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Is the Junk-Food 'Addiction' Study Junk Science?

By , SparkPeople Blogger
"I'm fat because of Oreo cookies!" screamed the woman as she entered the weight-loss class I was coaching last week. In hand, she waved the press release from Connecticut College, which blared the warning, "Oreos are just as addictive as drugs!" 
"I am addicted to certain foods, just like those rats were addicted to Oreo cookies," she continued on.  "It's supposed to be worse than being addicted to cocaine. How am I ever going to be successful with my weight loss?"
While I had seen the study hit several of my RSS feeds earlier in the day, I really had not given it much attention. Other research has already shown that sugar-filled, fat-laden foods trigger the area of the brain that brings about pleasurable feelings. This pleasure center of the brain is also stimulated by drugs such as cocaine, morphine and alcohol.  In fact, studies using an MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) machine have shown the activation of this pleasure center when certain foods are consumed. 
To me, this popular news story was touting the same message as published in the New York Times article earlier this year, "The Extraordinary Science of Addictive Junk Food."
But when you combine the words "Oreo," "addiction" and "drugs" in a headline, you are bound to grab the attention of the reader, and this study did just that. In the Connecticut study, rats were placed in a maze that had two routes to different treats: sugary Oreo cookies or bland rice cakes. After the rats became familiar with the maze, you can probably guess which route they preferred---the path to the Oreos. The treats at the end of the two routes where then changed to a shot of saline (salt water) or a shot of cocaine or morphine. I imagine you can guess which injection the rats went for.  According to the researchers, the rats in the experiment spent as much time hanging around the Oreo zone in the food test as they did the cocaine zone in the drug test. This led the researchers to assume there was a similar level of addiction. 
But that isn't exactly a correct assumption. To show the degree of addiction one would need to know how hard the rat is willing to work for the reward, such as how many times a rat would be willing to push a lever to get the reward. Honestly, this study only supports previous studies that have shown that sugary and fatty foods like Oreos produce pleasure or are more enticing than non-sugary, non-fatty foods.
This particular study doesn't really prove that Oreos are "addictive," as eye-catching headlines would like you to believe. Whether any food can truly be "addictive" is still unproven. Certain foods and certain drugs do seem to share parallels in brain response.  There have been studies where rats were fed a "junk-filled" diet and then put on a healthy diet.  The brain changes were similar to those seen in drug addicts when trying to kick the habit.  And just as an addict develops tolerance and needs more to feel satisfied, so do overeaters who binge.
As a Registered Dietitian, I keep wondering what the best takeaway message from this study (and its aftermath) really is. How can we maintain control in an environment where these pleasure-stimulating foods are available with such ease (and excess)? How can we use this information to help prevent our children from becoming overweight? How does this help with our weight loss (or weight maintenance) efforts?  I came up with these six strategies, and ask for you to share your success-building ideas as well.
  1. Out of Sight, Out of Mouth: Clean out your kitchen, pantry, car, and work area first. Get rid of the junk and the temptation. Check out this plan to break your sugar "addiction" (and remember it will work for other foods, too). 
  2. Raise Your Voice: Ask for healthier options in your company's cafeteria, vending area, and break rooms. Request that nutrition information be available so you can make informed food decisions.
  3. Give Praise and Patronage: When national restaurants and private diners offer healthier options, substitutions, and the nutrition information; tell them how much you appreciate their movement towards better health. Vote with your fork (and wallet) to show your support for healthier fare.
  4. Kids First: Don't forget to support your child's school cafeteria as they try to bring about healthier options. 
  5. Arm Yourself: It is a dangerous food environment in which we live. Practice strategies (plan meals, pack snacks, read labels etc.) to stay full and satisfied so that you are less tempted to pull through the drive-thru window, grab a snack at the gas station, or overeat at the vending machine. 
  6. Single-Serve It: When you do want some Oreos, fish crackers, or ice cream, make a plan and purchase just a small single-serving portion—not the entire bag or box. This will allow you to make only one trip through the "maze" to get to the Oreos, rather than 25 pleasure-seeking trips those lab rats got.
More on this topic: Coach Dean blogged back in 2011 about the idea of food addiction and whether "addiction" is the right word to use to describe our pull toward certain foods. Read his take here.
What do you think? Are Oreos (or any other foods) as "addictive" as drugs?

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Really, junk food is as effective as drug. They show major impact on the children nowadays. Even most of the TV ads revolve around the junk food to do their business, but eventually our children's health is getting worse than ever. So, I would like to give a msg to all the present generation children to avoid the junk food (inlcuding pizzas, burgers, fries, bacon, oily foods, high fat foods, packaged foods and more). Instead of them try to consume the healthy food like leafy vegetables, boiled eggs, more veggies and more. This is the best advice I got from the doctor from https:// / Report
"“Sugar’s not dangerous because of its calories or because it makes you fat. Sugar is dangerous because it’s sugar. It’s not nutrition. When consumed in excess, it’s a toxin. And it’s addictive,” Lustig writes in his latest book, “The Hacking of the American Mind.”
I believe junk foods are actually more addictive than drugs because they're more readily available and cheaper. Report
It's the sugar that once you have it you want more. I know this so I try to chew gum it helps. Report
Junk food is addictive, it is designed that way, so that you want more. Why do you think when you are stressed, it is what you crave? No one craves broccoli. I kicked all sugars and flours, my health has improved dramatically. Report
When it comes to buying junk food at work. I just don't bring money with me Report
Appreciate the summary, helpful Report
great information Report
Very informative and I appreciate the steps to avoid getting on the slippery slopes oF sugar mountain. The feel good of sugar for me is very short lived before the guilt and self beatings start. And absolutely not are sugar and drugs the same in terms of addition. Report
Fortunately the withdrawal from sugar is much easier than withdrawal from drugs. A headache is far easier to tolerate than the illness, seizures, and whatever else comes along with withdrawal from drugs. Report
We are NOT rats. We do not behave as rats or think like rats. Comparing humans to rats is ridiculous.

Many things trigger that zone in the brain, sex, exercise, laughter, the color yellow. Triggering that zone in the brain does not create an addiction. The idea that sugar can be as dangerous as cocaine is nonsense. Report
Maybe “addictive” isn’t quite right - but many of these foods are literally designed to make us want to eat more of them, because they trigger specific responses in our brains. Compulsive is maybe a better word for it - eating these foods compels us to eat more of them - and some people seem to have a stronger compulsion than others. There are certain “trigger foods” that I consistently have trouble with - I know this, and avoid them. Luckily no one actually NEEDS those processed foods (or even homemade treats) - and whole foods don’t seem to cause the same issues, even very tasty ones like fruit! Report
Junk food IS dangerous! Report
Having recently experienced a sugar-filled binge, i have been thinking a lot about the emotional uplift that sugar brings & wondering what might be a better option other than sugar to sooth my stress? Haven't thought of one yet. Sigh! Report
Most junk food contains simple carbohydrates, which have shown to affect our hunger. Search on "carbohydrate hunger hormones". Not sure about cravings or addiction, though, particularly addiction since there are more than one type of addiction (eg. physiological vs. habitual). Report
The foods are not so much addictive as certain ingredients. And that information has been peer reviewed and proven. We have to treat these ingredients like a drug, a cigarette, or anything else that is harmful or we will be gripped in the chains of addiction. Report
I'm not sure but I've been told by several that it's a harder habit to kick sugar than drugs! Report
Some people have addictive personalities...whether tobacco, drugs, alcohol, food, religion, or anything else...some people can do without, and others need it. Often people will switch one addiction for another: The smoker who gives up cigarettes only to chew gum all day, or the drug addict who gets clean having found religion! Report
I agree with Becky that the takeaway message is far fetched.
But even if sugar cravings are probably not stronger than cocain cravings,
they affect far more people who need help. Report
I look at it this way: food corporations want money. That's their goal. They don't care about how to get people to come back. They hire psychologists and food scientists to ensure that these foods have people wanting more. I decided that these companies aren't getting my money anymore. They are in the business of keeping people addicted, and coming back. Report
In a very personal way, I have a sugar addiction. I would even dream about chocolate covered oreos and other fatty sugary foods. I would start eating one or two, but every time I needed more and more. Of course I always struggled with dieting and felt deprived during diet times. Then, a few months ago I decided to quit sugar completely. I ditched all sweetened junk food, artificial sweeteners, honey, agave, coconut sugar, cane sugar, refined sugar, high fructose corn syrup, fructose anything with added sugars and anything sweet except for fruits (whole, never juices or jams). At first I felt awful (it was harder for me than quit smoking) but after kicking the sugar habit to the curve I stopped having head aches, feeling hungry all day long, being cranky and after more than 20 years, I finally stopped being depressed. Just like that. What started as a 30 day detox idea is been going on for over 120 days and I plan to stay like that. I don't know if sugar is addictive to everyone, but for me its poison and terribly addictive (withdrawal symptoms and all). I've never tried cocaine, but I smoked and for me sugar was worst. Report
Scientifically speaking, food of any kind is not a drug. Comparing the addictive potential of drugs to cravings for junk food is absurd. If you have a physical addiction, you will also have predictable and measurable withdrawals when that addictive substance is removed. (No, your sugar cravings are not withdrawal symptoms.) Whoever started this food addiction nonsense needs to knock it off (I suspect it was the AA crowd. Twelve Step programs are every bit as unscientific as the notion that you can be addicted to Oreos.) Report
I know from experience that "oreos" are in fact A DRUG. I stay far away from these foods. It is scary that products like these are still being sold just because it is popular. There is not one solid real ingredient in an oreo and other foods like these. It is scary!!! Report
I have struggled with a sugar addiction for most of my life. However, I can give two facts if you find yourself hooked on Oreos. First of all, there is NO dairy or eggs in them, so what are they made of? Secondly, because they contain palm oil, their production contributes to the decimation of the rain forest. Report
I believe there is definitely a correlation between sugar and addiction. It may be that only those with addictive personality have a problem. I know it is not a problem for me to give up sugary foods and often I will take a single bite of DH's sweet treat and be perfectly happy but tell him to stop eating that stuff and he becomes very angry. Report
I think that for people who binge, there is something like a drug feeling that they have. I don't binge, but I tried it a few times, to see what people were talking about. I know it's bad, but I did this anyway. And yes, I felt a euphoria. It's true. Perhaps you've never done this. I no longer do it, and I was just trying it really. I wanted to know. For people who really want to feel good, and don't know of other ways, food would be really attractive because of this euphoria feeling. I think that you need to research this more before you entirely dismiss this as being nonexistent. Because, unfortunately, the addiction to food is very real for people who have it. Report
As someone suffering from an eating disorder, I am afraid that someone will read this article and think that with a few tweaks to their behaviour and environment, their "addiction" will be cured. Eating disorders are real illnesses and people suffering need professional help to recover. It wasn't until I accepted that I had a mental disorder that I began to take control of my health. There isn't a diet or exercise in the world that will cure an eating disorder. Report
I think the level of addiction to anything is why you are eating it in the first place. For any of us who deal with stress,anxiety,and depression many times we eat these snacks because in our mind it makes us feel good. I find that the strategies you mentioned work very well. I try to plan and pack my treats, also I rarely buy the foods that I have a harder time keeping myself from having reasonable servings of like pringles,cookies,and such. Great suggestions.:-) Report
I reckon if you keep looking for "scholarly" excuses to stay fat and unhealthy, there's apparently a dearth of them out there.
Seems to me it's much more productive to be an adult about it, admit that you're in the state you're in because of your own actions - not the food industry, not Monsanto, not those dastardly fellas over at Nabisco, or the president or congress or your mother, et al; YOU made bad decisions, and if you continue to make bad decisions, you're going to stay fat. Report
Any addictive substance has a physical but also an emotional component. I consider myself a sugar addict which not everyone recognizes but I can drink alcohol moderately and have never used drugs. Alcoholics and drug addicts however have different experiences. I personally cannot eat any added sugar (and frankly not much fruit). That doesn't mean everyone has that problem but I have found through thirty long years of trying to eat everything in moderation that this is the only way I can eat and maintain any hope of being healthy. Kudos to those that can eat everything in moderation but it doesn't work for me Report
The fact that we needed a study to tell us that people do things that feel good, is bizarre. Really, isn't this common sense. Overdoing things that feel good is not the fault of the thing, but rather a reflection of our own issues. Report
I found the biggest difference between D&A addiction and food addiction is that to defeat the former, the addict must be prepared to give everything she has to slay the dragon; in the latter, the addict must put the dragon in a leash and take him for a walk, everyday for the rest of her life. Report
My daughter is in graduate school. She wrote a research paper on food addiction for her one of her classes. Her paper was based on scholarly articles and reading some of the actual research studies. To keep balance she read scholarly articles questioning and criticizing the research as well. So far, there are studies that continue to validate the findings that hedonistic food substances (salt, sugar, & fat) impact the brain like drugs and alcohol do. Mental health and medical research professionals mostly debate not if, but why there is a correlation and how to respond to the findings. One thing everyone seemed to agree upon was that more studies are needed. She said the American Psychological Association has not classified food as an addiction. Yet.
What does this mean to us?
Her opinion. If you think you have binge eating disorder or if you are concerned about food addiction go and see a mental health counselor or psychologist that specializes in eating disorders. Report
If you want to read an informative book on the notion that foods can be addictive, find a copy of one of the following books

The End of Overeating: Taking Control of the Insatiable North American Appetite by Kessler Md, David A. (May 4 2010)

Salt Sugar Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us by Moss, Michael (Feb 26 2013)

There is lots of entries on the Sparks site regarding these books.
After having read the first book, I couldn't tell if I was more angry at the 'food giants' for concocting the perfect formula to make the consumer 'desire' their product or if I was angry at all us consumers that support those same food giants. VERY good read. VERY informative.

Borrow them from the library. Report
We don't expect recovering alcoholics and recovering drug addicts to put up their hands and proclaim "I am addicted to X" and give up. Rather through counselling, support groups, and sheer determination of mind, we expect them to battle their addiction, overcome and become a functioning part of society.

The articles alluded to in this report about the similarities between addictive drugs and the addictive quality of certain foods (salt, sugar, fat) can be informative and lead us to demand changes in the food industries, but the final result is this. The food, addictive or not, does not make me fat. How much I ALLOW to pass over my teeth into my stomach is what makes me fat.

I can understand the addictive qualities of certain foods, but unless the cookies (or whatever) are forcing themselves into my mouth the blame falls squarely on the me. Report
Everybody is different. I have a huge addiction to sugar. It's pretty scary actually. My family is really confused by it due to them not being this way. I have a sweet tooth but it goes past that.

When I think of a treat (cookies, etc.) my mind won't release that thought. My mouth waters, I can smell it, taste it, and become agitated until I get it. I have a horrible time breaking myself of it. I have to cold turkey for 2 1/2 weeks (including no fast food) before I can walk by it in my house. I don't keep sweets in my house because I can't stop eating it. It litteraly takes over all my thoughts. It sounds stupid, but it's true. I'll try for months to break the cycle and it's the hardest thing I ever do. I will it in my mind and get the shakes when I don't have it. I go through an emotional rollarcoaster while I'm litterly detoxing from the sugar.

I'm a completely different person after 2 1/2 weeks. I can make it on one cookie (not the entire box) I don't feel the NEED to HAVE to have them anymore. I do know that I can't have more than a couple of sweets a week or it triggers it all over again.

Mentally its horrible and a true addiction. You don't understand it if you don't have it. It can be broken but you have to get over that hurdle and then stay away from it. Report
I believe sugar and other unhealthy foods are not as addictive as drugs. They give us a rush and we like the way it feels. It vaies from person to person. Like drugs, some people love uppers, Other perfer downers and there are those that dont get a psychological rush from it. So, with our unique bodies, we crave differently. I crave sugar then desire salty to counteract what I just ate. Report
While I understand why KARLEIGH66 says what she does, corn is also a major staple and can be eaten healthfully. A corn tortilla is fairly healthy, often only containing ground corn and lime juice, just don't eat a whole package. If we could stop supporting the junk food producers by buying their products, believe me, those companies would quickly invest in making whatever everyone was eating! Also, I was a little surprised to read that she thinks they 're cheap, as I don't consider $3.00 per package and up (for Oreos, which this article is mostly about), low cost. One can buy a celery bunch for under a dollar, or radishes, green onions... well you get the picture. I lived off of $25-$40 a week for food in the late '90's and was even able to buy whole salmon, Chinese pea pods, fresh mushrooms and other 'expensive' foods. You can choose to eat healthy, those who blame the expense and buy the addicting and unhealthy food are often fooling themselves. I am not saying KARLEIGH66 is one of those people, just that you can eat fairly healthy on a smaller budget if you shop smart. Report
I am truly allergic to Oreo Cookies. I get terrible headaches if I eat too many, so I usually pass them up.

I definitely think that you can be addicted to certain foods. These foods are often comfort foods for those who emotionally eat. Other times it is food that we eat out of habit. When we try to stray from eating this unhealthy food on a regular basis we get to having withdrawals and we crave the "feeling" that these foods bring to us. It can be very hard to break a food addiction, and honestly that is why most of us are on this site because we are addicted to food and we can't get enough of it. Report
I do understand that the more sugar you consume, the more you may crave it. However, this is a lot different than having an addiction to something. Report
Great advice from Becky Hand, take control of your lives! And yes, I VERY much appreciate when restaurants decide on their own free will to offer healthy options.

Finally, to say that Oreos are as addictive as cocaine is beyond insulting and totally belittles the true problem of drug addiction. Report
And so the food police tries any way it can to control the population. OREOS are EVIL, AUUGGGGHHH! Good riddance, what a pathetic assumption. How about this, take responsibility and control of your own lives. Report
I concur, CMORGAN253.
Thanks JANEDOE, student of addiction/animal model. I will check that out. Report
. Rice cakes? Oreos? Duh! Maybe the rats just had good taste! Report
Good advice! I do believe sugar is addictive, due to what it does to the pleasure center of the brain and the fact that once I get started I have a hard time stopping. But that doesn't mean I stop trying to fight against it. Report
Yes, rule No. 1: do not keep any temptations around the house!

Whenever I think I crave something rich, I make a whole recipe of it in my mind. I go through the whole process: mixing, cooking, I can even smell it mentally! If it's a cake, I even ice it and then I imagine eating some.

I'm a chef so there's hardly anything I don't know how to make! If I got desperate I guess I could cook a whole buffet of stuff, but usually one slice is enough!

This is one of the techniques I used on the way to my goal, and it still works now that I'm there. Report
I agree with CAREN BLUEJEAN Report
Remember the Twinky theory??? Sugar kills in more ways than one. Report
It took me a month to clean out my kitchen before I started my diet. I have always believed in the out of site, out of mind. I don't have cravings when I don't have it in my kitchen. If I do have something that I should not really be indulging in at this time, I place it in the back of the cabinet. This way, its not the first thing I see. I have found things I forgot about. When I did find it, it was way out of date. I would still try to eat it but found it was too stale or not tasty to eat. As to being addictive? I, too, had a drug habit 17 yrs ago. I find food as addictive as the drugs I took. It takes a great deal of will power to just say no. I put the same practice to food as I did the drugs...wait 5 minutes, wait 5 more minutes. Usually the craving is goes away. I find getting busy outside of the area helps as well. Again, out of site, out of mind. Report