Fast food is everywhere! From the golden arches, you pass on the way to work to pre-packaged, sugary, ready-to-eat treats at your local gas station. These foods have something in common. They’re all cheaply priced, highly processed, and have little nutritional value. In fact, they contain lots of additives and fillers that could potentially be harmful to the gut microbiome. But if you look at the lines that form at drive-thrus, you’ll see it’s still popular and people keep coming back for more. Those $1.00 meals are easy on the budget. Yet, saving a little short-term could come back to haunt you later with higher medical bills and downtime due to illness.
Is it worth eating fast food now and paying for it later? It’s no secret that fast food isn’t good for anyone at any age, but people seemingly ignore the health risks and continue to line up for steaming burgers and crispy packs of fries. Is it the convenience, the price, or is it that fast food is addictive in the same way drugs, alcohol, and smoking are?
Fast Food: A Habit or an Addiction?
That fast food is addictive isn’t as far-fetched as it sounds. Some research suggests that Happy Meals and other ultra-processed foods have the power to hijack the brain and alter eating habits at a physiological level. Studies in animals already show sugar lights up the pleasure areas of the brain, and once we experience pleasure, our brain keeps asking for more. This happens, for example, when we sip on a soft drink loaded with sugar.
It’s not just the soft drinks and milkshakes that contain sugar at fast food joints, even the French fries have sugar sprinkled on them. Unless you order a hamburger without the bun, you’ll likely get a surge in blood sugar after eating a fast food meal too and that bodes poorly for metabolic health. But what happens at the level of the brain? Scientists are raising the question of whether fast food, like sugar, is addictive.
Can Fast Food Hijack Your Brain?
Studies in rats show sugar overstimulates pleasure centers in the brain in much the same way alcohol, some prescription medications, recreational drugs, and smoking do. In one study, researchers indulged rats with sugar and then stopped offering the rats sugar treats after the rats had become accustomed to consuming it. In other tests, they gave the rodents a drug that blocked the pleasure receptors in the brain that sugar activates. In response, the rats experienced physical signs of withdrawal. They became nervous and shaky until their source of sugar was restored.
Why would a sugar-addicted animal develop withdrawal symptoms? Each time an animal consumes sugar, and potentially junk food or fast food, the reward centers in their brains release dopamine. If the same happens in humans, you’ll get a surge in dopamine release when you dip those fast food fries into sugary ketchup and wash it down with a soft drink.
But if you keep consuming sugary or junky foods that stimulate dopamine release, your brain will eventually compensate. It starts pulling in dopamine receptors to restore balance in the brain. Now, to get the same feeling of reward, you have to eat more sugar or junk food because there are fewer dopamine receptors around. That’s when cravings become a problem! You crave the sugar and foods that light up the pleasure centers in your brain. Addiction occurs when an animal or human has a continued urge to seek out the substance they’re craving, even if it’s potentially harmful to health.
Suppose you can’t get your next fast food or sugar fix? You feel blue and anxious because you have fewer dopamine receptors and dopamine activity in your brain. In response, you have strong cravings for the foods that you think will give you that desired feeling of reward. So, you seek out that substance to restore feelings of well-being. At least in animals, withdrawal from fast food causes physical symptoms as well.
It’s easy to see how this cycle of repeatedly stimulating your brain with junk food and your brain responding by pulling in dopamine receptors keep you coming back for more fast food. Is there a way out of this cycle? We can’t say with certainty fast food is addictive in humans. Most of the studies showing physical addiction to substances like sugar in fast food were carried out in animals. But there are people who habitually eat fast food and have a hard time breaking away from it.
Just as it’s difficult to quit smoking or stop using alcohol, breaking free of the fast food habit is challenging too. Fast food and junk food manufacturers design food with just the right combination of sugar, salt, fat, and flavorings to activate taste buds and dopamine receptors. These foods hijack our taste buds too. When you’re accustomed to hyperpalatable foods, natural foods that aren’t enhanced fail to excite the taste buds.
Breaking Free of Fast Food Once and for All
Regardless of whether fast food is an addiction or simply a bad habit, the best way to break it is to stay away from it. As Michael Moss, author of Salt Sugar Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us points out the taste for fast food can be unlearned. According to him, it takes about 6 weeks of eating healthier foods to break the urge to consume fast food and junk food. Once weaned off hyperpalatable foods loaded with sugar, fat, and salt, your palate again learns to appreciate simpler fare.
The Bottom Line
Whether it’s an addiction or not, the fast food habit is firmly ingrained. Yet, we can, by avoiding hyperpalatable foods, reduce our cravings for junk food, fast food, and sugar. Just remind yourself, you don’t need them!
· Psychology Today. “7 Reasons We Can’t Turn Down Fast Food”
· Neuropsychopharmacology. 2016 Dec;41(13):2977-2986. doi: 10.1038/npp.2016.111. Epub 2016 Jul 7.
· Current Opinion in Clinical Nutrition and Metabolic Care: July 2010 – Volume 13 – Issue 4 – p 359–365.
· Curr Drug Abuse Rev. 2011 Sep;4(3):146-62.
· Med Hypotheses. 2009 May;72(5):518-26. doi: 10.1016/j.mehy.2008.11.035. Epub 2009 Feb 14.
· WebMD.com. “Break Your Junk-Food Addiction”
· Salt Sugar Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us. Michael Moss. February 26, 2013.
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