More on Food as Addictive
The debate about whether or not sugar and fat are addictive has gone on for decades. When it began and for long after, the evidence, though inconclusive, leaned toward the negative. Now, according to Laura Beil in “The snack-food trap” (Newsweek, 11/5/12), consensus may be tipping toward the affirmative. Although there are strong, credible challenges to the concept of food as addictive, it seems that “especially in studies of rodents, the brain appears to uniquely draw us to high-calorie, low-nutrient foods…”
Mark Gold, chairman of psychiatry at the University of Florida, has done studies which “point to the possibility that eating may satisfy the same brain cravings that drive a person to addictive tobacco, alcohol, and drug use.” The article underscores, however, that not everyone who is “overweight” may suffer from addiction, just as some people drink alcohol, smoke cigarettes, and experiment with drugs like cocaine and oxycodone, but do not develop a habit. So there’s some precedent for the possibility that addiction is not only about the substance but about the substance user.
Rat research indicates that it’s difficult to quit eating high-sugar and high-fat foods when they become habits and that “when sugar was offered in high doses then taken away, animals experienced classic withdrawal symptoms like anxiety, tremors, and chattering teeth.” But the article cautions that we must be careful about “extrapolating from rats to humans.” With humans, there are additional eating-related influences, such as lacking sufficient receptors for dopamine, the feel-good neurotransmitter, which makes it hard to “inhibit strong urges” and which may make certain people “less sensitive to the pleasure of eating itself, needing greater quantities of food to feel the reward.”
Researchers are still challenging the theory that sugar and fat are addictive, but most agree that “the brain has some kind of programming that has drawn us to foods that are sweet and fatty as a survival mechanism over the course of human evolution.” This is because calorie-dense foods provided the most energy when food was scarce and because sweetness, versus bitterness, indicated that food was edible and not rancid.
How much of a disregulated eater’s reaction to food all-or-nothing thinking, addiction, or due to other food-related factors? I’ve known clients who swore they were addicted to sugar and fat learn how to eat them on occasion and be satisfied. Does that mean they were never addicted? At this point, we don’t have all the answers, but hopefully some