Are you dying for a fix of burger and chips?
There’s one problem with the experiments ‘confirming’ that junk food is addictive: humans aren’t the same as rats.
Ever since Caesar Barger sued McDonald’s, Wendy’s, KFC, and Burger King in 2002 on the grounds they marketed addictive food, anti-obesity crusaders have been trying to make the case that fast food, or so-called ‘junk food’, is addictive. And it’s now official. One national newspaper headline recently declared: ‘Junk food as addictive as heroin and smoking.’
The new ‘evidence’ comes from researchers Paul Johnson and Paul Kenny at the Scripps Research Institute in Florida. Johnson and Kenny fed one group of rats normal rat food, and two other groups of rats were given either restricted access or open access to energy-dense food preferred by humans.
Rats that were given free rein of the human energy-dense food consumed twice as many calories as the rats who ate only rat food. When the rats who were fed junk food were placed on a nutritious diet they ‘refused to eat’, according to Kenny. The refusal was explained by the fact that the rat’s brain circuitry – specifically the dopamine D2 receptor – had been altered by eating the junk food, much as using heroin changes neural circuitry.
As Kenny told the press, ‘These findings confirm… overconsumption of highly pleasurable food triggers addiction-like neuroadaptive responses in brain reward circuitries, driving the development of compulsive eating… Common mechanisms may therefore underlie obesity and drug addiction.’
The claim that junk food, which in practise constitutes whatever particular food one doesn’t like, is addictive first made its public debut in a February 2003 New Scientist article, which reported on various pieces of research that claimed to show that ‘early exposure to fatty food could reconfigure children’s bodies so that they always choose fatty foods… This suggests that children fed kids’ meals at fast-food restaurants are more likely to grow up to be burger-scoffing adults.’
The claim has been taken up in a variety of other places as well. Dr Neil Barnard, president of the activist group Physicians’ Committee for Responsible Medicine, claims: ‘Food really is physically addictive: chocolate, meat and sugar act like drugs… It’s not gluttony, weak will… that keeps us tied to certain foods. There is a biochemical reason many of us feel we can’t live without our daily meat, cheese, or sugar fix.’ Anti-tobacco lawyers John Banzhaf and Richard Daynard have also claimed that junk food is addictive.
Proving that junk food is addictive is a crucial final step in the War on Obesity. As long as the debate over obesity is framed in terms of choice, autonomy, and responsibility, the advocates of aggressive and overwhelming state action will face considerable problems getting many of their policy proposals accepted. So addiction provides the final piece of evidence that potentially can shift this debate, since it disposes once and for all of those annoying counterarguments about eating being a matter of choice and personal responsibility being a viable solution to the problem of overeating.
Addiction, if it means anything in the obesity debate, means that one is not responsible for one’s eating decisions. Eating is not a personal choice, but a manipulated outcome in which Big Food, just like Big Tobacco, hooks us to its products. And, the logic goes, as a manipulated outcome, it deserves to be regulated, if not completely outlawed, by the state.
But, if you smell a rat regarding the American ‘evidence’, you are on to something. There are a number of problems with Johnson and Kenny’s rat study.
In humans, as opposed to rats, even the potent drug addictions to which food addiction is supposedly similar, according to Johnson and Kenny, do not compel behaviour at all. Humans routinely stop being addicted to any number of things. And that makes all the difference.
Patrick Basham and John Luik are authors, with Gio Gori, of Diet Nation: Exposing the Obesity Crusade, a Social Affairs Unit book. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).) Patrick Basham directs the Democracy Institute and is a Cato Institute adjunct scholar. John Luik is a Democracy Institute senior fellow.
Previously on spiked
Rob Lyons looked at the junk science behind the attack on junk food. Patrick Basham and John Luik criticised the idea of an obesity epidemic. They also reviewed 2009, a year of myths about smoking and obesity, and examined new research which taught obesity hysterics. Dr Michael Fitzpatrick said we should stop bullying fat kids. Peter Marsh asked what’s behind the sensationalist child obesity headlines. Or read more at spiked issue Obesity.
Press release for Breaking the Food Seduction: The Hidden Reasons Behind Food Cravings, Neal Barnard, Macmillan (New York), 2004
‘Food Addiction’, NutraIngredients.com, 29 March 2010
‘Junk food as addictive as heroin and smoking’, Daily Telegraph, 29 March 2010
‘Dopamine D2 receptors in addiction-lie reward dysfunction and compulsive eating in obese rats’, Paul Johnson and Paul Kenny, Nature Neuroscience, 28 March 2010
‘Burgers on the Brain’, New Scientist, 1 February 2003
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‘Cocaine self-administration in dopamine transporter knock-out mice’, Rocha, Nature Neuroscience, 1998
Heroin Addiction, Gerry Stimson and Edna Oppenheimer, Tavistock (London), 1982
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