By Maryann Tomovich Jacobsen, MS, RD
One of the big headlines this week focused on a popular topic: food addiction. Researchers at Connecticut College found that lab rats flocked to the Oreo side of a maze when compared to the side with the rice cakes. The same thing happened when the rats were given the choice of cocaine and morphine versus saline. After the fact, the researchers studied the rats’ brains to find that neuronal activation in the “pleasure center” of the brain was significantly more in the Oreo-eating rats.
Does this mean that eating an Oreo is as addictive as taking cocaine? For rats, it seems likely. For humans, it’s not so clear cut.
“While work on animals certainly supports the argument that the combination of high fat and sugar, prevalent in modern processed foods, produces an addiction-like phenomenon in rodents, the food addiction concept in humans often rests on a less well-explored extrapolation: namely that certain highly processed foods are addictive,” write Ziauddeen and Fletcher in the January edition of Obesity Reviews.
The authors highlight the challenges of extrapolating animal research to humans. For example, rodents usually have nonstop access to sugar and fat in such laboratory settings — food that is available 24/7 unlike adults in a free living situation. The authors also point out that “no coherent picture has evolved” in human studies, with more inconsistencies than consistencies. And unlike other addictive drugs, there is no specific concentration of nutrients known to cause the addiction besides the broad category of foods containing sugar and fat.
In a word, food addiction is more complex than reports make it seem.
Yoni Freedhoff, a well-known obesity doctor and blogger at Weighty Matters put in his two cents:
“If our pleasures centres didn’t light up like Christmas trees when faced with sugars and fats then I’m pretty sure there wouldn’t be over 7 billion of us walking the planet, because up until only about a millisecond or so in the grand scheme of time, those who were more driven to eat were the only ones who survived. To put this another way, the fact that energy dense foods are neurochemically rewarding is anything but surprising when considering the hundreds of millions of years of dietary insecurity that have seared and forged our physiology. ”
So while the jury is still out on food addiction in humans, that doesn’t mean our desire for energy-rich food isn’t problematic. While our biology hasn’t changed, our environment has, with palatable foods more highly available than ever before in history. Here are some tips that can help:
- Instead of forbidding certain items, which can make them even more desirable, practice mindful eating by sitting and enjoying food without judgment, focusing on the experience of eating while paying attention to cues of hunger and fullness. According to a 2013 study in Mindfulness, after 4 months of Mindfulness Based Eating Awareness Training (MB-EAT), 95% of those with binge eating disorder no longer met the criteria for the disease. Some people, especially those whose eating has become unmanageable, will benefit from getting professional help.
- Stock your kitchen with many whole, nutritious foods that do a much better job of nurturing your body. When you want something with sugar and fat be super picky and eat a small portion with or after the meal.
- Make feeding yourself a priority by eating balanced meals and snacks at regular intervals at the table (or any designated place). This will help you avoid unexpected increases in hunger and the need for quick fixes like grabbing a cookie or whatever is available.
- Take care of yourself! Studies show that people who are stressed and don’t get enough sleep tend to crave more foods with sugar and fat.
We may not be able to change our biology, but unlike rodents, humans have the ability to change the way they eat and relate to food, which is incredibly powerful.
Have you ever felt addicted to food?