Fast food. It’s a name synonymous with the golden arches, fried chicken and assembly line sandwiches. In the United States alone, consumers spent $110 billion on fast food in 2000.
Addiction or Not?
With all the fast food that is consumed annually, it’s no wonder that people have a hard time stepping away from the Big Mac. But does this classify as an addiction? Can people really be addicted to fast food?
There is much debate about whether this is a self control issue or a genuine addiction. In a USA Today editorial, Sally Satel said that it’s just not an addiction.
It is true that people can “crave” pizza as they might a cigarette, that they feel weak and shaky when calories (or heroin) “wear off” and that they sometimes consume fries (or cocaine) compulsively. But these facile comparisons tell us little about the nature of overeating. Instead, they show how the term “addiction” can be stretched until it becomes meaningless. Virtually every pleasure we encounter – listening to beautiful music, sex, even exercise – is associated with surges of dopamine similar to those during a high-fat meal. But we call these pleasures, not addictions. Scientists cannot look at dopamine levels or brain scans and tell the difference.
However some studies have shown that there could be an addiction afloat. Those studies, which tested the effects of junk food on rats, indicated that the rats exhibited signs of withdrawal when the food was taken away, something that researchers say could indicate an addiction.
According to Dr. Ann Kelley, rats “love the high-fat food and they eat and eat. We found there are actually brain changes that are elicited by exposure to a chronic high-fat diet.” She believes that it is possible to compare the findings about rats to humans; making it very plausible that humans can become addicted to high-sugar and fatty foods. “Those particular types of food – the fat and the sugar – are really the culprits,” she said. “They’re responsible for the behavioral changes that occur, the obesity, and also the brain changes that look like addiction.” Bart G. Hoebel, a neuroscientist from Princeton University, led a similar study into sugar addiction, which was published in the journal Obesity Research in June 2002. Again, rats were used, and were gradually fed a diet with increasing amounts of sugar. The more sugar given, the quicker the rats ate it and when it was suddenly withdrawn from their food, they experienced “addiction-type” reactions, such as chattering teeth, anxiety and shaking. According to Hoebel, sugar triggers the production of the brain’s natural opioids. “We think that is a key to the addiction process,” he said. “The brain is getting addicted to its own opioids as it would to morphine or heroin. Drugs give a bigger effect, but it is essentially the same process.”Health implications
Okay, so whether or not you agree that fast food is an addictive substance, knowing the ins and outs of why it’s bad is important. Besides being saturated with calories and fat, fast food is often loaded with sodium – another big dietary no-no. Websites like Diet Facts, Fat Calories and Food Facts offer glimpses of the nutrition of common fast food items. For instance, a 12 inch BLT sub from Blimpie carries a whopping 1,180 calories, 64 grams of fat, and 3,200 miligrams of sodium, according to Fat Calories. Meanwhile, according to Diet Facts, a bacon cheeseburger from Sonic is 727 calories, and has 49 grams of fat and 1,433 miligrams of sodium.
Recent studies by the U.S. Agriculture Department now link obesity to soft drink consumption for the first time. The studies show that students drink soda instead of eating healthy meals, and then eat more food later because they are not filled up. So students are drinking more sugar and syrup and eating more food than they would if they just ate a regular lunch.Breaking the habit So how do you stop the cycle and quit your fast food habit, addiction or whatever you wish to label it as?
The first step to tackling a problem with fast food is acknowledging that it is indeed a problem. The harder part comes in facing the problem. One way to face and correct it is to give up fast food altogether, cold turkey. If you are armed with research on why fast food is so bad for you and backed up with your reasons for not wanting to consume it any longer then this is not only possible, but it can be downright easy… in the short term. In the long term, you will need self-control to maintain your dedication to avoiding the simple ease of drive throughs.
You will also need to accept that there will be setbacks. It’s what you do with those setbacks that really count – pick yourself up and keep moving forward. It’s generally accepted that it takes 21 days to form a habit. If you want to reconfigure your fast food habit as a healthy eating habit, this is how many consecutive days you’ll need to push through. If this cold turkey approach isn’t for you though, one doctor suggests a fast to cleanse the body.
Clinical psychologist Douglas Lisle, PhD, says that at the TrueNorth Health Center in Rohnert Park, Calif., where he is director of research, patients have had the most success through “therapeutic fasting” – in essence, rebooting the “hard drive” in their brain through a period of water-only fasting in a medically supervised setting, followed by the introduction of a diet emphasizing fresh fruits, vegetables, whole grains, beans, nuts, and seeds. (The process is described at TrueNorth’s web site, www.healthpromoting.com).
If you need more incentive, rent Super Size Me. Coincidentally, according to the Super Size Me website, “You would have to walk for seven hours straight to burn off a Super Sized Coke, fries and Big Mac.” ’nuff said.