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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?