Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Rats, Drugs, Sex and Food

Do you know what ghrelin is? Most of us don’t, but now that your interest is peaked, here’s why it’s a good thing to know about. Ghrelin is a stomach hormone that tells your brain when to trigger hunger or fullness signals. Recent research presented at the 2010 annual meeting of the Society of Neuroscience highlighted new findings.

Using rats, the researchers found that in addition to moderating normal eating habits, ghrelin also acts on the brain’s pleasure and reward centers—and yes, those are the same areas activated by drugs and sex.

Using sugar as the bait, rats pressed a lever hundreds of times to earn a very small amount of sugar. But, rats given ghrelin worked twice as hard for the same treat. When the hormone was blocked in hungry rats (there’s an image I wouldn’t mind blocking), they were less willing to press the lever for the sugar, as if they were actually full. Increasing or decreasing the ghrelin appeared to influence whether the rats preferred environments they associated with sugar consumption.

The inference from the study is that ghrelin levels may help explain why people eat when they’re not hungry—that food intake may be driven more in some people by the pleasure they associate with food rather than by their actual hunger.

Now, intuitively, we may know that we eat even when we’re not hungry for a number of reasons: we like the taste, we’re bored, we’re stressed, and for some of us, we eat for comfort. If a specific hormone is linked to why we eat for pleasure, we might see that as a “proven scientific excuse” for what might be poor nutritional choices and behaviors.

But, we’re not rats and we can make choices, even difficult choices. Still, it’s nice to know that a hormone called ghrelin could actually be making some of those choices more difficult for some of us. Now the question is, knowing this, how can we use this knowledge to begin to change unhealthy eating behaviors? What do you think?

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

We Deserve That Big, Fat “F.”

As in “F” for Fast Food. Are we really a “drive-thru, sit-in-front-of, I just don’t have the energy to . . .” nation? If you haven’t been living under a pumpkin shell for the last 20 or 30 years you can see what we’ve been doing to ourselves. But, what about what we’re doing to, or allowing to happen to, our children?

The newest report from Yale’s Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity points out a few aggressive and relentless marketing statistics—and what they mean to each of us—and our children. The report findings show that fast-food marketers target children across a variety of media and restaurants, and that those restaurants are providing largely unhealthy side dishes and drinks as the default options with kids’ meals.

The fast food industry spent more than $4.2 billion dollars in 2009 on TV advertising and other media, including the Internet, social media sites and mobile applications. (See earlier post, “Is It Here to Stay?”)

The statistics are enough to kill your appetite:

  • Compared with 2007, in 2009 preschoolers saw 21 percent more ads for McDonald’s, 9 percent more for Burger King, and 56 percent more for Subway. Children ages 6 – 11 saw 26 percent more ads for McDonald’s, 10 percent more for Burger King and 59 percent more for Subway. Especially notable are the increases for McDonald’s and Burger King, which have pledged to reduce unhealthy marketing to children.
  • Eighty-four percent of parents reported taking their child to a fast food restaurant at least once a week.
  • Just 12 of 3,039 possible kids’ meal combinations met nutrition criteria for preschoolers, while only 15 met nutrition criteria for older children.
  • Only 17 percent of regular menu items qualified as healthy choices.
  • Fast food snacks and desert items contain as many as 1,500 calories, 5 times more than the 200 to 300 calorie snack for active teens recommended by the American Dietetic Association.
  • Teens between the ages of 13 and 18 purchased 800 to 1,100 calories in an average fast food visit.
  • At least 30 percent of calories in fast food menu items purchased by children and teens were from sugar and saturated fat.
  • Smartphone apps are available for eight fast food chains, providing the opportunity to reach younger consumers anytime, anywhere.

The “secret’s” out. Children who eat fast food consume more calories, fat, sugar and sugar-sweetened beverages—and less fiber, milk, fruit and vegetables than those who do not eat fast food. It’s not just an occasional “happy meal,” and it’s not that happy. Every day, one-third of American children and adolescents eat fast food. And, we wonder how childhood obesity became an epidemic.

Maybe what the fast food industry is doing through their aggressive marketing strategy aimed at our children isn’t our fault—but doesn’t it become our fault if we continue to let it happen?