea is where a food does does not completely satisfy, but is pleasurable enough to induce cravings. Michael Moss explains in the New York Times article, "The Extraordinary Science of Addictive Junk Food:"
"The biggest hits - be they Coca-Cola or Doritos - owe their success to complex formulas that pique the taste buds enough to be alluring but don't have a distinct, overriding single flavor that tells the brain to stop eating."
Interestingly, nicotine and narcotic addictions hijack the brain in a similar fashion.
Irresistible allure of engineered edibles
Nora Volkow, director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse, believes there is a "tremendous overlap between drugs in the brain and food in the brain." A good example is found with research at The Scripps Research Institute. The investigation showed "...the same molecular mechanisms that drive people into drug addiction are behind the compulsion to overeat, pushing people into obesity." During the three year experiment, rats were fed either a nutritious diet or one that was extremely unhealthy yet very palatable. According to Associate Professor Paul J. Kenny:
"In the study, the animals completely lost control over their eating behavior, the primary hallmark of addiction. They continued to overeat even when they anticipated receiving electric shocks, highlighting just how motivated they were to consume the palatable food."
Kenny continues, "what happens in addiction is lethally simple. The reward pathways in the brain have been so overstimulated that the system basically turns on itself, adapting to the new reality of addiction, whether its cocaine or cupcakes ... These findings confirm what we and many others have suspected, that overconsumption of highly pleasurable food triggers addiction-like neuroadaptive responses in brain reward circuitries, driving the development of compulsive eating."
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