What Self-Stimulating Rats Teach Us About Junk Food

In the 1950s, psychologists James Olds and Peter Milner set up an experiment where rats can press a lever that will stimulate the reward/pleasure centers in their brain. The results were drastic. These rats would forgo food, water, and members of the opposite sex. They would even cross shock-delivering floors to get to the lever. If allowed, these rats would stimulate themselves 7,000 times per hour.

Because the rats would be fixated on the stimulation, they would often pass out, and sometimes die. So, the question is, were these rats complete idiots, focusing on a fleeting feeling despite the most urgent needs, or, were they geniuses, living a short life filled with the most intense happiness the brain can offer you.

Something I’ve put a lot of thought into, especially when choosing a salad rather than going out for ice cream, is whether or not a healthy diet is worth it. Lets say I could choose to eat anything I ever wanted every day, and live for 20 years, or I could eat just a head of lettuce and water for every meal and live to 110?

The hilarity of this question is that it (predictably) changes depending on how hungry I am. If I am satisfied, and not craving anything, I’d say of course I’d rather live a longer life! But if I haven’t eaten since breakfast and I’m about to pass Dairy Queen, I’m much more likely to say that life is short, so do whatever makes you happy.

It’s a bit more complicated than that, however. People who live healthy lifestyles will soon begin to crave healthier foods and exercise. It’s a desirable Stockholm syndrome. The same can be said about high sugar diets, and habits like spending hours playing video games every day. Our minds like the consistency. This is why adults are always telling teens, “Develop good exercise habits now. You’ll regret it if you don’t!”

Are people who are addicted to healthy living happier than those addicted to junk food and being generally lazy?

Well, physiologically speaking, sugar, salt, and fat all have an effect on dopamine, the neurotransmitter associated with happiness. However, eat too much junk food and your brain will grow accustomed to the intake, much like how a drug addict develops a tolerance to their drug of choice, and must seek out larger doses to continue their high.

But everyone knows that exercise also releases dopamine. And if you eat healthy won’t you feel better in general? Yes, absolutely. However, I don’t believe life is about going on a bland diet of nutritional crackers and spinach smoothies.

As with most debacles in life, your diet is about balance. Many health nuts die by the principle of cheat days, and find them to be an absolute necessity. And yes, I’m aware that this answer is a total cop out, but I think it was clear from the beginning I wasn’t going to be encouraging a long, boring life, nor suicide via hamburger.

The balance will prevent you from getting that infamous sugar tolerance, as well as keep you healthy and confident, while not losing your mind eating pounds of bran every day. So if you are a health freak, cut yourself some slack, and if you put no thought into your diet, start integrating some veggies.

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