Food as Addictive as Cocaine?

addicted to carbsMounting evidence is suggesting that fatty and processed foods are not just bad for our waistlines, but actually affect our brains in similar ways to drugs like cocaine and nicotine. According to a recent article, just in the past year alone, twenty eight scientific studies have been published about how food can be addictive. While we have been eating sugars and fats as part of our diet throughout history, modern processing is now creating food with concentrated levels of sugars, unhealthy fats and refined flour, and void of healthy nutrients and fiber. Experts believe that eating large amounts of these processed foods may be changing the way the brain is wired. When we eat these processed foods, our brains react as would be expected in a drug addict and we experience rapid spikes and drops in blood sugar, which stimulates cravings.

A few of the studies from the past year included binge-eating rats, rodents who became addicted to the level of sugar contained in soda, and magnetic resonance imaging scans of women’s brains as they sipped milkshakes. All of these studies supported the claim that fatty and processed foods can be addictive.  In the milkshake study, pictures of milkshakes lit up the same regions in the brain that become hyperactive in alcoholics when they are anticipating a drink. The rats consuming the quantity of sugar in a soda experienced anxiety, shakes and tremors, and other symptoms of addiction withdrawal when the effect of the sugar was blocked with a drug.

The researchers hope to use the findings to create treatments that interfere with pathological food preferences. For instance, to treat ice cream addiction, they might want to create a treatment to block interest in ice cream, but one that doesn’t interfere with interest in meat.

Dr. Robert Cywes, expert weight loss surgeon at Jacksonville Weight Loss Center, spoke with us about the article, commenting that “fatty foods never made us fat. Fatty carbs did. Nobody comes home desiring a nice warm cup of canola oil or a juicy stick of butter, but we do come home and hit the ice cream or the chocolates or the pasta or pizza.” He explained that obesity (the 50 lb + category) is an addiction: “We manage addiction by abstinence, so if it was an addiction to food, that is a contradiction in terms since you can’t very well stop eating. But obesity is not an addiction to food, it is an addiction to carbohydrates used to manage fluctuations in our emotional needs consumed via a habituated pattern of snacking. It’s similar to smokers that don’t smoke a lot at one time, but smoke 20+ cigarettes in the course of their day. Nicotine has the same endorphin-releasing effect of carbohydrates.”

Dr. Cywes concluded that “carbohydrates are not essential to the human diet; therefore, obesity can be treated through abstinence from carbohydrates while still eating a lot of food for its nutritional value. Effective obesity management occurs when it is managed using substance abuse methodology (abstinence) not diet and weight loss methodology (restriction), since habits can’t be broken while still doing them.”

You can learn more about the role carbohydrates play in obesity in a short video by Dr. Cywes, as well as how carbs are as addictive as a drug.

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