090313 Fastfood "Harmful" and as "Addictive" as Alcohol & Tobacco?

March 7, 2009

(ThirdAge) A few years ago, a 56-year old diabetic and double heart attack victim, filed a class-action suit against McDonald's, Burger King, Wendy's, and KFC, claiming they were to blame for his ill health. He had eaten in their establishments for years, he said, without ever being told that their food could have a negative impact on his health.

On the face of it, law suits like this seem beyond frivolous, a way to work the legal system in order to compensate for personal lack of control and common sense. Surely everyone should realize that a Big Mac is not a health food just as they should grasp that parking yourself in front of the TV for 28 hours a week - as the average American does - is not a healthful activity.

Perhaps. But as it turns out, there is some evidence fast food may be just as harmful and addictive as tobacco or alcohol. Emerging research suggests that the brain can become hardwired to crave a hit of extra crispy chicken just as it might any addictive substance. In one study done at Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York City, researchers found that feeding rats a diet similar in composition to the typical fast food meal -- that is, high in calories, saturated fat, and sugar -- lowered their ability to respond to leptin, a hormone that signals the hypothalamus gland to regulate eating behavior. The fatter the rats got, the more leptin they produced. This sent their hypothalamus glands into overdrive which in turn sent their brains the mixed up signal they were in danger of starvation. The result: overeating and excessive weight gain.

The researchers discovered that improper leptin response kicked in after the rats ate only a few high fat meals and that the fatter the rats became, the more resistant they were to leptin's effects, and the harder it was to reverse the trend. However, the biological, psychological and social processes of eating and hunger are complex and leptin is only one factor of many that govern the process of appetite and weight gain.

To date, all legal cases brought against purveyors of fast food have been dismissed due to lack of merit. While the addictive qualities of tobacco are clear, burger-and-fries dependency remains in question. Additional research is needed before the theory of fast food addiction is proven beyond a shadow of a doubt. And ultimately, with so many forms of junk and fast foods available, it may be difficult to assign blame.