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Like heroin, junk food may 'hijack' our brains
Angela Mulholland, News Staff

In the second installment in our Psychology of Food series, Angela
Mulholland looks into how sweet, salty and fatty foods can change the
way we eat and think.

A little over a month ago, a group of rats living in Florida became
mini celebrities.

They were ordinary in every way except these rats had developed a deep
love for sausages, fries, cheesecake, candy bars -- just about any
junk food you could send their way. In fact, the rats were so hooked,
they led the research team studying them to conclude that junk food
could become as addictive as heroin.

The rats had spent weeks eating only unhealthy foods and had grown to
love them so much, they were even willing to withstand electrical
shocks to get at them. Even more surprising was that when the junk
food was suddenly taken away from them and replaced with healthy food,
the rodents refused to eat altogether.

"The change in their diet preference was so great that they basically
starved themselves for two weeks after they were cut off from junk
food," recounted the lead researcher, neuropsychopharmacologist Paul
J. Kenny of the Scripps Research Institute.

•Have you struggled with over-eating or food addiction? We'd like to
hear your stories. Send us an email and we may post it online.
Kenny's team had other evidence that junk food could become addictive.
They noted that when they studied the rats' brains, they showed
distinct addiction-like changes, with altered D2 dopamine receptors,
like those seen in heroin addicts who had developed a tolerance for
the drug.

Like addicts, the more junk food the rats ate, the more they
overloaded their brains' reward centre, and so the more food the rats
wanted. The researchers concluded that junk food could become as
addictive as drugs.

Media outlets pounced on the story. And while it was a study that had
many people talking, it also made waves in the medical world among
experts who study the root causes of obesity.

These animals preferred to eat nothing than to eat healthy.

-- Dr. Valerie Taylor

Dr. Valerie Taylor, an assistant professor in psychiatry and
behavioural neuroscience at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ont. says
the study offered groundbreaking evidence that certain foods can
override the circuitry of the brain.

"That study has done a lot to get people to think a little differently
about the whole concept of addiction and whether it's possible to
become addicted to food. So the science is starting to catch up with
what those of us who work clinically have seen for a while," she told by phone.

"These animals preferred to eat nothing than to eat healthy. They'd
been programmed that way, which is fairly significant. And it goes to
show why some people really have difficulty sticking to a diet. It can
be impossible."

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