By Kevin Kolodziejski
Is my confession your confession, too?
Do you look contemptuously at the coworker who can’t get through the morning without two French glazed crullers and a supersized cappuccino that’s equal parts sugar, cream, and espresso? Have you become more and more discriminating about your diet — and more and more judgmental toward those who aren’t — because you cycle enough to know bad food increases the likelihood of a bad ride (as well as bad overall health)?
I confess to all that, my friend, but I’m not as bad as I used to be. This confession, however, requires clarification. The reason I’m now making more of an effort to accept the junk-food junkie as part of the family (albeit the red-haired stepchild in the dysfunctional American food family) is not to keep me from eating crow, a treat not nearly as sweet as the aforementioned cruller-and-cappuccino combo. It’s because a bit more open-mindedness allows me to rationalize how what I recently read and what I wrote just two weeks ago can both be true.
Remember the Mice That Lost the Desire to Run?
Two weeks ago in “What Inhabits Your Gut Could Inhibit Your Cycling — or Help It,” you learned what came about when researchers administered an antibiotic to a group of mice that had previously liked to run on the exercise wheel a lot. The antibiotic adversely affected the gut biome, killed certain good gut bacteria, and reduced the mice’s running time by half.
Simply stated, the third occurred because the mice’s guts stopped sending a message to their brains not to produce a compound that hinders the hormone that makes both mice and humans feel really good, dopamine. Their findings led me to write that if you’re eating healthfully and feeding the good gut bacteria instead of the bad, the effect of dopamine when you do aerobic exercise is enhanced, which is why certain people, including me, feel so good during and for hours after cycling.
Only makes sense, right?
Making Sense of Dopamine
But so does what’s found somewhere in the middle of “Addiction to Highly Processed Foods Among Older Adults,” the study released by the University of Michigan based upon their National Poll on Healthy Aging. That junk food — called highly processed foods in the report and ultraprocessed foods or UPFs in many other papers — “can trigger the release of dopamine in the brain’s reward system at levels comparable to nicotine and alcohol.” In fact, I had read a variation of that so many times before — such as the famous study where mice got more addicted to Oreos than cocaine — that it should’ve caused me to stifle a yawn and move on.
Instead, a nerves-on-full-alert tingle stopped me dead in my tracks. I remembered what I had written in my last article and realized it could — with the emphasis on could — be seen as contradictory. That the one-two combo of eating really good food and cycling leads to such a secretion of dopamine during the latter that for me the feeling has to be, I joked, as good a high as the one junkies shooting up the really good stuff feel.
But the University of Michigan study was no joke.
Could junk-food junkies — a group I had previously characterized in many prior writings as being mostly younger and weak-willed hedonists — not only include a good portion of older people but also simply be seeking the same psyched-to-be-alive feeling I get by eating well and turning the pedals a certain number of times?
The Main Takeaway From the U-of-M Study
What’s most newsworthy about the U-of-M study is that 1 in 8 adults between the ages of 50 and 80 surveyed “met the criteria for addiction to highly processed food in the past year.” The researchers determined this after 75 percent of the 2,163 adults they randomly contacted completed a modified version of the Yale Food Addiction Scale 2.0.
While the aforementioned rate of 1 in 8 is nothing to sneeze at, a related statistic better reveals just how addicting junk food can be. Close to 4 in 9 (44 percent) surveyed reported at least one addiction symptom, the most common being “intense cravings” and the “inability to cut down intake despite a desire to do so.”
More on the U-of-M Study
Further breakdown of the results reinforces two simple points about health that for some reason are easy for anyone to forget, cyclists included. That all the aspects of it are inexorably linked and that one aspect doesn’t take precedence over another.
Those surveyed who felt their mental health was no better than “fair,” for instance, were at least three times more likely to meet the Yale Scale food addiction criteria compared with those who felt their mental health was “good, very good, or excellent.” This held true for both women (45 percent and 15 percent) and men (23 percent and 6 percent).
Of the men surveyed who claimed to be a healthy weight, only 1 percent met the standard for food addiction. Yet 17 percent who believed themselves to be too heavy did so. The same difference in the women surveyed was 4 percent to 34 percent.
Moreover, the men who self-reported being in “good, very good, or excellent” health were 2.3 times less likely to meet the Yale Scale criteria for addiction to processed foods than those who believed their health to be less than that. And the difference for the women was nearly the same.
However informative these statistics may be, they fail to explain my new-found feeling of fellowship for junk-food junkies. For that, let’s recall the column of two weeks ago once again.
The Awesome Foursome From Dopamine
Happy, alert, focused, motivated: That’s the awesome-foursome feeling reported in it, according to the Cleveland Clinic website, when your dopamine level is optimal. So it’s understandable why you would eat foods to achieve it — and how you could get hooked on foods that can provide it. In short, the U-of-M study allows me to better understand the true allure of junk food.
But what can’t be stressed enough is that there’s a right way and a wrong way to achieve that psyched-to-be-alive feeling. Because the wrong way adversely affects your long-term health.
Kevin Kolodziejski began his writing career in earnest in 1989. Since then he’s written a weekly health and fitness column and his articles have appeared in magazines such as “MuscleMag,” “Ironman,” “Vegetarian Times,” and “Bicycle Guide.” He has Bachelor and Masters degrees in English from DeSales and Kutztown Universities.
A competitive cyclist for more than 30 years, Kevin won two Pennsylvania State Time Trial championships in his 30’s, the aptly named Pain Mountain Time Trial 4 out of 5 times in his 40s, two more state TT’s in his 50’s, and the season-long Pennsylvania 40+ BAR championship at 43.