Wednesday, July 16, 2003

Does junk food make us junkies?

‘Fast food can be as addictive as hard drugs, claims new research,’ reported the UK Independent on 14 July. According to the research, consuming fat and sugar can have the same biochemical effects in the brain as heroin or cocaine. This suggests that high-profile lawsuits against fast food chains might yet succeed.

Despite the headlines, the research is not based on studying humans, but rats. All that can be concluded from these studies is that pleasurable experiences, like eating food, have a biochemical expression in our brains. It is quite another thing to say that the production of dopamine and other neurochemicals turns us into slobbering wrecks who can’t pass McDonalds or KFC without consuming a calorie-loaded meal with all the trimmings.

Nor is there anything wrong with fast food in particular. Food rich in fat and sugar is just as likely to be found on the menus of the finest restaurants. Yet no-one has described the problem of addiction at three-star Michelin restaurants. Or are we to believe that the well-to-do are now shunning the dessert tray and the cheese board?

In fact, the notion of addiction is, in principle, wrong. It suggests that behaviour that was once considered a matter of personal choice, like eating, drinking and smoking, is in fact determined by inanimate objects. Something in the things that we consume, or the activities we undertake, interacts with our brains in a way that by-passes any conscious intervention.

Such an understanding is extremely useful to those who want to avoid responsibility for their actions – and their legal representatives. It’s not easy being fat, especially when you have to face criticism for your lack of self-discipline. How much easier if you can blame the food, and the people that make it? However, people do cut down on food, stop drinking and smoking – yes, even quit hard drugs – everyday.

Eating too much can be a problem in extreme cases. But pleading addiction won’t help a bit.

Fast food can be as addictive as hard drugs, claims new research, Independent, 14 July 2003

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