“Junk food could be addictive 'like heroin',” screams one news headline today above a story describing a new study in the journal Nature Neuroscience. Researchers at the Scripps Research Institute in Florida found that rats fed high-fat diets exhibited “addiction” symptoms, lost control, and overate. Get ready for the hyperbole.
Common use of the term “addiction” has changed from describing a physical dependence on a substance (like hard drugs), to a psychological dependence. That’s one reason comparing fried chicken and french fries to cocaine and heroin is pure exaggeration. Here’s how DrugFree.org explains withdrawal symptoms that heroin users frequently experience:
[Withdrawal] produces drug craving, restlessness, muscle and bone pain, insomnia, diarrhea and vomiting, cold flashes with goose bumps ("cold turkey"), kicking movements ("kicking the habit"), and other symptoms … Sudden withdrawal by heavily dependent users who are in poor health can be fatal.
Does going one day without a cookie or a slice of pizza give anyone the shakes? We're skeptical.
Food can certainly be “irresistible.” But it’s possible to have a psychological addiction to just about anything. A certain song. The cute guy or girl you see in class. Your Blackberry. The human mind works in mysterious ways.
Food is physically addictive in the general sense that you need to eat or you’ll die. But fulfilling hunger pangs is hardly a bad thing. It seems that delicious food would obviously be more appealing than food that tastes bland. Along those lines, Andrew Brown at London’s Daily Telegraph makes an interesting point:
It strikes me as a waste of time to study food to find some “addictive” property it may have, as if this offers an answer to compulsive use. Surely for any substance that’s pleasurable, there’s a person in the world who’ll take it compulsively. What are you going to do – ban all pleasurable substances? Or make them very expensive?
Maybe not ban, but certainly sue. Classifying certain food as “addictive” is a ploy already in use by some trial lawyers. The latest “addiction” study is eerily similar to newspaper headlines seven years ago. Back then, John “Sue the Bastards” Banzhaf saw food “addiction” as the necessary hook for “obesity lawsuits” to succeed in court. Prove that food companies make an addicting product, the logic goes, and a super-sized payday awaits.
We should note that the implications of this latest research hurts one class of people the greatest: Those trying to lose weight. They’re essentially being told that it’s a Sisyphean task with no chance of success. But let’s face some common sense: People have more self-control than rats.