I remember my childhood excitement when we would go to the United States for holidays – this was before globalization, before you could get any of your favorite big-brand foods anywhere in the world – because it meant that I could finally get my fingers onto those iconic cookies again. Oreos are one of the tastes that in my mind is intractably linked to America, to trick-or-treating dressed up as Pocahontas, later to long lazy afternoons spent reading Harry Potter on my bed – and even later, when studying abroad in Paris, they even served as the occasional lunchtime meal eaten on the metro while apartment hunting because they were the best thing the vending machines had on offer.
But you know how hard it is to stop after one cookie or two when the sleeve fits six? Turns out, there is new research showing that I am not alone in my self-control issues around Oreos – and that foods rich in fat, sugar and salt may just trigger the same regions in our brain that traditional ‘addictions’ (such as to alcohol, drugs or nicotine) do.
In an experiment at Connecticut College, lab rats were put in a maze and given the choice to exit at two sides, either to find a rice cake or an Oreo cookie. Unsurprisingly, most rats congregated to the Oreo side. Then, the experiment was repeated and the rats were given injections of either saline or cocaine – and the measured brain responses in the pleasure center were fairly equivalent to the cookie experiment. Actually, more neurons were stimulated in the “pleasure center” when eating the sugary treats than when given the drug. According to the researchers, “these findings suggest that high fat/sugar foods and drugs of abuse trigger brain addictive processes to the same degree and lend support to the hypothesis that maladaptive eating behaviors contributing to obesity can be compared to drug addiction.”
This finding fits well into the argument an article in Scientific American recently made, in that obesity could be seen as a real health condition similar to other addictions because of the likelihood that “food addiction”, rather than laziness or lack of education, led to the overeating in the first place (if you can’t access the full article through the link above, here is an abstract). Paul Kenny, a neuroscientist with The Scripps Research Institute, argued that there are two fundamental processes in place when we eat: a) appetite-suppressing hormones tell us when we have eaten enough calories to sustain our daily activities by making us feel satiated; and b) hedonic eating experiences (of food that tastes good, mostly because it’s dense in fat or sugar) trigger our neurological reward systems and tell us to continue eating.
Kenny then argued that if reaction b) overrides a), we keep eating despite being full because of this vicious cycle of reward hormones such as endorphins – and similar to addiction mechanisms, we have to eat more and more to get to the same level of rewarding feeling since our bodies create a tolerance for the hormones. Thus, “obese individuals may overeat just to experience the same degree of pleasure that lean individuals enjoy from less food.“
Furthermore, the article questioned the consequences of labeling a certain behavior ‘addictive’ or not – which is mainly related to its treatment possibilities. Apparently, using endorphin blockers that are commonly given to tackle heroine, cocaine and alcohol addiction can also reduce overeating in rodents and humans – and trigger withdrawal symptoms in the treated rats, furthering the hypothesis that foods can actually be addicting. I definitely know I get chocolate withdrawal whenever I try to stop eating it 😉
Other new weight-loss drugs use components that have previously been employed to tackle nicotine and alcohol addiction – though they are still being tested.
Finally, I found the conclusion of the article really interesting:
Even if scientists prove that obesity can stem from an addiction to food, and we find that antiaddiction medications can help people lose weight, obese individuals will have to struggle with one factor that seems now to be endemic in America: they will probably be surrounded by overweight family members, friends and co-workers who are still overeating, putting them in the same difficult environment they were in before. As we know from recovering drug addicts and alcoholics, environmental cues are a major cause of craving and relapse. Western society, saturated in fat and temptation, will make it hard for any obese person to quit.
What does this mean for our society as a whole? Are we moving towards a Wall-e-esque future?
Bonus: Great FAQ article by the Guardian on this topic. Including a link to a list of the 10 most addicting foods according to consumer surveys. They are (from #10 to #1): white bread, donuts, pasta, cake, chips, cookies, chocolate, french fries, candy and … drum roll … ice cream! The same website has a quiz to test whether you have a food addiction (I wouldn’t take it too seriously, though.) Also, apparently there exist academic comedy stand-up routines on the matter. Actually pretty funny.