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Opinion: Are we addicted to certain foods?

Treat foods are designed to be attractive to all our senses – and that’s a powerful lure, even for the strong-willed among us.

Mary Flynn

“ONCE I START I can’t stop. I decide to have one biscuit, but before I know it, the whole pack is gone. I can’t just have a little – I binge. So I have to go completely ‘cold turkey’. Initially, I’m full of determination and willpower… but the cravings I get are so hard to resist. Worst of all – once my resolve breaks, all restraint goes out the window and I eat more than ever. Eventually I go off all treats again and the whole cycle starts over. I must be addicted.”

Many people in Ireland can relate to this. The numbers of us affected by overweight and obesity have spiralled over the last 20 years. It gets worse as we age. It’s hard to imagine that among men over 50 years of age, only 13% are a healthy weight. This fattening trend is creeping up on women and children too. What’s happening?

Programmed to seek ‘rewards’

It’s well known that eating stimulates the reward and pleasure areas of our brain. This happens in humans no matter what we eat. The reward/pleasure feeling we get from eating motivates us to seek food and is something we couldn’t survive without.

However, animal studies have shown that feeding treat foods, compared with regular nourishing food, can alter eating behaviour. Rats fed very palatable treat foods (high in sugar and fat) ate far more and showed symptoms of withdrawal and cravings when this food was removed. However, these responses to treat foods have never been seen in humans and, despite bingeing, these rats did not become fat. So addiction to treat foods cannot explain why so many of us in Ireland (and the rest of the world) have become so overweight.

A lot of other research carried out, however, helps explain why treat foods have such a hold on us and are so irresistible. This research shows we are besieged by treat foods – not addicted.

Treat foods are designed by the most advanced scientific intelligence to be far more appealing than the foods we need to keep us healthy. Treat foods are processed well beyond their natural food origins. As such, treat foods can be regarded as being specially created to entice us. A whole field of scientific research focuses on making sure these foods have all the necessary properties to stimulate our human senses. Sweetness and saltiness are top taste preferences. Texture is also critical – a high fat content ensures the creaminess we love; while saturated fats and even trans fats are great for getting the crunchy/crispiness we relish in snacks. Colour can be added for visual appeal. Finally, it’s often the smell of treat foods that seduces us. It all makes for a very uneven competition. The natural attributes of foods we need for health are no match for the synthetic features of treat foods that are specially created to be attractive to all our senses.

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Cheap, tasty treats are easy to obtain

On top of being irresistible as compared with real food, we simply can’t get away from treat foods. No matter where we go or what we do, there’s a whole array of different types of treat foods readily available and easy to eat. Healthy alternatives such as fruit, wholemeal bread, fresh salad or even yoghurts are harder to find and far less convenient to eat on-the-run. The promotion of treat foods is so persistent that special broadcast advertising rules have been put in place to protect children. But even very young children are brand-aware when it comes to their favourite treat foods.

Not only are treat foods more irresistible, they are more widely promoted, more available and they are also more affordable than the real foods we need for health. The Food Safety Authority of Ireland has looked at the cost of healthy eating for different households and found that a healthy diet was out of reach for many families with children. The most expensive foods are fruit and vegetables, followed closely by lean meat, chicken and fish; while the cheapest foods are the oils/fats and treat foods. We need calories to survive and we need to be getting those calories from real foods that give us all the nutrients we need to keep us healthy and at our peak in every way. However, 100 calories from fruit/vegetables cost 45c, 100 calories from treat foods cost 17c and just 4c from fats/oils. To eat healthily on a tight budget is extremely difficult.

To make the healthy choice the easy choice, we need affordable, convenient, healthy food available everywhere. Our uniquely talented food service sector could accomplish this with the right motivator – such as simple calorie counts to inform consumers. Calorie menu labelling is a stimulus that creates a demand for healthy food options, smaller portions of treat foods and encourages competition among food businesses to be innovative in meeting this demand. Without this change towards a healthier food environment, becoming overweight is a certain fate – we’re only human.

Dr Mary Flynn is Chief Specialist in Public Health Nutrition with the Food Safety Authority of Ireland. She is a Visiting Professor at the University of Ulster and a member of the Healthy Ireland Council.

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