THE BLOG

Meatless Monday: Junk Food Rat Race

03/18/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011
  • Ellen Kanner Author and syndicated columnist, the Edgy Veggie

Drop the Twinkie, junkie. Just in time for the holidays come these findings from your pals at Scripps Research Institute: Junk food is addictive. Really addictive -- as addictive as heroin.

The paper, presented at the annual meeting of the Society for Neuroscience, details what happened when lab rats were given a choice between nice, nutritious rat chow or Ho Hos, sausage, pound cake, bacon and cheesecake. The rats went for the junk and they wouldn't stop, even after becoming habituated to it, even after they were full, even after receiving shocks. And when the goodies were taken away and replaced with regular rat chow, the rats wouldn't eat it. They'd rather starve. PETA may well be all over this, but who's fighting on our behalf?

We're no better than rats, according to former FDA head David Kessler. In his book The End of Overeating,, Kessler asserts fat, salt and sugar, the three demons of junk food, not only pose health risks including obesity, diabetes and heart disease, they alter brain chemistry. They make you slightly nuts. They make you want more fat, salt and sugar. A mere flash of burger in a commercial can trigger hunger/desire impulses in the brain even if you just ate. You're hooked.

As diabolically powerful as these ingredients are separately, they are exponentially more so when working together. And where is fat, salt and sugar really mainlined? Not broccoli. Not barley. Not bananas. They're in processed food. The ads aren't selling how terrific these foods are for you, what they're selling is how good they make you feel. Because they do. The very food that gives rats a thrill floods your brain with dopamine, the feel-good neurotransmitter.

"I used to think I ate to feel full," says Kessler. "Now I know, we have the science that shows, we're eating to stimulate ourselves." Every time you eat that sausage pizza, it enforces the pleasure circuits in your brain that make you want it again and again.

Maybe these findings don't rock your world. You'd have been glad to take Scripps' grant money, tell the researchers not to get between you and your Ho Hos and save everybody a lot of time.

It's hard enough getting through an average day without being bombarded by the triple threats of fat, salt and sugar in what Kessler calls "highly palatable fods that hijack your brain." It's even worse now that we're entering the Bermuda Triangle of holidays -- Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Year's Eve -- that no-man's land of dietary anarchy.
Trying to avoid sugar, salt and fat junk is about as effective as adopting Nancy Reagan's just-say-no policy. There's Christmas parties, Christmas cookies, egg nog, holiday baking and ads bombarding you with food porn, all serving up the big three and lighting up pleasure centers in your brain like a Macy's Christmas window.

A turkeyless cold turkey and little dietary mindfulness can go a long way. Do a little reset with a delicious detox. I'm not talking about buying some detox diet formula that Rotorooters your system but something you can make yourself that satisfies your stomach and your cravings. You will not starve.

You're smarter than a rodent. Do the planet and yourself a favor. Step away from the junk. It's one small step for man, one big step for mankind and a first big step off the junk food rat tread.

Japanese Miso Stew

This Asian stew features that detoxing duo ginger and garlic, it's crazy-mad with vegetables and gets a dose of richness with miso added right at the end, so the flavors are bright and miso's healing enzymes remain intact. Note the absence of sugar and the nominal sodium and fat. Another plus -- it blasts a headcold right out of you.

1 tablespoon sesame oil* (adds depth and flavor, but use canola or peanut oil if you can't find it)
3 tablespoons fresh ginger, minced
3 cloves garlic, sliced thin
1 onion, chopped
2 carrots, chopped
8 ounces mushrooms, sliced
2 turnips or about 1 cup of daikon, chopped
5-1/2 cups vegetable broth
1/2 cup mirin or white wine (or an additional 1/2 cup of vegetable broth, if you prefer)
8 ounces firm tofu, drained well and diced into bite-sized cubes
1 head broccoli, chopped (or 4 cups shredded cabbage)
2 to 3 tablespoons white miso (also known as shiro miso)*
optional -- a fistful of Asian noodles or whole wheat vermicelli, broken in half

*available in Asian markets and most natural food stores

Heat oil in a large pot over medium-high heat. Add minced ginger and garlic, stirring for about 3 minutes. Add onion, carrots, mushrooms, turnips. Continue cooking, stirring occasionally, for 10 minutes. Add wine and broth. Cover and reduce heat to medium-low. Let mixture simmer for 10 minutes.

Remove lid, bring heat up to medium. Add tofu and broccoli or cabbage and optional noodles. Stir in miso. Cook just until broccoli is tender but still bright green and noodles are al dente, about 8 minutes. Ladle into bowls and enjoy.

Serves 4.

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