Junk Food Addiction As Real As Drug Addiction, But Less Cool


A growing body of evidence indicates that there’s a reason it’s so hard for so many people to just stop eating junk food— it’s just as addictive as illegal drugs. This changes everything. Chocoholism is real, and it’s no laughing matter, Cathy cartoons. All those songs you thought were coded odes to heroin and cocaine? Actually about cake and potato chips. There cheese goes. There cheese goes again.

Researchers have studied the effects of highly processed, mostly artificial foods on the brains of humans and animals and have found that consuming empty calories like those found in junk food causes a neural feedback loop that looks a lot like the neural feedback loop of a person or animal that is completely tweaked out. One study found that lab rats hepped up on frosting were more likely to choose sugar than cocaine, if given the option. Junk food junkies continued to crave the stuff long after consuming it. Further, the more junk food is consumed, the more the brain builds up a tolerance for the food, and thus the more food is required to produce the same amount of brain pleasure. Call it the law of diminishing marginal utility, or call it addiction; it has researchers concerned and you wondering if you have time to run out and grab a moon pie before lunch.

Joking aside, lot of money’s on the line here. On one side, you have the $1 trillion snack food industry, led by the likes of PepsiCo and Coca Cola and an army of aggressive underserved youth clutching bags of Flamin’ Hot Cheetos in one hand and Mountain Dew: Code Black in the other. On another side, a pharmaceutical industry salivating over the profit potential of an entirely new family of drugs that will help people overcome “food addiction,” or, if not overcome it, treat it forever. And there are also the lawyers who can’t wait to sue the snack food industry for $MONACO on behalf of thousands of overweight and obese Americans who will use their lawsuit winnings to buy new flat screen teevees.

Manufacturers of crap that’s bad for you counter that they make plenty of healthier snack foods and that choosing to overindulge is the fault of consumers, not some deliberate effort on their part to make sure consumers became chemically dependent on their foods. Meanwhile, 80% of PepsiCo’s profits come from sales of their junkiest junk food, and a publicly traded company is accountable to its investors before it is accountable to the general public, and PepsiCo’s investors want more profits. Therefore, it makes sense that the company isn’t actually trying to tell people all about its low fat options; it’s trying to make as much money as possible, and there’s more money to be made convincing people that Doritos are delicious than tut tutting people into only eating snacks sometimes when they’re always delicious. For example, right now, you’re not drinking Wild Cherry Pepsi, and you could be. Doesn’t that bother you a little bit?

Junk food manufacturers (should we be referring to them as “dealers?”) are taking this new wave of research seriously, collaborating to fund something called, hilariously, The World Sugar Research Organization, which has concluded that sugar is delicious and that there’s nothing addicting about it. Others’ skepticism toward the idea of junk food addiction comes from observation — no one has robbed a bank to buy a Big Gulp, and junk food does not cause you to think Black Moth Super Rainbow has made the dancinest album of all time or that the carpet has feelings and that if we keep walking on it we are diminishing our own humanity.

More research is warranted, but in the meantime, let’s consider the implications of this research. Maybe when Trent Reznor sang about the perfect drug, he meant cheeseburgers. And speaking of cheeseburgers, my god, can someone get those internet cats the help and treatment they need?

Fatty Foods as Addictive as Cocaine in Studies [Bloomberg]

Image by Anna Sedneva/Shutterstock

Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Share Tweet Submit Pin