How Sick Does Junk Food Make Us?

Did You Know…this common habit causes more deaths worldwide than war, starvation, or murder—and no, it’s not smoking?

The Lay’s slogan—Bet you can’t eat just one!—doesn’t just apply to potato chips.  Junk food is engineered to be literally addictive.  And that, according to a new study, is a problem that can be downright deadly.  Groundbreaking new research indicates obesity is even deadlier than we previously thought.

Shocking Research Reveals
How Food Rewires Your Brain

     Researchers from the School of Medical Sciences at the University of New South Wales (UNSW) in Australia found that certain foods re-wire reward circuits in your brain.  Consuming what the researchers called the “cafeteria diet” caused lasting changes to the areas of the brain that process motivational control and reward behavior.  Over time, these alterations make it more likely you will become obese.

We All Scream for Ice Cream… Again… and Again… 

For the study, one group of rats ate standard rat chow, while the other group feasted on the “cafeteria diet” made up of high-fat, calorically rich, commercially available foods—both savory and sweet.  The UNSW team used “Pavlovian conditioning tests” to get the rats to associate a sound cue with the next serving of food.  The control group, who ate the standard, nutritionally sound diet, ignored the sound cue when they had already been fed.  The rats eating the “cafeteria diet” did not, they responded by consuming the next serving, even after reaching the point of physical satiation.

“It’s like you’ve just had ice cream for lunch, yet you still go out and eat more when you hear the ice cream van come by,” commented Margaret Morris, an author on the study. Though the study participants were rats, not humans, all mammals share similarities in the orbitofrontal cortex.  The orbitofrontal cortex processes information about the pleasurable aspects of food, meaning the UNSW findings likely apply to us, too.

What’s More Deadly Than War, Famine, and a Century of Mass Murders Combined? 

Historians have calculated that 203 million people died over the course of the last century as the result of war and oppression.  To arrive at that number, they combined all casualties of…

 War (both military and civilian)
 Politicide (the extermination of people who hold a certain political belief)
 Mass murders

On average, the above factors accounted for 2 million deaths each year.  By contrast, at least 3.4 million adults die annually from conditions related to obesity.  Put simply, fat kills nearly twice as many people as the united forces of war, famine, dictators, murderers, and power-hungry politicians. 

Defeating this insidious foe will not be easy.  “As the global obesity epidemic intensifies, advertisements may have a greater effect on people who are overweight and make snacks like chocolate bars harder to resist,” stated the UNSW study’s lead author Dr. Amy Reichelt.

More research is needed to determine whether the changes to brain circuitry caused by unhealthy eating can be undone.  It may be unpleasant to fight a strongly conditioned habit, but data tells us doing so is truly a matter of life or death.