Additives in fast food make it as addictive as drugs
Just what, exactly, is it about a cheeseburger, fries and a soft drink that's so hard to resist?
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You've vowed to eat fresh and clean, whether your intention is to lose weight, better your body or hike your health, but when you're out and it's dinner time, a drive thru or quick service counter seems to draw you in and make your healthy eating promise disappear.
Maybe it's the convenience, maybe it's the fact that you can get a meal for only a few dollars, but chances are - the quick (preservative-packed, high-calorie) menu options tickle your taste buds ... and your fancy.
There's not much to it: possibly bread, either beef, chicken or fish, a few veggies and some ketchup, plus a side of salty, greasy potatoes, but Americans cannot seem to keep away from fast food.
When you consume a fast food meal, you're also eating a side of additive ingredients that are, indeed, addictive.
Fast food items are "pumped full of flavor enhancements and colorings to make the cheap food appealing and edible," according to One Green Planet.
The publication cites five ingredients in fast food that cause your unstoppable cravings for fast ... and fattening fare.
Sugar in fast food is usually in the form of high fructose corn syrup and hydrogenated and partially hydrogenated oils. Sure enough, sugar can cause cravings similar and of the same intensity as addictive drugs, according to the US National Library of Medicine (USNLM).
"Research has revealed that sugar and sweet reward can not only substitute to addictive drugs, like cocaine, but can even be more rewarding and attractive," USNLM says. "The biological robustness in the neural substrates of sugar and sweet reward may be sufficient to explain why many people can have difficultly to control the consumption of foods high in sugar when continuously exposed to them."
The amount of fat in fast food, just like the calorie count, is way too high. Similar to sugar, fatty foods are addictive, too.
A report from Health.com says fast food affects the brain the same way as cocaine and heroin do.
Health.com reporter Sarah Klein spoke with Paul J. Kenny, Ph.D., an associate professor of molecular therapeutics at the Scripps Research Institute, who said eating junk food can overfill the "pleasure centers" in your brain.
"Eventually the pleasure centers 'crash,' and achieving the same pleasure - or even just feeling normal - requires increasing amounts of the drug or food," Kenny said.
He finds avoiding fast food takes more than just willpower, because your brain has a "system" that consuming fast food turns on, which drives overeating junk food "at some subconscious" level.
Salt is another ingredient (usually in the form of sodium chloride), that keeps the cost of fast food so low, but makes addiction to burgers and fries likely. Sodium chloride is added during the production of fast food as a preservative and to enhance flavor.
"Love of the salty taste is an addiction similar in quality to the addictions to alcohol, tobacco, sugar, caffeine and a host of others," says Dr. Ron Kennedy of the Anti-Aging Medicine Clinic in Santa Rosa. "The same principles apply to kicking the salt habit as apply to kicking any addiction."
The bright side, he believes, is that your preference for a salty flavor is learned rather than natural, meaning your desire can be unlearned with time.
4. Monosodium Glutamate (MSG)
MSG is one of the most common food additives among fast food and snack foods, used to make the flavor of foods more bold. Fast food, because it's highly processed, holds enough MSG to eventually cause skin rashes, hives, vomiting, asthma, hear irregularities, depression, seizures, migraines, chest pains and weakness, reports One Green Planet.
The report pins MSG as a hindrance of feeling full, meaning one serving may not seem like enough. Even after eating a hearty meal, consumption of MSG can keep your appetite going strong (cue: overeating).
MSG causes addictive habits because the more you eat, the longer it takes to feel satisfied. In other words, one fast food sandwich and a small order of fries won't always cut it. Your disguised, larger-than-life appetite gives false information to your brain, prolongs feeling full and leads you to order the largest menu items available ... and a milkshake, too.
One Green Planet calls casein the "nicotene" of fast food. The protein occurs naturally in cow milk, but fast food producers add calcium hydrogen phosphate (a chemical compound often used as an additive to preserve dog food), making casein quite concentrated.
Fast food companies often add casein to french fries, breads, milkshakes and salad dressings.
During digestion, casein breaks apart to release a host of opiates called casomorphins, according to The Physicians Committee in Washington, D.C.
"Stomach acid and intestinal bacteria snip the casein molecular chains into casomorphins of various lengths. One of them, a short string made up of just five amino acids, has about one-tenth the pain-killing potency of morphine," the group reports.
Opiates often bring a calming sensation, comfort and release to the brain; therefore, a psychological bond to their source: fast food.
Researchers at the University of Colorado Denver also found addiction to reach far beyond recreational drugs and into the realm of food. Fatty foods, in recent years, have become the target of cravings, a substitute for boredom and a "solution" for stress.
"There are overlaps in the brain pathways activated by palatable foods and drugs of abuse," Dr. Nicole Avena said. "Drugs act on brain systems that evolved to reinforce natural behaviors. Thus, the circuitry is in place for food to be addictive."
Another key player in the game of fast food addiction, according to the Scripps Research Institute, is dopamine.
Dopamine is another compound in fast food that stimulates the brain's flow of drug-like signals that make you feel relaxed and free, which puts your cravings for fast food into overdrive.
Scripps researchers find the "dopamine receptor known as subtype-2 (DRD2), is a neurotransmitter that plays a key role in the brain's reward centers, and can lead to pleasure producing behavior, such as drug abuse and overeating."
Web Editor Holly Pennebaker writes health and fitness content for WCPO Healthy Living.
Read more stories at www.wcpo.com/health, and follow Holly on Twitter: @HPennebaker