Are Americans Addicted to Fast Food?

This is a partial transcript of The Big Story With John Gibson, July 14, 2003, that has been edited for clarity. Click here to order the complete transcript.

JOHN GIBSON, HOST: Maybe you should shove that cheeseburger into a syringe. New studies are finding fast food junkies might actually be physically addicted to high-fat sugary diets.

Ann Kelly co-authored one of the studies on food addiction. She is a professor of psychiatry and neuroscience at the University of Wisconsin. The big question is: Are we really fast food junkies?

ANN KELLY, PROFESSOR, U. OF WISCONSIN: Well, I think it's a very difficult question to answer, but what research is showing, it seems, is that food has a very powerful chemical effect on the brain in a manner similar to some drugs. Now whether food is addictive, you can't say that about all foods and all people. Some people drink alcohol and don't get addicted.

GIBSON: I think I'm beginning to understand the French a little better. But seriously, what is it that fast food does to brains, to people that affects them different than just nutrition?

KELLY: It's really the fat, actually. And particularly the combination of fat with sugar or fat with salt that seems to have a very particular neurochemical effect in the brain. And what that does is to release certain chemicals that are similar to drugs, like heroin (search) and morphine (search). Some of you may have heard of endorphins (search)… they're actually quite similar to a narcotic drug. But these are natural chemicals in the brain that when we consume, just that taste of the fat, will immediately release these substances into the brain and actually make us have an emotional response to the food.

GIBSON: Well, in other words, it makes us feel good?

KELLY: Exactly.

GIBSON: While it's being bad for us?

KELLY: Well, obviously the over-consumption of this food leads to problems like obesity. The problem is that the brain evolution wasn't designed to have so much food around us in our environment. It was designed to find food as avidly as we could, particularly high-calorie food because you didn't know where your next meal was coming from.

GIBSON: Okay. But this is different than, let's say, eating broccoli or ...

KELLY: Completely.

GIBSON: Or eating a steak with no fat on it or eating something that even nutritionists would say is good for you.

KELLY: Yes. I mean, we've done studies with rats that show that it's this opioid-like system that is particularly responsive to sweet, salt, or fat or to combinations thereof. Proteins and carbohydrates don't seem to be involved in this chemical system. So it really is the fat and the fat-sweet combination.

GIBSON: Now I know you've done this research, but it appears that the food industry has got there ahead of you. They figured this out a long time ago.

KELLY: Oh, yes. Well, I'm not sure if they knew about the research a long time ago because this is really quite recent research… But we've all known for a long time, just intuitively, that fat tastes great. There is something about fat. Basically we've known that intuitively for decades, maybe hundreds of years. But now what we're learning is the facts behind that.

GIBSON: Now, if you are a heroin addict, you can take some other drug that gets you off of it or something that substitutes for it.

KELLY: Right.

GIBSON: Are you leaning toward research which would tell us how we can wean ourselves off of this terrible addiction we've gotten into?

KELLY: Yes. I really hope that my type of research and the research of many other lands will lead to this ultimate goal. Of course, we'll need food companies and the public and education programs to address this problem. But pharmaceutical companies could take the research, hopefully, and try to design drug treatments that could help curb our appetite. But it is incredibly difficult. No one has been able to do it, with all the research we have so far, all the drug companies out there that would make billions if they could get this, this magic bullet. It hasn't happened yet. But that really is the goal. Can we understand the complexity of the brain's response to food, these addictive foods? If we can understand that, maybe we really can develop treatments that will help us curb our appetite for these substances.

GIBSON: Ann Kelly, a professor of psychiatry and neuroscience at the University of Wisconsin. I'll let you go, Ann, so you can get back to work.

KELLY: Oh, thank you.

GIBSON: We need that drug. Thanks a lot.

KELLY: Thank you.

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