Sorry this post was late. While writing it, I kept stopping to run to the kitchen and fry up more bacon and eggs. So far I’ve had a pound of bacon and 12 eggs. And yet … uh-oh … I feel that irresistible urge coming on again. Excuse me.
Okay, make that a pound-and-a-half of bacon and 15 eggs. Dang, fatty food is so addicting. Once you start, it takes real willpower to stop. That’s why I’m always telling my wife not to buy more than two dozen eggs at a time; at least I know I’ll stop at 24.
If that sounds ridiculous, it’s only because it is ridiculous. It’s a rare human being who goes bonkers eating protein and fat — unless the protein and fat are spiked with plenty of sugar and starch. But you wouldn’t know that from reading the media stories this week about yet another badly-designed study:
Fatty foods may cause cocaine-like addiction
Scientists have finally confirmed what the rest of us have suspected for years: Bacon, cheesecake, and other delicious yet fattening foods may be addictive.
A new study in rats suggests that high-fat, high-calorie foods affect the brain in much the same way as cocaine and heroin. When rats consume these foods in great enough quantities, it leads to compulsive eating habits that resemble drug addiction, the study found.
So, it’s the fat that’s addicting, eh?
Before we get into the science (and lack thereof) in this study, let’s take a moment and think about some real-world examples of binge eating. I tried to find a list of the top binge-eating foods online and couldn’t, but my Google searches pulled up plenty of confessions by binge-eaters. I kept seeing the same foods listed: ice cream, cookies, mashed potatoes, pizza, cereals, chips, french fries, sandwiches of all kinds, and of course, soda. Here’s one binge-eater’s list for her latest episode:
7 Clif bars, huge bowl of cereal, pb&j sandwich, 1 large fry, 1 medium fry, 1 hamburger, 1 whopper, 1 order of onion rings, 1 starbucks frapp, 1 lean cuisine pizza.
Thank goodness the pizza was Lean Cuisine.
I used to eat entire large pizzas (not Lean Cuisine) by myself. I’d buy the “party size” bag of Doritos and finish the bag, despite commanding myself to save at least half of it for another night. At movie theaters that offered free popcorn refills, I’d go through two large bags during a two-hour movie. I’ve also eaten huge bowls of ice cream, then gone back for more. Marlon Brando, a famous binge eater, used to eat ice cream by the gallon. He once ate so much ice cream so quickly, he froze his esophagus and had to be hospitalized.
Some years ago, my aunt had just finished making a big bowl of mashed potatoes when a friend dropped by. The friend asked if she could try a spoonful of the mashed potatoes, and my aunt said okay. As they were talking, the friend kept taking another spoonful … then another … then another … until she’d literally eaten the entire bowl. She had to know she was doing it, and I’m sure she was embarrassed. But she couldn’t stop. Her brain was screaming at her to keep eating.
Now, you could point out that pizza, potato chips, mashed potatoes and ice cream are full of fat, and you’d be right. But it’s not the fat that enables us to eat huge helpings of those foods without feeling satisfied; it’s the sugar and starch. As Dr. Mike Eades pointed out in our first interview, if you give the average person a stick of butter and tell him to eat the whole thing, he’ll probably gag long before can finish. But stir in some powdered sugar to turn that butter into frosting, and suddenly he can eat the whole thing — and ask for more. That’s exactly what happened in this study:
One of the groups was fed regular rat food. A second was fed bacon, sausage, cheesecake, frosting, and other fattening, high-calorie foods–but only for one hour each day. The third group was allowed to pig out on the unhealthy foods for up to 23 hours a day.
Cheesecake and frosting? Well, yes, those have some fat in them. They’re also full of sugar. I looked up nutrition information for The Cheesecake Factory and found that a single slice of their cherry or raspberry cheesecakes contain 25-30 grams of fat and 100 grams of carbohydrates — that’s the same sugar blast you’d get from drinking a liter of Coca-Cola.
As for frosting, check out this nutrition label for Betty Crocker chocolate frosting. Two little ol’ tablespoons give you almost as much sugar as an 8-ounce soda, but only five grams of fat. If rats pig out on this stuff, I’m supposed to believe it was the fat driving them to eat?
If you’re busy spending grant money to find out if fat is addicting — for rats, anyway — then you should limit at least one group of rats to the bacon and sausage. But that’s not what the researchers did. In the full text of the study, they describe the diet:
The cafeteria diet consisted of bacon, sausage, cheesecake, pound cake, frosting and chocolate.
Bacon, cheesecake … same thing.
I read the whole study, and nowhere did the authors specify which of these “high-fat” foods the rats preferred. They apparently measured what the rats consumed very carefully, but didn’t bother to report if they ate more bacon or cheesecake. I think I can guess. And even if they ate plenty of bacon, their appetites would’ve been ramped up by the cheesecake and frosting. As it turns out, their appetites were so overpowering, they would eat even if it hurt:
They began to eat compulsively, to the point where they continued to do so in the face of pain. When the researchers applied an electric shock to the rats’ feet in the presence of the food, the rats in the first two groups were frightened away from eating. But the obese rats were not. “Their attention was solely focused on consuming food,” says Kenny.
Well, yeah, Dr. Kenny, that can happen when your blood sugar is taking a roller-coaster ride. I knew I was going to hate myself after eating that “party-size” bag of Doritos, but I did it anyway. You could’ve shocked my feet and I would’ve just kicked at you between bites.
The researchers referred to the cafeteria diet as “palatable high-fat diet.” (You are allowed at this point to picture rats loading up their trays in a cafeteria and then engaging in a food fight.) In Good Calories, Bad Calories, Gary Taubes explains why “palatable” foods that provoke insulin spikes can make us hungrier even as we eat them:
Since insulin plays the critical role in our post-absorption responses to particular foods, it’s not surprising that insulin may play the critical role in our determination of palatability. A little-discussed observation in obesity research is that insulin is secreted in waves from the pancreas. The first wave begins within seconds of eating a “palatable” food, and well before the glucose actually enters the bloodstream. It lasts for perhaps twenty minutes. After this first wave ebbs, insulin secretion slowly builds back up into a more measured second wave, which lasts for several hours. The apparent function of the first insulin wave is to prime the body for what’s coming…
Le Magnen described this first wave of insulin as increasing “the metabolic background of hunger.” In other words, this wave of insulin shuts down the mobilization of fat from the adipose tissue and stores away blood glucose in preparation for the arrival of still more. This leaves the circulation relatively depleted of nutrients. As a result, hunger increases. And this seems to make the food taste even better…
As long as we respond to the carbohydrates by secreting more insulin, we continue to remove nutrients from our bloodstream in expectation of the arrival of more, so we remain hungry, or at least absent of any feeling of satiation. It’s not so much that the fat fills us up as that carbohydrates prevent satiety, and so we remain hungry.
That’s how you can end up eating two large bags of popcorn … or a heapin’ helpin’ of cheesecake with a side of sausage. But I double-dog-dare ya to sit down and eat 24 eggs fried in butter.
The references to a “cocaine-like addiction” come from observations the researchers made as to how all that cafeteria food affected the little rat brains:
Not surprisingly, the rats that gorged themselves on the human food quickly became obese. But their brains also changed. By monitoring implanted brain electrodes, the researchers found that the rats in the third group gradually developed a tolerance to the pleasure the food gave them and had to eat more to experience a high.
In previous studies, rats have exhibited similar brain changes when given unlimited access to cocaine or heroin. And rats have similarly ignored punishment to continue consuming cocaine, the researchers note.
First off, if you read the entire study, you’ll notice that the rats were something the researchers call “knockdown” rats. There are a few paragraphs of scientific gobbledygook explaining the process, but what it means is that they gave the rats a little poke in the brain with a virus to make them more vulnerable to developing compulsive behaviors.
Secondly, as I noted earlier, they never told us how much cheesecake and frosting the rats consumed — and sugar has already been shown to produce a “cocaine-like addiction.” (And we’re talking sugar here, not sugar mixed with fat.)
Cocaine makes you feel good by washing your brain with feel-good neurotransmitters like serotonin and dopamine. That’s why Julia Ross, author of The Mood Cure, treats addicts with serotonin or tryptophan, a precursor for serotonin. And guess what? Refined carbohydrates can have the same effect. Nora Gedgaudas describes the process in one of her blog posts:
Serotonin is manufactured throughout the body and brain (95% actually produced in the gut) from the amino acid L-tryptophan and vitamin B6. Iron, too, is needed for this conversion. It just so happens that L-tryptophan (devoid in grains, by the way) is the single most deficient amino acid in our diets. Faulty digestion in many people and poor hydrochloric acid production also very commonly lead to such amino acid deficiencies. Carbohydrate consumption (sugar and starch) create a temporary surge in serotonin and concentration of tryptophan in the bloodstream and brain–leading to a temporary improvement in mood. All this sounds good until you realize that carbohydrates do nothing to manufacture new serotonin and only serve to deplete it and perpetuate additional carbohydrate cravings over time.
Which means there’s another reason to keep eating sugar even if some guy in a lab coat is shocking your little ol’ feet … your is brain happy, even if your feet aren’t.
Amazingly, the same news story that blames the addictive behavior on fat contradicts itself a few paragraphs later:
The fact that junk food could provoke this response isn’t entirely surprising, says Dr.Gene-Jack Wang, M.D., the chair of the medical department at the U.S. Department of Energy’s Brookhaven National Laboratory, in Upton, New York. “We make our food very similar to cocaine now,” he says.
Coca leaves have been used since ancient times, he points out, but people learned to purify or alter cocaine to deliver it more efficiently to their brains (by injecting or smoking it, for instance). This made the drug more addictive.
According to Wang, food has evolved in a similar way. “We purify our food,” he says. “Our ancestors ate whole grains, but we’re eating white bread. American Indians ate corn; we eat corn syrup.”
White bread? Corn syrup? Does the writer consider those high-fat foods? Were the rats fed purified bacon? Add it all up, and I’d say we’re looking at some brain-altered rats going sugar-crazy. The “high-fat” part of the equation had nothing to do with it. It’s a bad study, badly reported.
Now if you’ll excuse me, there are still six more eggs left in the refrigerator. (It’s a “refriga-lator” according to my four-year-old. I’d better get more fat into that kid’s brain.)