The man who rose to fame as The Naked Chef, has a new show on ABC, aimed at revolutionizing the way Americans eat. Jamie Oliver's Food Revolution is set in Huntington, West Virginia, dubbed the Most Unhealthy City in the US in 2008. The show follows the British chef as he tries to instill an appetite for meals that include fresh fruits and vegetables, in kids who have grown up on fast food. Watching the first episode, you get a sense of why obesity has become an American epidemic. These kids are quite simply, hooked on processed foods.
Researchers have suspected for some time that the sugar- salt- and fat-laden food that's a hallmark of the drive-thru menu, can be addictive. Now we may know why. A study published this week in the journal, Nature Neuroscience, has shown that the compulsion to overeat is driven by the same molecular mechanisms that turn heroin users into addicts.
This Is Your Brain on Junk Food
What happens in addiction is lethally simple, explained Paul J. Kenny, associate professor at Scripps Research Institute, and one of the authors of the study. The reward pathways in the brain become so overstimulated that the system basically turns on itself, adapting to the new reality of addiction, whether the fix of choice is cocaine or cupcakes.
In their research, Kenny and his colleagues divided rats into three groups. The first group ate a well-balanced diet; group two had the healthy diet, as well as one-hour a day access to high-calorie foods. The last group of rats were given a healthy diet, but also had full access to high-calorie, high-fat, high-sugar foods like bacon, cheesecake and Ding Dongs. The open door policy to junk foods triggered compulsive overeating in the third group, and that quickly led to obesity. "The animals completely lost control over their eating behavior," said Kenny. "They continued to overeat even when they anticipated receiving electric shocks."
The dopamine receptors of the brain showed the very same changes occur in the brains of rats that overconsume cocaine or heroin, and are thought to play an important role in the development of compulsive drug use.
The study, said Kenny, "presents the most thorough and compelling evidence that drug addiction and obesity are based on the same underlying neurobiological mechanisms."
A Very Telling Show and Tell
Back in Huntington, Chef Oliver is trying to reform the town's youngest junk food junkies. He tests the students' vegetable intelligence, with an array of foods fresh from the garden. Turns out, the kids can't tell a tomato from a potato. In fact, there's not a single vegetable they can correctly identify. While they flunked the veggie IQ, when the chef held up a chicken nugget, and asked, "What's this," it was a no brainer. The kids aced that test.
Judging from the amount of fresh food being dumped in the cafeteria trash, Jamie Olivier's meal makeover experiment didn't win many high marks from the schoolkids. The intrepid chef is discouraged but not deterred. His quest to win the hearts and minds--and stomachs--of the American public continues, one episode at a time. It remains to be seen whether Oliver's "revolutionary" ideas, like serving kids fresh, nutrituous school lunches or getting families to eat dinners that they cook rather than pick up, will take root in Huntington. But as with the war on drugs, the fight against obesity starts with education.