Michael Omidi discusses a new study suggesting that certain processed foods trigger a neurological response similar to the response after taking narcotics or alcohol.
We tend to think that our cravings for salty, fatty, starchy and sweet treats are a kind of moral failure; that if we had more willpower, we would conquer our need for junk food and simply nosh on carrot sticks and spring water. And yet, for the most part, we don’t, resulting in Americans having the highest obesity rate in the developed world. So, is our desire to veg out on the sofa with a bag of chips a personal weakness, or a legitimate addiction? A new study seems to indicate that our affection for processed snack foods and fast foods might be an addiction.
Dr. David Ludwig with the New Balance Foundation Obesity Center at the Boston Children’s Hospital recently authored a study wherein obese subjects were given processed carbohydrate-laden food products and then subjected to MRIs. The results? The same area of the brain that becomes aflutter with activity after ingesting narcotics or engaging in gambling was similarly activated after eating carbs.
Twelve patients were given two milkshakes apiece. One shake was made the usual way – milk, flavoring and ice cream – while the other was heavily supplemented with processed carbohydrates. The subjects had their brain activity measured via MRI after they consumed each shake, and it was found in each that the nucleus accumbens experienced far higher than usual activity (the nucleus accumbens is the section of the brain that responds to addictive behaviors). Moreover, the subjects experienced a temporary “high” after drinking the carbo-loaded shakes, followed by a “crash” an hour later. The high glycemic index from the carbohydrate shake resulted in a blood sugar spike, which also resulted in cravings for more a short time after consumption.
Since food is essential to life, the addiction to certain foods cannot be managed in the same way as an addiction to narcotics, alcohol or any chemical that it is possible to live without. There is no easy solution, but we must nonetheless attempt to regulate ourselves for the benefit of our health. We may need food to survive, but we don’t need unhealthy convenience foods, which serve to harm us more than nourish us. As any recovering addict will tell you, an addiction isn’t a tap that can be switched off; everyone who battles any kind of substance abuse must take it one day at a time. Although the addictive properties of certain foods haven’t been scientifically established, we can still try to overcome our over-fondness of some unhealthy snacks by taking it one day at a time.
1Sifferlin, Alexandria: What Milk Shakes Teach Us About Food Addiction Time Magazine via CNN.com 6/28/2013 http://www.cnn.com/2013/06/28/health/time-food-addiction/index.html?hpt=he_c2