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Is the Junk-Food 'Addiction' Study Junk Science?

1SHARES

By: , SparkPeople Blogger
10/23/2013 6:00 AM   :  66 comments   :  18,806 Views

"I'm fat because of Oreo cookies!" screamed the woman as she entered the weight-loss class I was coaching last week. In hand, she waved the press release from Connecticut College, which blared the warning, "Oreos are just as addictive as drugs!" 
 
 
"I am addicted to certain foods, just like those rats were addicted to Oreo cookies," she continued on.  "It's supposed to be worse than being addicted to cocaine. How am I ever going to be successful with my weight loss?"
 
 
While I had seen the study hit several of my RSS feeds earlier in the day, I really had not given it much attention. Other research has already shown that sugar-filled, fat-laden foods trigger the area of the brain that brings about pleasurable feelings. This pleasure center of the brain is also stimulated by drugs such as cocaine, morphine and alcohol.  In fact, studies using an MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) machine have shown the activation of this pleasure center when certain foods are consumed. 
 
To me, this popular news story was touting the same message as published in the New York Times article earlier this year, "The Extraordinary Science of Addictive Junk Food."
 
But when you combine the words "Oreo," "addiction" and "drugs" in a headline, you are bound to grab the attention of the reader, and this study did just that. In the Connecticut study, rats were placed in a maze that had two routes to different treats: sugary Oreo cookies or bland rice cakes. After the rats became familiar with the maze, you can probably guess which route they preferred---the path to the Oreos. The treats at the end of the two routes where then changed to a shot of saline (salt water) or a shot of cocaine or morphine. I imagine you can guess which injection the rats went for.  According to the researchers, the rats in the experiment spent as much time hanging around the Oreo zone in the food test as they did the cocaine zone in the drug test. This led the researchers to assume there was a similar level of addiction. 
 
But that isn't exactly a correct assumption. To show the degree of addiction one would need to know how hard the rat is willing to work for the reward, such as how many times a rat would be willing to push a lever to get the reward. Honestly, this study only supports previous studies that have shown that sugary and fatty foods like Oreos produce pleasure or are more enticing than non-sugary, non-fatty foods.
 
This particular study doesn't really prove that Oreos are "addictive," as eye-catching headlines would like you to believe. Whether any food can truly be "addictive" is still unproven. Certain foods and certain drugs do seem to share parallels in brain response.  There have been studies where rats were fed a "junk-filled" diet and then put on a healthy diet.  The brain changes were similar to those seen in drug addicts when trying to kick the habit.  And just as an addict develops tolerance and needs more to feel satisfied, so do overeaters who binge.
 
As a Registered Dietitian, I keep wondering what the best takeaway message from this study (and its aftermath) really is. How can we maintain control in an environment where these pleasure-stimulating foods are available with such ease (and excess)? How can we use this information to help prevent our children from becoming overweight? How does this help with our weight loss (or weight maintenance) efforts?  I came up with these six strategies, and ask for you to share your success-building ideas as well.
  1. Out of Sight, Out of Mouth: Clean out your kitchen, pantry, car, and work area first. Get rid of the junk and the temptation. Check out this plan to break your sugar "addiction" (and remember it will work for other foods, too). 
     
  2. Raise Your Voice: Ask for healthier options in your company's cafeteria, vending area, and break rooms. Request that nutrition information be available so you can make informed food decisions.
     
  3. Give Praise and Patronage: When national restaurants and private diners offer healthier options, substitutions, and the nutrition information; tell them how much you appreciate their movement towards better health. Vote with your fork (and wallet) to show your support for healthier fare.
     
  4. Kids First: Don't forget to support your child's school cafeteria as they try to bring about healthier options. 
     
  5. Arm Yourself: It is a dangerous food environment in which we live. Practice strategies (plan meals, pack snacks, read labels etc.) to stay full and satisfied so that you are less tempted to pull through the drive-thru window, grab a snack at the gas station, or overeat at the vending machine. 
     
  6. Single-Serve It: When you do want some Oreos, fish crackers, or ice cream, make a plan and purchase just a small single-serving portion—not the entire bag or box. This will allow you to make only one trip through the "maze" to get to the Oreos, rather than 25 pleasure-seeking trips those lab rats got.
More on this topic: Coach Dean blogged back in 2011 about the idea of food addiction and whether "addiction" is the right word to use to describe our pull toward certain foods. Read his take here.
 
What do you think? Are Oreos (or any other foods) as "addictive" as drugs?


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Comments

  • 16
    Being a previous addict to drugs, I can honestly say that most addictions have similarities. In my opinion, junk food is easier to get and you can do it anywhere in front of anyone.
    With drugs, although you are ashamed of it, most hide when doing it and you sneak to go get it. - 10/23/2013   8:42:36 AM
  • 15
    It sure does feel addictive!! Eating the sugar causes you to crave more and it seems you have to make an effort to break the cycle and it is tough for the first couple of weeks. But once you do you do not crave it as much. - 10/23/2013   8:40:41 AM
  • 14
    THANK YOU!!!! You've explained this absolutely perfect!!! - 10/23/2013   8:33:06 AM
  • 13
    It tastes good - for the first minute or two. After that, though, I start feeling pretty ill. I think it's because I've "denied" myself these things for so long that I'm used to not having them now, and when I do, it's overwhelmingly too sweet or too salty or too something. I actually prefer my healthier diet now because it's what I'm used to, and I'm a creature of habit if nothing else. I don't see myself going back to the way I used to eat, even if someone shoved a tray of Oreos in my face. It's just not appetizing anymore.

    More has changed, for me, than just a number on a scale. - 10/23/2013   8:29:42 AM
  • 12
    Whether you believe that it is an 'addiction' or not, I think we can all agree that junk food causes many people to have a strong response and a tendency to crave more. My biggest concern is that these foods are the cheapest foods in the supermarket. When people are on a tight budget, they are going to choose the processed foods because they can get more food with less money. I would like to see the government move away from subsidizing the production of corn (which finds its way in to these inexpensive processed foods) and start subsidizing healthier choices. Drop the prices of healthier food and you might find more people making that choice when they shop. - 10/23/2013   8:19:43 AM
  • 11
    I believe that I have suffered physical withdraw when I cut added sugar out of my diet for a few days. I was lethargic and had splitting headaches, similar to colleagues who had attempted to give up caffeine. And one taste of a sweet and I was binging all over again. That being said people over come alcoholism, quit smoking and give up drugs everyday. It might be hard and painful but it's up to me to do it. - 10/23/2013   8:13:30 AM
  • 10
    I don't believe food is addictive. I think it's more of a habit. Habits can be just as hard to break as an addiction though. - 10/23/2013   8:08:32 AM
  • LOST_IN_NY
    9
    Although I have had experiences similar to those mentioned by 7WORSHIPS and CERULEANTEAR, where eating a junk food gives me cravings to keep going down that road, I wouldn't classify it as an addiction, at least as far as I'm concerned. But on the other hand, I can have a drink or 2 a few times a month, or maybe not feel like having a drink for a month or 2, but there are other folks that are alcoholics and either get consumed by drink or have to avoid it completely with no middle ground. So maybe it's that same way with junk food for some? - 10/23/2013   7:54:35 AM
  • 8
    Drug abuse/addiction (animal models) is my area of study.

    Simply using or preferring a substance, whether it is drugs or food, is not addiction. In fact, you will notice that the DSM-IV-TR criteria for addiction doesn't even mention amount of drug taken; consuming a lot of the substance doesn't mean that the individual is addicted, and vice versa.

    Google "Symposium Overview—Food Addiction: Fact or Fiction?"

    The search should bring up a link to an article in the Journal of Nutrition- for a good discussion and more references for those interested in learning more about this topic. - 10/23/2013   7:26:10 AM
  • RUSSELL_40
    7
    I have no idea if it an addiction. What I do believe is that the people making the food have paid people to make it so tempting that you can't resist it. They know what makes you crave things, and can manipulate foods to cause cravings. Fat, and sugar taste great. When given the choice between ice cream or green beans, we choose the ice cream because it tastes better. Eating the ice cream causes other cravings for sugary foods, and this may be " addiction ", but it may just be your body producing Insulin to lower blood sugars, and by doing so, lowering it enough to make you hungry. When you are hungry again, what is available? More sugar, which in your recent experience was SO tasty? It may just be that we eat too many foods that spike our glucose levels, and the body responds by lowering it by releasing Insulin ( which is what is supposed to happen ). We then feel hungry, and what we eat is what is available, and what we like. If Oreos are available, there is a high possibility you will eat them. After all, you just ate dinner 2 hours ago, so this is a snack, not another meal. Oreos are a snack,

    We need to pay attention to what we eat BEFORE we get cravings, and find out why, and come up with a solution to remove those cravings. Once that occurs, you won't be eating extra calories, and will start losing weight.

    I chose to use a hatchet, and not a scalpel, and just remove most carbs, especially sweets, and processed carbs, but I don't think the need is that drastic for everybody. Find the foods that cause these cravings, and either eliminate them, or severely limit them. Replace these with healthy carbs, fats, and lean meats. As the article says, and all 6 solutions accomplish, having those options out of sight will help you make better choices. The availability of them so easily is the #1 contributor to us eating them. - 10/23/2013   6:50:57 AM
  • 7WORSHIPS
    6
    My past experiences with processed sweets confirms my belief that foods like oreos are indeed addictive. Eating sweets like this inevitably makes my body feel tired and makes me crave more. The only thing that works for me is abstinence. So even though it may not be true for everyone, junk food is addictive for me. - 10/23/2013   6:29:48 AM
  • 5
    So what we need is a definition of addiction that everyone can agree to. I don't even think we have that yet - but I do know that the more junk I eat the worse I feel and that holds true for when I was Not trying to eat a healthy diet and when I am. Oh - those first few pleasure laden moments of the salty cheesy fried Cheetos melting in my mouth feel great - but just about every moment afterwards feels horrible. Even as I'm eating them!!!

    And no FritoLay product ever forced me to plunk down the money. It had no little arms to drag me deep inside. I went willingly - if thoughtlessly - on the look out for something that I didn't find.

    what is needed is a new goal (feel just as great!!!) and perhaps a new path to that goal. One that really gets me to that feeling great moment. - 10/23/2013   6:19:14 AM
  • 4
    The food industry uses all kinds of technology and formulas to create the best product what will keep consumers buying and coming back for more. Some have even used imaging to see the response in the pleasure centers of the brain. So whether you call it addiction or cravings, junk is still a substance that changes our behavior both mentally and physically. The problem is that it is usually very low in any nutritional value, has a negative effect on our metabolism, and creates cravings for more of the same. People say that you can stop smoking/taking drugs and that's the end of it...but you cannot stop eating. The issue isn't not eating...it's a matter of eating foods that have nutritional value, don't have a negative impact on your blood sugar, and keep you satisfied. That requires changing ones mindset about food, and retraining ones tastebuds away from lots of sugar, salt, and fat. - 10/23/2013   6:09:23 AM
  • 3
    I think that there is a relationship. - 10/23/2013   5:12:57 AM
  • 2
    I never have been addicted to drugs or alcohol but I have heard that those who are addicted have to completely stay away from their substance abuse item or they will have serious trouble stopping themselves from using it. I am this way with certain foods. Just can't have them in the house. - 10/23/2013   2:58:27 AM
  • 1
    I think fast food is addictive. A couple of weeks ago, I ate at the munchie meal at Jack in the Box (after not eating any fast food for months). For the next couple of days I ate more junk food and I started to take notice of the fast food restaurants that I drove by. About a week later I ordered the munchie meal again.

    I still feel a strong desire to eat at Jack in the Box again, but I keep convincing myself that the food doesn't taste as good as I think it does. - 10/23/2013   1:43:52 AM

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