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What is it about fast food that makes it so hard to resist?
When we eat fast food, we’re also consuming hidden ingredients that have addictive qualities. Fast food items are “pumped full of flavor enhancements and colorings to make the cheap food appealing and edible,” according to One Green Planet. These foods contain five ingredients that increase our cravings:
- Sugar – Sugars in fast food are usually in the form of high fructose corn syrup. Sugar can cause cravings similar to and of the same intensity as addictive drugs, according to the US National Library of Medicine (USNLM). “Research has revealed that sugar and sweet rewards can not only substitute for addictive drugs, like cocaine, but can even be more rewarding and attractive,” USNLM says. “The biological robustness in the neural substrates of sugar and sweet rewards may be sufficient to explain why many people can have difficulty controlling the consumption of foods high in sugar when continuously exposed to them.”
- Fat – Fatty foods are addictive, too. Paul J. Kenny, Ph.D., an associate professor of molecular therapeutics at the Scripps Research Institute, said that eating junk food can overfill the “pleasure centers” in your brain. According to Kenny, eventually the pleasure centers ‘crash,’ and achieving the same pleasure – or even just feeling normal – requires increasing amounts of the drug or food. He also said that the brain has a “system” that consuming fast food turns on, which drives overeating junk food “at some subconscious” level.
- Salt – Salt is another ingredient (usually in the form of sodium chloride), that keeps the cost of fast food low, but increases the likelihood of fast food addiction. Sodium chloride is added during the production of fast food as a preservative and to enhance flavor. “Love of the salty taste is an addiction similar in quality to addictions to alcohol, tobacco, sugar, caffeine and a host of others,” says Dr. Ron Kennedy of the Anti-Aging Medicine Clinic. “The same principles apply to kicking the salt habit as apply to kicking any addiction.” Luckily, our preference for a salty flavor is learned rather than innate, he added, meaning that our desire can be unlearned with time.
- Monosodium Glutamate (MSG) – MSG is one of the most common food additives in fast food and snack foods, used to make the flavor of foods more bold. Fast food, because it’s highly processed, holds enough MSG to eventually cause skin rashes, hives, vomiting, asthma, cardiac irregularities, depression, seizures, migraines, chest pains and weakness, reports One Green Planet. The report says that MSG interferes with our ability to detect when we’re feeling full, meaning one serving may not leave us feeling satisfied – we crave more and we eat more.
- Casein – One Green Planet calls casein the “nicotine” of fast food. The protein occurs naturally in cow milk, but fast food producers add calcium hydrogen phosphate (a chemical compound often used as an additive to preserve dog food), making casein quite concentrated. Fast food companies often add casein to french fries, breads, milkshakes and salad dressings. During digestion, casein breaks apart to release a host of opiates called casomorphins, according to The Physicians Committee in Washington, D.C. “Stomach acid and intestinal bacteria snip the casein molecular chains into casomorphins of various lengths. One of them, a short string made up of just five amino acids, has about one-tenth the pain-killing potency of morphine,” the group reports.
Researchers at the University of Colorado Denver also found addiction to reach far beyond recreational drugs and into the realm of food. Fatty foods, in recent years, have become the target of cravings, a substitute for boredom, and a “solution” for stress. “There are overlaps in the brain pathways activated by palatable foods and drugs of abuse,” Dr. Nicole Avena said. “Drugs act on brain systems that evolved to reinforce natural behaviors. Thus, the circuitry is in place for food to be addictive.”
Dr Joseph Mercola, an alternative medicine proponent and osteopathic physician wrote, in a recent article titled The Extraordinary Science of Addictive Junk Food, that “poor willpower is NOT necessarily what drives you to overeat on junk food. An in-depth investigation into the processed food industry reveals that there’s a conscious effort on behalf of food manufacturers to get you hooked on foods that are convenient and inexpensive to make. Sugar, salt and fat are the top three substances making processed foods so addictive. Sugar alone has been shown to be more addictive than cocaine, and food manufacturers use sophisticated taste science to determine the “bliss point” that makes you crave more.”
Dr Mercola quotes investigative reporter Michael Moss, author of the book Salt Sugar Fat, who said, regarding his four-year-long investigation into the processed food industry, “The optimum amount of sugar in a product became known as the ‘bliss point.’ Food inventors and scientists spend a huge amount of time formulating the perfect amount of sugar that will send us over the moon, and send products flying off the shelves…When it came to fat, it was the amazing role of what the industry calls the ‘mouth feel’, the warm, gooey taste of cheese, or the bite into a crisp fried chicken. It rushes to the same pleasure centers of the brain that sugar does…”
Dr Barbara Berkeley, author of Refuse to Regain firmly believes that what she terms ‘S foods’ (sugars and starches) are highly addictive: “I have yet to meet a patient who has told me that he or she is addicted to apples, salmon, or spinach. On the other hand, it is rare to meet a patient who does not use the language of addiction when describing his or her relationship to chocolate, cookies, pasta, or bread.”
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With your continued health in mind,
Doreen Lerner, Ph.D.
Director, The Institute for Lifelong Weight Management
Creator, The Full Mind Weigh™ to Lifelong Weight Management
The Institute for Lifelong Weight Management provides education and training. The Full Mind Weigh™ is strictly an educational program and is not a substitute for medical or psychological evaluation or treatment. If you think you may be suffering from an eating disorder, please consult with a qualified mental health professional who is trained to evaluate and treat eating disorders.