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Surprising Science

Obesity is an Addiction, Just Like Smoking

Government authorities now claim that certain foods contain the same addictive properties as certain drugs. Recent advances in neuroscience seem to support their conclusions.

What’s the Latest Development?

While nutritionists and addiction specialists have long drawn a line between drug addiction and obesity, government health authorities now believe they are essentially the same conditions for some people. Earlier this year, secretary of health Kathleen Sebelius said that obesity can be ‘an addiction just like smoking.’ Dr. Nora Volkow, director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse, has made the case that “food and drug addictions have much in common, particularly in the way that both disrupt the parts of the brain involved in pleasure and self-control.” In experiments, Princeton researchers have found that taking rats off sugary food is like taking them off an opium regimen.

What’s the Big Idea?

Not all food is equally addictive, notes Dr. Kelly D. Brownell, director of Yale’s Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity: “We don’t abuse lettuce, turnips and oranges. But when a highly processed food is eaten, the body may go haywire. Nobody abuses corn as far as I know, but when you process it into Cheetos, what happens?” On an evolutionary time scale, processed foods with specific combinations of fats and salts, designed specifically to tempt our taste buds, are seductively brand new. “Dr. Brownell says that the brain science should lead us to question how food companies are manipulating their products to get us hooked.”

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