Although our society is well aware of the addictive health risks of hard drugs, Jed Diamond says the drugs that are doing the most harm are found in our food.
Most of us recognize that heroin, methamphetamine, and cocaine are dangerous drugs. However, we usually don’t think of fat, sugar, and salt as drugs; nor are we aware of how dangerous they can be. In his book, Salt Sugar Fat, Pulitzer Prize winning, New York Times investigative reporter Michael Moss says that every year the average American eats 33 pounds of cheese (triple what we ate in 1970 and 70 pounds of sugar (about 22 teaspoons a day). We also ingest 8,500 milligrams of salt a day, double the recommended amount, and almost none of it comes from the shakers on our table.
Where do we get all this excess fat, sugar, and salt? They come from processed food and the giant food companies are making a killing with huge sales, while we and our children get fatter and sicker. These foods can contribute to everything from addictions to Alzheimer’s.
It may surprise you that I call sugar, fat, and salt “drugs.” Let me explain. A common definition of the word drug is any substance that in small amounts produces significant changes in body, mind, or both. According to health expert Andrew Weil, M.D., in his book From Chocolate to Morphine: Everything You Need to Know About Mind Altering Drugs, whether we call something a drug or food is often arbitrary.
We recognize heroin as a drug. It is a white powder that in small doses produces big changes in the body and mind,” says Weil. “But is sugar a drug? Sugar is also a white powder that affects the body and mind. How about salt? Many people think they cannot live without salt in their diet and it also has a powerful effect on body and mind.” And anyone who has tried to resist the attraction of McDonald’s French fries knows that fat can have the same addictive pull as other drugs.
I’ve worked with addicts for more than 40 years and they all exhibit these three characteristics. I call them the 3 Cs. When they use the drug there is a feeling of Compulsion. There is an overpowering feeling of needing to get a “fix.” Second, there is a loss of Control. An addict may try and set limits on their use, but they continually violate them. One “taste” of the drug always leads to more. Third, there is a Continuation of use despite negative consequences. Even when the drug is causing problems in their lives, the users continue to take the drug.
Are We Addicted to Fat?
The simple answer is “Well, duh … We wouldn’t have 60-70% of our population overweight or obese if we weren’t hooked on fattening foods.” Dr. Adam Drewnowski is a professor of epidemiology at the University of Washington and director of the school’s Center for Obesity Research. He’s been conducting scientific studies on fat, sugar, and salt since 1982 and has found that all can influence the brain chemistry that causes us to want to eat more and more. In a recent text book by J.P. Montmayeur, Fat Detection: Taste, Texture, and Post Ingestive Effects, Drewnowski wrote a chapter on “Human Perceptions and Preferences for Fat-Rich Foods.” He found that eating foods that are high in fat content, particularly those that also were sweet and salty, stimulated the same brain centers as drugs like heroin. In fact, the same drugs that block the desire for heroin block the desire for fatty foods. “Following naloxone administration, taste preferences for sugar/fat mixtures were suppressed by the opiate blockade,” said Drewnowski.
“Fat,” says Michael Moss, “doesn’t blast away at our mouths like sugar does; by and large, its allure is more surreptitious. As I spoke with scientists about the way fat behaves, I couldn’t resist drawing an analogy to the realm of narcotics. If sugar is the amphetamine of processed food ingredients, with its high-speed blunt assault on our brains, then fat is the opiate, a smooth operator whose effects are less obvious but no less powerful.”
Are We Addicted to Sugar?
We’ve all experienced the “sugar rush” when we long for and finally drink a Coke, Pepsi, or Dr. Pepper or when we open up an Oreo cookie and lick the sugary, rich, white center. In fact, a new study suggests the brain responds to Oreo cookies quite like it responds to actual drugs. In a study designed to shed light on the potential addictiveness of high-fat/high-sugar foods, Joseph Schroeder, associate professor of psychology and director of the behavioral neuroscience program at Connecticut College, found rats formed an equally strong association between the pleasurable effects of eating Oreos and a specific environment as they did between cocaine or morphine and a specific environment.
They also found that eating cookies activated more neurons in the brain’s “pleasure center” than exposure to drugs of abuse. “Our research supports the theory that high-fat/high-sugar foods stimulate the brain in the same way that drugs do,” Schroeder said. “It may explain why some people can’t resist these foods despite the fact that they know they are bad for them.”
Paul van der Velpen, the head of Amsterdam’s health service, the Dutch capital city where the sale of cannabis is legalized, wants to see sugar tightly regulated. “Just like alcohol and tobacco, sugar is actually a drug. The use of sugar should be discouraged. And users should be made aware of the dangers.”
Van der Velpen goes on to say, “This may seem exaggerated and far-fetched, but sugar is the most dangerous drug of the times and can still be easily acquired everywhere. “Sugar is actually a form of addiction. It’s just as hard to get rid of the urge for sweet foods as of smoking. Diets only work temporarily. Addiction therapy is better.”
Are We Addicted to Salt?
One of the biggest players in the processed food industry is a company few people have heard about. Cargill supplies the raw ingredients for huge processed food companies like Kraft, Nabisco, General Mills, Procter & Gable, Coca-Cola, and PepsiCo. Cargill is a privately held Multinational Corporation based in Minnetonka, Minnesota. Founded in 1865, it is now the largest privately held corporation in the United States and earned $2.31 billion in 2012, nearly double the $1.17 billion realized in the prior year.
Salt is one of their most profitable products. In their sales literature Cargill says, “People love salt. Among the basic tastes—sweet, sour, bitter, and salty—salt is one of the hardest ones to live without. And it’s no wonder. Salt, or sodium chloride helps give foods their taste appeal—in everything from bacon, pizza, cheese and French fries to pickles, salad dressings, snack foods and baked goods.”
“Salt,” Michael Moss concludes, “might be compared to cocaine, for all the pleasure and longing that both provide.”
The New Drug Dealers
It’s no accident that our entire culture is becoming sicker and more overweight. We are hooked on processed foods that contain large amounts of fat, sugar, and salt. Although individuals in the huge food corporations may strive to offer healthy alternatives, like all good drug dealers, corporations are interested in bottom line profits.
Fat, sugar, and salt are loaded into more and more foods because it is good for business, even if it’s bad for people. This will only change when people band together and break free of our collective addictions and we bring pressure on our governments to enact laws that put the people’s health above corporate profits.
Photo: permanently scatterbrained/flickr