Processed food is everywhere you turn. Worldwide. And now there’s something new to consider. Cheeseburgers and milk shakes may alter the brain as much as hard drugs.
As heroin or cocaine users need to up their intake to get high, junk food also becomes addictive by altering dopamine receptors.
Like many pleasurable behaviors—including sex and drug use—eating can trigger the release of dopamine, a feel-good neurotransmitter in the brain.
This internal chemical reward, in turn, increases the likelihood that the associated action will eventually become habitual through positive reinforcement conditioning.
“The products have become much more processed and manufactured and therefore energy-dense, and they have worked out what things to add like sugar, salt and fat and a whole bunch of other chemicals to make it tasty.
“The brain’s reward pathways are over-stimulated. As a result the reward pathways become hypo-functional, they just don’t work as well, ” says obesity expert Professor Boyd Swinburn.
The one-two punch might be the neural effects of combining sugars and fats.
The Department of Molecular Therapeutics at Scripps is analyzing many of the food items widely available today:
They found, for example, that animals binge-eating fats and animals binge-eating sugars experience different physiological effects. They affect the brain in very different ways.
“This energy-dense stuff is very new to us as a species. It’s probably corrupting brain circuitry.”