Exploring the sense and nonsense of food and health

Are Fast Foods Addictive?

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When I read these two recent studies on fast food consumption, the big question comes to mind  is why do people continue to consume fast food when given the facts about the health risks and downsides of this unhealthy food habit.

Study One

Some controversy arose when the recent mandates that calorie labeling must be provided for each food item in restaurants with 20 or more locations were put into place in New York City.  A study was done at two low-income locations, one in NYC and the other in New Jersey before and after the mandate.  Researchers studied the fast food choices of 349 children and teens aged 1-17 for two weeks.  Why is a one-year old eating fast food?  Obviously, parents made the choices for the younger children.

Purchases were tallied at McDonald’s, Burger King, Wendy’s and Kentucky Fried Chicken.  The results showed that there were no differences in calories consumed before or after the labeling took effect.  Teens in NYC bought an average of 750 calories for each order before and 755 calories after the mandate.  Fifty-seven percent said they were aware of the calorie information, but only 9% used the information for their choices.  About 35% of the teens said they ate fast food six or more times a week.  Parents ordered 610 calories before and 595 after the mandate.  Reasons given for choosing fast food meals was mainly taste (75% of teens) and convenience (parents).

In another study of adults, only ¼ of them used calorie information when it was provided.  But another reported that parents ordered about 100 fewer calories per meal for 3-6 year olds when calorie information was present compared to parents without the information (a glimmer of hope).  As a result of the health care reform law, fast food restaurants in the U.S. will be required to post calorie, fat, sodium and other nutritional information on their menus.

Study Two

Fast food has been associated with the obesity problem and thus an increased risk of heart attacks.  Dr. John Spertus, a professor at the U. of Missouri, Kansas City and his colleagues surveyed approximately 2500 U.S. heart attack patients while still in the hospital.  One out of three (884) of them reported eating fast food once a week or more in the month before their attack.

Six months later, 503 of them were back eating fast foods every week.  The researchers found that most were more likely to be white, male, employed, and not college educated than those who were less likely to return to the fast food habit.  The patients who avoided the fast food return were usually older and had undergone bypass surgery.

The study did not ask which fast foods the patients selected and did not conclude that fast food causes heart attacks; however, it is surmised that fast food is not a healthy habit. (as we all know).

Most of the patients had received nutrition counseling in the hospital, but the type and amount of this advice was not mentioned in the study.  Dr. Spetus said, “the problem is that patients are absorbing so much information at the time of their heart attack, that I just don’t think they can capture and retain all the information they’re getting.”  When I did nutrition counseling in the hospital setting, we were given the diet order for the patient as the patient was packing to go home.  He or she was not at all interested at that time, but more anxious to leave the hospital than listen to more advice.  Source: The American Journal of Cardiology, online February 9, 2011.

Perhaps underlying both of the study results is fast food addiction. What is the evidence?  The only studies have been on animals.  Three groups of rats were fed different diets for 40 days.  One group ate healthy food while the second group ate small amounts of junk food. The third group was given unlimited high-fat, high-calorie foods and became obese.

The brains were examined for the effects of each of the diets and the researchers were surprised to find that the brains of the obese rats had changed.  Paul H. Kenny, an associate professor of molecular therapeutics at the Scripps Research Institute said: “When an animal over stimulates its brain pleasure centers with highly palatable food, the systems adapt by decreasing their activity.  However, now the animal requires constant stimulation from palatable food to avoid entering a persistent state of negative reward.”

Other studies have reinforced this theory. Perhaps that was what Morgan Spurlock was experiencing when he ate fast food for 30 days in the documentary,  Supersize Me. His doctor said, “It is not long before he (Morgan Spurlock) finds himself with a feeling of depression, and he claims that his bouts of depression, lethargy, and headaches are relieved by a McDonald’s meal. His general practitioner describes him as being “addicted.” 

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