Sugar rush: are we addicted to junk food?

Ten years ago, US lawyers started lining up against fast food giants, saying their clients had been duped into becoming fat. At the time, the claimants were derided as weak-willed and gluttonous, so out of court settlements were made and the stories slipped from the newsstands.

Now there is established scientific evidence that fast food acts on the brain in the same way as drugs. People who regularly eat a diet high in sugar and fat find it difficult to return to more nutritious meals. So perhaps there’s more to why you fancy that fizzy drink and burger after all …

In 2009, neuroscientist Dr. Paul Kenny published work he had begun at Guy’s Hospital in London on eating behaviours. He discovered the part of the brain triggered when casual drug users become addicted was the same in overeating rats. His research also showed that pleasure receptors affected in the obese rats were the same as those in human drug addicts. The rats gorged themselves on high fat and sugar food, becoming increasingly fatter.

According to the Department of Health, obesity costs the NHS £5.1 billion per year, around 5% of the entire budget. Increased waistlines bring a raft of potential health problems, with diabetes one of the most dangerous. Of the 76,000 diabetes-related deaths last year, 24,000 were categorised as “avoidable”.

Failure to attend medical check-ups, as well as a lack of health education, contribute to complications in diabetes. However, regular exercise and eating a healthy diet are effective in avoiding complications. It sounds so simple, but why are so many people failing?

Last month, the University of Oxford and the University of Southern California published research revealing countries which used glucose fructose syrup had a 20% higher prevalence of type 2 diabetes. Alarmingly, this was regardless of sugar intake or weight. Glucose fructose syrup can be found in many foods including ice cream, biscuits, cereals and ketchups. It is an industrially altered fructose, which in turn becomes much sweeter than sugar. A side effect of the processing means that it interferes with the body’s ability to recognise fullness.

In short, particular processed foods stop our body from recognising it is full, give us the same satisfaction as taking illegal drugs, and therefore increase our chances of getting type 2 diabetes by 20%.Dr Paul Kenny continues his work from Florida at The Scripps Research Institute, saying:

“If we can understand how and why food preference shifts so profoundly from less palatable healthy food, to high calorie ‘junk’ food, we may identify new treatments for obesity and type 2 diabetes.”

As a society it is often said that the UK is 10 years behind America, and perhaps this is true. Whilst litigation is popular across the pond, we may plump for legislation instead. It appears the story is much more complicated than “calories on, exercise off.”

Perhaps now the evidence is available, members of Parliament and other government officials should start to ask more questions about how certain ingredients effect our bodies, not only for the health of individuals, but for the health of the NHS as well.


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August 2022
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