dsc03000 - Junk food addiction may be real

Hooked on the sweet stuff?

While I don’t think I’d equate a cookie with, say, cocaine, I do believe that people can become “addicted” to certain foods. Sugar and fat seem to hold considerable power over many, many people—I’ve seen people cry over their inability to give up ice cream. Research continues to show that this addictive effect may in fact be very, very real.

Studies on animals as well as on obese individuals and compulsive eaters reveal that fatty and sweet foods, in addition to being just plain unhealthy, can wreak havoc on the brain in a similar way to cocaine, nicotine, and other drugs. For example, sugary drinks and fatty foods have been shown to produce addictive behavior in animals,  and brain scans in humans reveal disturbances in the brain’s “reward” circuits similar to those in drug abusers.

As stated in a Bloomberg News article, according to a National Library of Medicine database, 28 studies and papers on food addiction have been published this year alone. “The data is so overwhelming the field has to accept it,” said Nora Volkow, director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse. “We are finding tremendous overlap between drugs in the brain and food in the brain.”

This article offers summaries of some particularly fascinating studies on food addiction.

For example, rats given access to some popular sweet and fatty foods (including Hormel Foods Corp. (HRL) bacon, Sara Lee Corp. (SLE)pound cake, The Cheesecake Factory Inc. (CAKE) cheesecake and Pillsbury Co. Creamy Supreme cake frosting) just just one hour a day began to binge eat, and the rats with access 18 to 23 hours a day became obese. Researchers found that these results yielded the same brain pattern seen with escalating cocaine use. Yikes!

In today’s obesogenic environment it may seem damn near impossible to help people overcome these issues and the health problems that occur as a result, but scientists have begun looking into developing treatments (along with anti-obesity drugs) as their understanding of the relationship between food and addictive behavior increases.

Said Mark Gold, who chairs the psychiatry department at the University of Florida in Gainesville, “We are trying to develop treatments that interfere with pathological food preferences,” he said. “Let’s say you are addicted to ice cream, you might come up with a treatment that blocked your interest in ice cream, but doesn’t affect your interest in meat.”

Hm…I don’t love the idea of relying a pill—to my mind, that sidesteps the much broader systemic problems at work here. I understand the need to be “realistic” in the current environment in which a big, greedy food industry is plying people with highly craveable products on a constant basis, but I can’t help wishing we could bring other treatments like hypnosis into the picture.

It may not be mainstream, but I think a lot of people could benefit from treatments that help them tune into the part of themselves that “needs” a particular food and work with a counselor to address it. Maybe I shouldn’t say this as an RD-in-training, but a pill and a dietitian on TV telling you to eat your vegetables is only going to get you so far. While medications have their place, I think we should consider other therapies used to treat addiction and find ways to apply it to addictive behaviors that involve food.

Do you think food can be addictive? What kinds of treatment do you think would be effective? 

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