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Food Addiction: It is A Real Problem

Update Date: Jun 27, 2013 02:47 PM EDT

Addictions, ranging from mild to severe, can be a debilitating aspect of one's life. People who have drug addictions, for example, experience very painful withdrawal symptoms when they try to give up the addiction. Despite understanding addiction as a reason for uncontrollable actions, people often use the word loosely when it comes to food. Food addictions characterized by intense cravings are not often grouped together with drug addictions because eating food and choosing what to eat are often perceived as personal choices shaped by one's self-discipline. However, a new study is suggesting that even food addictions can be as real as drug addictions in a way that food triggers the mind, rather than the stomach, to want to fulfill the cravings.

"The concept of food addiction is very provocative and rightly so," the director of the New Balance Foundation Obesity Center at Boston Children's Hospital, Dr. David Ludwig said according to TIME. "Unlike drugs of abuse, food is necessary for survival."

The researchers headed by Ludwig decided to study the effects of food on brain chemistry. They decided to focus on dietary glycemic index, which is a measurement of how foods increase blood sugar levels. Their study also focused on 12 obese men. The team took MRI brain scans of all of the male participants after drinking two milk shakes. The milkshakes were made to have the same calorie count, protein, fat and carbohydrates. The only difference was that one milk shake had a higher glycemic index than the other.

The researchers unsurprisingly found that men who drank the milk shake with the higher glycemic index had higher blood sugar levels. What was surprising for the researchers was the discovery of how the milk shakes influenced the brain. Based from the scans, the researchers found that the milk shake triggered activity in the nucleus accumbens, a region of the brain that gets triggered by addictive drugs and behaviors.

"These results suggest that highly processed carbohydrates trigger food cravings for many hours after consumption independent of calories or tastiness, and that limiting these foods could help people avoid over-eating," Ludwig explained. He theorized that when the glycemic index drops several hours after the consumption of the food, the nucleus accumbens might be responsible for triggering the need for more.

Although this process appears to be similar to additions seen in drug use, the researchers noted that with food, the body has the ability to stop by telling the mind that it is too full to eat more. However, for some people, particularly overweight and obese people, they continue to eat way pass the point when the body informs them of being full. The researchers believe that some biological mechanisms might be at work and by understanding these mechanisms, there could be better diet plans and methods to stop overeating and curb obesity.

The study was published in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition

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