The Student News Site of Clemson University

The Tiger

The Tiger

The Tiger

Tigra Scientifica: Food for Thought

Tigra Scientifica: Food for Thought
Courtesy of Owen Fox via Creative Commons

It’s mid-February. The bright fast food signs, the inviting hum of the vending machine and the delectably greasy aroma emanating from the Canteen are giving you second thoughts about your New Year’s resolution to eat healthier. Or maybe you’ve already thrown in the towel this year. 

Why is avoiding junk food so difficult? 

It might be larger than an issue of willpower; neuroscientists at Aalto University in Finland believe you can actually be addicted to junk food.

A recent study showed that the brains of obese people had far fewer µ-opioid receptors than did the brains of normal-weight people. µ-opioid receptors are on neurons (brain cells) and are responsible for that intense rush of pleasure you feel when you have sex, shoot up heroin or bite into a hamburger. All of these gratifications activate the same neurophysiological circuits. 

The study, published in the Journal of Neuroscience, concluded that, in terms of addiction, junk food can be just as dangerous as hard drugs.

Unfortunately, the human brain is wired to register a high level of reward when we ingest food with high fat or sugar content because of those elements’ extreme scarcity in the natural world. Junk food is particularly treacherous because the calorie-dense ingredients our palates crave are now available in limitless quantities — from the vending machine in your apartment building to the drive-thrus on every corner. 

We overdose on burgers, ice cream and Coke because we haven’t yet adapted to the fast food industry’s scientific quest to make us eat more of their products.

Modern food technology and the ubiquity of addictive foods have essentially “hijacked” our pleasure circuits. Fast food and soda corporations employ scientists to manipulate ingredients into unnaturally tasty, colorful, long-lasting products. In this way, this $200 billion-per-year industry exploits our evolutionary hardwiring for a staggering profit. But at what cost?

In a pattern consistent with the scientific literature on substance addiction, the threshold of gustatory pleasure depends on the person’s exposure to addictive foods. 

Just like drugs and alcohol, junk food can wear out the pleasure circuitry in the brain, requiring more and more to reach the same level of reward. This vicious cycle is responsible for junk food addiction and its ugly consequences: the epidemic proportions obesity, heart disease and Type 2 diabetes have reached in the United States and other “Westernized” countries.

But you have the power to change your eating habits. 

They are just that — habits. Habits can be broken if you place your long-term health above the ferocity with which you want to inhale that pile of cheese fries, or Doritos, or whatever your vice is. Once you understand the biology behind your cravings, it’s easier to hold yourself accountable for what you put in your mouth. In fact, the “Eat Well With Clemson Home” campaign is giving 50 free Paw Points to students for participating in a few Eat Well events at the dining halls. For more information, visit any Clemson dining location for a flyer.

Leave a Comment
Donate to The Tiger

Your donation will support the student journalists of Clemson University . Your contribution will allow us to purchase equipment and cover our annual website hosting costs.

More to Discover
Donate to The Tiger

Comments (0)

All The Tiger Picks Reader Picks Sort: Newest

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *