No, it's not a joke. But judging from the multiple routes I've heard about Dr. Paul Kenny's study that suggest that high-fat, high-calorie foods affect the brain in much the same way as cocaine and heroin, l-o-t-s of people have heard about it.
The report I keep seeing — forwarded from San Francisco and Israel, in addition to seeing it in my own surfing — is by health.com, picked up by CNN health.
Doing drugs such as cocaine and eating too much junk food both gradually overload the so-called pleasure centers in the brain, according to Paul J. Kenny, Ph.D., an associate professor of molecular therapeutics at the Scripps Research Institute, in Jupiter, Florida. Eventually the pleasure centers "crash," and achieving the same pleasure — or even just feeling normal — requires increasing amounts of the drug or food, says Kenny, the lead author of the study.
The phenomenon he's describing, of course, is tolerance, one of the seven criteria that the American Psychiatric Association uses to determine if someone has a substance use disorder — what you and I know as an addiction. It's pretty familiar — most people who started out getting tipsy on one drink but found they needed several stiff belts after awhile to catch a buzz will know what he's talking about.
The thing is, I'm not certain the study is news. Scientists sometimes bemoan the popular press (in which I served for almost three decades) for overreacting to studies published in the scientific press, and I wonder if this isn't a case of that. (The study, coauthored by Paul M. Johnson, was reported in Nature Neuroscience.) I know I've heard the theory before, that overuse of high-reward substances, including fat-laden foods, can permanently alter brain pathways over time. I did a quick Google search for "fat addiction" and found this, and of course, there's Dr. Neal Barnard's 2003 book, "Breaking the Food Seduction."
For the umpteenth time, I'll stipulate that I'm neither a scientist nor a science journalist, so I concede that Dr. Kenny's study may have nuances that set it apart. For my purposes, it doesn't matter. At a minimum, the study adds to the body of literature, now numbering over 2,700 peer-reviewed studies and review articles, that illuminates what is still shielded from the view of popular culture and mainstream science — the approaching certainty that some foods affect some people the way illicit substances affect some people, affecting their health and their lives adversely, beyond what most people experience as the power of choice.