Researchers Speculate Food Could Be as Addictive as Cocaine

This week there was an interesting article entitled “Fatty Foods as addictive as Cocaine in Growing Body of Science” in Bloomburg Businessweek.  The article sites research from several studies that have found that foods high in fat, sugar and high fructose corn syrup seem to have addictive properties, and they can elicit a response in the brain that is similar to the response people get from addictive drugs, such as cocaine.

A few interesting points in the article that jumped out at me are:

  • “Constant stimulation with tasty, calorie- laden foods may desensitize the brain’s circuitry, causing people to consume greater quantities of junk food to maintain a constant state of pleasure”.
  • Rats that had access to high-fat or high-sugar foods for 1 hour per day started binge eating even though they had access to healthy foods all day.  Rats that had access to high-fat or high-sugar foods all day became obese.  Eating these high-fat or high-sugar foods produced the same brain pattern that occurs with escalating intake of cocaine.
  • Women were given an MRI scan as they sipped a milkshake, and then the MRI scans were repeated 6 months later.  The women who gained weight during that 6-month period showed reduced activity in the part of the brain that registers reward when they were given the milkshake the second time.  This may indicate that continued overeating decreases the feeling of pleasure which causes people to feel the need to eat more to get the pleasure response they are looking for.
  • Rats fed a sugar water solution (the same concentration of sugar in sodas) occasionally showed no signs of addictive behavior.  However, those fed the sugar water every day began to drink “more and more and ate less of their usual diet”.

After reading this article, I thought it would be interesting to see what other researchers are finding regarding food additions.  The following are links to the summaries from just a few of the many articles published on this topic:

While food addition is still a topic of debate, it does seem that more and more research supports the theory that there are addictive properties to certain types of foods.  In my experience working with people to help improve their diets, this is very true.  The more fat, sugar or salt people eat, the more they want.  This can be a very vicious cycle which often leads to feelings of being out-of-control or guilt after eating.

However, I have seen many people overcome the urge to eat these foods as well.  As people “wean” themselves off of these foods, taste buds seem to change (and perhaps the chemical response in the brain is changing as well).  People often “crave” these foods less and less.  I have had many people tell me that after they get away from eating these foods on a regular basis and only eat them on occasion as “treat foods”, that these foods are “not as good as they once believed them to be” and find them to be “too sweet” or “too fatty” or “too salty”.

Currently, many researchers are using this information to try to develop medications to treat food addiction.  While there may be some promise in this area in the future, it will likely take a long time (if at all) until they find a medication that works without producing negative side effects.  In the mean time, it would be wise to recognize that some of these calorie-laden foods likely do have addictive properties and treat them as such.  These foods can absolutely fit into a healthy diet without causing people to feel “addicted”, but consider them to be “treats” instead of a daily staple in the diet.  Recognize that if you start to eat them on a daily basis there is a possibility that you will start to want, crave or “need” them more.  Also recognize that this cycle can be stopped (just like with cigarettes or alcohol) but it does take some effort, especially in the beginning.  It may be helpful to ask for support from friends, family or work with a professional (i.e. dietitian and/or psychologist) if you feel “addicted” to certain foods or sugary beverages.