Hamburger Habit, Part II


According to the Obesity Policy Report (by way of, the lead author of the unpublished study that the New York Post cites in its article equating hamburgers and heroin says his work was taken out of context:

Addiction is kind of a vague term, and we obviously can't say that we've proven that you can become addicted to food. All we found is that there are similar findings between this high-fat diet we gave the rats and what you see after similar schedules of morphine in rats….

We have no idea what it does to their behavior necessarily. We're exploring that in the future. All we have right now are the parallel changes in the biochemistry.

Do we really need to look at rat brains or rat behavior to know that people often have trouble resisting tasty foods? That they crave them and feel worse without them? That they try to cut back in an effort to lose weight but often "relapse" because of the pleasure and comfort the food provides? Few facets of life in 21st century America are more familiar than the conflict between the enjoyment of food and the desire to be thin. Burgers and fries are addictive in the sense that any source of pleasure (or relief) can be the focus of a hard-to-break habit. The question is, so what?

NEXT: The World's Most Dangerous Theory

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  1. The real issue is:

    What even makes your neighbors obesity YOUR problem?

    Answer – the government.

    When you are compelled to pay for the results of ANOTHER person’s poor choices – you tend to want to regulate that other person’s behavior – and that sets off the constant need for government to address the problems it’s intervention caused with yet MORE intervention.

    Welcome to America – that’ll be 50% of everything please.

  2. What we really need to do is control those rats. They’re into everything.

  3. I dont know if anyone has seen the latest research concernining coerced 12 step programs on drug addicted rats. This obviouly has proven that drug treatment works. Mises anticipated such interventionism in Liberalism, viz, the logic of drug prohibition would be extended to other areas.

  4. Jacob–

    I think what drives research on neurobiological mechanisms of addiction (in general) is the hope that such mechanisms can be pharmacologically or otherwise manipulated to facilitate recovery. (BTW-I absolutely agree with you that “addicts” are at most a small subset of all drug users, but for those that are “addicted” this can be a serious health problem, regardless of whether it is physical or psychological in nature.) The translational validity of studies in rats to the human case of “addiction” is certainly debatable, but absent some major advances in technology and radical changes in human subjects ethics, animal models are the best we have to go on.

    In other words, I don’t think the point of the research is to establish that fatty foods are hard to resist, but rather to establish a rationale for “fixing the problem.”

    I do think it’s a bit silly to take this approach with fatty foods, however. Do they intend to use methadone to treat obesity?

    I would be very suspicious of any doctor that would propose short-circuiting the pleasure centers in the brain (VTA, MFB, etc.) as a therapeutic approach to much of anything except–MAYBE–a life-threatening drug problem.

  5. It’s a mistake to assume that the urge to continue to eat very fatty and very salty foods is entirely driven by pleasure-seeking. Our brains are hardwired to crave these things, from hunter-gatherer days. I can remember back in my McDonalds eating days, the feeling of disappointment at the taste of the food, after I’d been craving it all day.

    The relevance of this study to compulsive drug taking is obvious to anyone who doesn’t have an ideological ax to grind.

  6. Well, I for one admit I’m addicted to food. I can get real cranky and even skinny during withdrawal. Addiction of course in the clinical sense: “Fun, enjoyable.”

    Food has also become habituating for me. I even have certain times of day when I ingest it. I need to ingest it, if only to keep up with excretion! So food is even worse than addicting, it is habit forming. I get hunger pangs when I try to go without.

    Here’s the best part: food is worse for you than drugs. That’s right, if we assume away moderation (just like with drugs) and assume every user is an out of control addict, than obesity is killing and making sick more people than drug use.

  7. Joe, you are an ignoramus.

  8. Joe:

    Think about what you just wrote. To paraphrase, you say eating is not about pleasure seeking. It’s about being hard-wired to seek pleasure.


    Animals who crave food don’t starve, this is true. Fortunately, the cool thing about being a homo (sapien, that is), is that we have the ability to weigh our immediate wants and desires (ice-cream) against our future wants and desires (good health).

    The study only serves to enable those who don’t want to take responsibility for their own actions. That, and to demonstrate how useless the word “addiction” is.

  9. You’re missing my point, Josh. It’s not pleasure-seeking, it’s compulsion. Obviously, we’re hardwired to seek pleasure. That’s pretty well understood. What is less understood is the process by which people feel “compelled” to engage in behaviors that don’t result in pleasure. Even after my 200th or 300th trip to McSpew, I still walked in anticipating really, really good food. If there was nothing else intervening, I would have realized at that point that I really don’t like that stuff.

  10. I don’t think Joe is talking about a compulsion, just a habit. Habits are behaviors that have continued after their initial triggering stimulus has stopped.

    Smoking, drug use, eating, all have compulsions associated with them (getting a necessary level of nicotine, heroin, or life sustaining food into you) and habit (it’s 12 noon, time for my big mac and fries, or the new Reason’s here, time to bust out the needle).

  11. Joe:

    OK, I see the difference, but most people eat McDonald’s because they like it or they consider it easier than eating healthy.

    C’mon, were you *really* expecting the big mac to taste better than the last time every day? Or did you simply go out of habit, like popping a zit?

    Ultimately, even compulsive behavior is a choice, as is evidenced by the fact you mention your McDonald’s “addiction” in the past tense.

    Which brings me back to the study: What is its relevence? Sure, I have an ideoligical ax to grind, but all this study means to me is that habits like drug use, fast food, a d popping zits can all be changed, moderated, and stopped altogether by the individual.

    Is that the obvious relevence you’re talking about?

  12. POV matters. In fact, if it was a pro-drug crusader that made this study, I imagine the findings to be reported something like this:

    The question we need to be asking ourselves, if a Big Mac is as addictive as heroin, do we need to worry about it? Obviously, some people can have a Big Mac habit and manage to avoid robbing a liquor store to pay the clown for a burger. Some eat a little too much, but not enough to interfere with their personal lives. Some people eat the unhealthy proccessed burgers and remain in excellent shape. I know some people who tried it once, didn’t like the flavor, and never had another bite again (the still, however, like the fries). If you can resist the needle as easily as resisting a burger, then why the hell is the needle so feared?

  13. You know, Mo has a point (even though he might not have intended it that way)…the study is really looking at things backwards…

    We have evolved “reward circuitry” in our brains that is activated by certain behaviors that–at least in the greater context of our history as a species–have promoted our survival: namely, eating well and having sex.

    Individuals whose reward circuits were activated by jumping from great heights, fighting with large predators, or playing in fire probably died out a long time ago. Similarly, people who didn’t get much out of eating or screwing probably didn’t last long, or at least didn’t produce offspring.

    And since abundance of food is a relatively recent development, having a taste for fat was very advantagous throughout most of our history.

    Drugs with abuse potential tend to activate the same reward circuits that have helped us survive. So really, we should say that heroin is as rewarding (and therefore, potentially addictive) as fatty food.

  14. Joe the whole purpose of this research is to provide more scientistic approval for drug prohibition. They have been searching for a pharmacological cure to addiction for quite some time, they dont seem to understand that people have various reasons to use drugs destructively. Research for a cure for addiction if it were ever found, would obviously be imposed on people against their will. This whole approach to human affairs is frightening.

  15. Phil–

    I think maybe your tinfoil hat is on a little too tight.

    Just because the government may twist some research to its own sinister ends, don’t assume that the researchers themselves have that agenda in mind. Most of the people in this field (and I know a few of them) are out to either:

    1. Help people for whom drug use is problematic (which as I stated above, is a small subset of all users), or

    2. Better understand the biology of behavior, of which addictive/pleasure-seeking/reward-seeking behavior is just one aspect.

    Granted, there are definitely some researchers in this area that have been very successful telling the gov’t exactly what they want to hear, but there is far from a consensus in the scientific community as to the biological nature of “addiction” and how (or whether) to treat it.

  16. Perhaps my tinfoil hat is on too tight. As far as helping addicts, I have no problem with helping people voluntarily. You state that most researchers are good people with good intentions, seems really irrelevant. Thousands of people were lobotomized and most of the surgeons who performed such surgery probably had good intentions. A lot or most of this research is government paid for, with its own agenda.

  17. Josh,

    I never ate at McDonalds daily. It was never a habit, or part of a routine. What I’m talking about is walking or driving past a MickeyD’s a couple times a week, and having the sight of the sign or the smell of the grease trigger a “I gotta get some” reaction. Then I’d start eating, and remember that the food didn’t really taste that good. If I was hungry and thought about what I wanted to go get, I never decided on McDonald’s. There was something besides preference going on.

    It reminds me of my one and only experience with cocaine. I did it, and nothing much really happened. But, even though I didn’t really enjoy it, the last thought I had before I went to sleep, and the first thought I had the next morning, was “I want to do some more.” Something that you do too much of because you enjoy it is one thing. Something that makes you want it, regardless of your feelings or opinions, is some scary shit.

  18. Aha! I knew Joe was a cokehead from the total lack of coherency in his posts. Joe, you just took step # 1 of the 12 steps by writing the preceeding post. Congrats. The next 11 steps are a bear, though ….


  19. Phil (I assume)–

    Totally valid point about gov’t-funded research. This is discussed on my blog page wuite often…feel free to stop by sometime and join in.

    Everyone else–sorry for the shameless self-promotion.

  20. I’m a 11th grader and have to do this stupid report about fast food (obviously how I found this site). I could probably just copy and paste what everyone just said and just call it my project.

    Fast food is addicting for us through fat and sugar, that is true. But we can’t sue people because we are weak and have no willpower against this food. It’s like suing a cocaine dealer for dealing you coke. That sounds stupid doesn’t it? This is no exception. We are humans, we aren’t perfect. But we can’t sue corporations for being imperfect. What are we going to do next, sue God for not making us perfect beings?

Please to post comments

Comments are closed.