Monday, September 2, 2013

The High Cost of Cheap Food: Fast Food Is Addictive

When the red pill and the blue pill are the same, choice is an illusion.

Drugs in your food. What if it only appears to be a choice?

Second in a series on "The High Cost of Cheap Food."

The effects of the fast food marketplace, in which addictive food is sold without additional regulation---where in fact it’s easier and cheaper than real, fresh food---are reflected in our mortality and morbidity statistics. In the birthplace of fast food, the leading causes of death are heart disease and cancer, putting lifestyle far ahead of gun violence as a killer of Americans.

Addiction is a deadly force that alters animals' priorities so that mice will press the cocaine lever, ignoring food and water, until they die. Rats will endure electric shock for junk food. Human animals are wired much the same way; our intellect might save us, or simply provide more sophisticated forms of cognitive dissonance.


It’s back to school time, and adult humans with graduate degrees will begin passing out "Just Say No to Drugs" brochures to children who take prescribed amphetamines. Those same well educated adult humans will line up for their morning dose of caffeine and sugar from a big chain instead of making something fresh at home for breakfast, and fail again to see the irony in their lives, even if they caught it in the classroom. It’s why we shouldn’t razz Alanis Morissette too hard for failing to come up with actual ironies for her song; most of us couldn’t spot the ironies in our own lives, either. The response to irony in our lives is cognitive dissonance more often than it’s enlightenment and the desire to change.

For good health, “a combination of regular exercise, healthy diet, smoking avoidance, and weight maintenance” is Johns Hopkins Hospital's sensible advice that's free to take. No one would dispute that personal health is very important---even priceless. Yet the number of dollars we spend positively destroying our health---including on packaged, junk, and fast foods---is enormous; when you add in the amount wasted on products promising us health and freedom from addictions---and failing to deliver--- the combined figure is incalculable.

Our actual priorities place “what's good for us” farther down the list than we care to admit. We know what is good for us , but choose what feels good, especially when it’s easier. Fatty foods, sweets, and salty foods are what we crave, and junk and fast food deliver: full of vegetable oil, unnatural sweeteners, and excess salt that, by hitting our “bliss points” reliably, alter our biology in much the same ways that highly addictive drugs like cocaine do. A Happy Meal is My First Drug Paraphernalia.

When it comes to our food, the problem isn’t simply that we lack willpower to avoid addictive and unhealthy foods; it’s that the system is designed around a particular lifestyle: one in which we work long hours, shop, and go home, efficiently and in relative isolation from other people. In this system, people eat what is manufactured, and eat it quickly, on the go. The system is designed to make us more efficient workers and consumers, not happier, more self-actualized human beings.

All the packaged foods you see advertised are designed to be addictive. The mission of any fast food restaurant is to make theirs your favorite. This can be achieved best, in a zero sum game of “stomach share” in the marketplace, by making you consume far more than you need---even designing foods that make you feel hungrier than when you sat down to eat them. “As a culture, we’ve become upset by the tobacco companies advertising to children, but we sit idly by while the food companies do the very same thing,” says Yale University professor of psychology and public health, Kelly Brownell. Even worse than these advances in junk food technology: the changes that they make to our bodies may be passed down to the next generation.

Coming next in this series: Fast food is made of petroleum.