What milkshakes teach us about food addiction

Highlights of history

Study shows certain foods can trigger addictive behavior

The concept of food addiction remains provocative, however.

The study shows that milkshakes activate part of the brain also activated by drugs


Have you ever wanted a piece of chocolate? Or felt the allure of a hot slice of pizza? And been convinced that the responsible force was not your stomach hoping to appease hunger but your brain, desperate to satisfy something like a addiction?

A new study provides the strongest evidence to date that certain foods trigger addictive behavior just like drugs can.

Nicotine is addictive. The same goes for drugs like cocaine and heroin. Anyone can reconnect the brain to crave the ‘high’ or the progressively elusive satisfaction that these agents produce. The desire is so strong that it surpasses all reason and the need to satisfy it becomes a consuming mission, to the detriment of your physical, emotional and social health.

Some would argue that certain foods have the same power over people, playing with the brain’s normal appetite system and resetting the satisfaction threshold so that it’s always out of reach, which means you can never eat enough.

Others point out that food is essential for survival, so it cannot be addictive, as satisfying hunger is part of physical and mental health and is not supposed to interfere with it.

“The concept of food addiction is very provocative, and rightly so,” says Dr. David Ludwig, director of the New Balance Foundation Obesity Center at Boston Children’s Hospital. “Unlike drugs of abuse, food is necessary for survival.”

TIME.com: Can Food Really Be Addictive? Yes, says the national drug expert

But with obesity rates still at worrying levels, Ludwig and his colleagues decided to take an objective look at the effect of food on the brain, to see if certain foods actually trigger cravings like certain abused substances do. .

Specifically, they focused on the food glycemic index, a measure of a food’s ability to raise blood sugar, on regions of the brain associated with food cravings in a group of obese men.

“Previous research has shown that delicious high-calorie foods can trigger the brain’s pleasure center. This supports the idea of ​​food addiction, but the importance of these studies has been disputed because they typically compare very different foods like cheesecake versus boiled vegetables, ”says Ludwig. “Yes, some foods are tasty and enjoyable, but is it that different from an audiophile listening to great music? ”

Ludwig had MRI scans of 12 obese men after consuming two milkshakes. Both had the same amount of calories, protein, fat, and carbohydrates and tasted equally sweet. However, one milkshake had a much higher glycemic index coming from carbohydrates compared to the other.

After the men consumed the higher glycemic index milkshake, their blood sugar increased as expected, then collapsed a few hours later, leaving them hungry.

But with brain scans, Ludwig was able to show that these jerks activated the nucleus accumbens, which is also triggered by drugs and addictive behaviors like gambling.

Previous work has also hinted at a link between food and addiction; a 2012 to study found that obese people lose their sensitivity to leptin, a hormone that is released by fat cells in the body and that regulates feelings of hunger and fullness. Leptin may also play a role in drug addiction by altering the body’s reward responses to things like alcohol or cocaine.

“These results suggest that highly processed carbohydrates trigger food cravings for many hours after consumption, regardless of calories or taste, and that limiting these foods could help people avoid overeating,” says Ludwig. When the glycemic index drops, the nucleus accumbens can signal more, in order to produce another surge, similar to how addictive drugs cause cravings, he says.

TIME.com: Heroine vs. Haagen-Dazs: What Food Addiction Looks Like in the Brain

But does that mean food is addictive? One of the main differences between drug addiction and drug addiction is the body’s ability to signal that it is “full” or that it has had enough. With drugs, there is less of a biological threshold. But common brain patterns activated by food and addictive drugs suggest that each can inform the other. As Maia Szalavitz of TIME reported:

“Basically, regulating food intake is more complex than drug use. This may help explain why there have been so many anti-obesity drug failures. But the similarities between food and drug hunger suggest that if we develop a drug that fights obesity, it may help treat other addictions as well – and vice versa.

“While the food addiction debate shows no signs of ending, the label itself may not be that important. What matters most is finding ways to adapt our brains and behavior to the modern environment, an environment that contains intensely appealing foods and drugs – as well as highly politicized arguments on how to use them. to regulate. ”

TIME.com: Americans may be fatter than we think, study finds

Understanding how certain elements of the diet may be motivated by the same processes behind addictive behaviors could help explain overeating, for example.
“By definition, overweight and obese people have a habit of overeating. They eat more calories than they need, ”says Ludwig.

“This raises this fundamental question, why do overweight people continue to overeat when they intellectually know that reducing calorie intake would be healthier and have tried, often repeatedly, to do so? Is it simply a lack of willpower or could there be aspects of food that lead to overeating on a biological level? ”

If there are biological factors at work, there may be ways to intervene to facilitate dieting and weight loss. Eating fewer foods with high blood sugar loads like white bread, for example, can minimize surges in blood sugar, which in turn could modulate the activity of the brain’s reward system and reduce cravings. .

Ludwig says more research is needed to better understand the complex way the brain sees food; although food is not exactly addictive in the same way as drugs, exposing the links between food and satisfaction could lead to more effective ways of managing, or even avoiding, attraction. of our favorite foods.

The study is published in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition.

This article was originally published on TIME.com.

What milkshakes teach us about food addiction

About Thomas B. Countryman

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