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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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Studies have conclusively shown that chocolate stimulates the release of endorphins, which are the morphine-like substance in the body. So, for some people, Chocolate can be addictive. But that is SOME people. Not everyone prescribed Lortabs for pain becomes addicted to them. Only those not willing to look at themselves and honestly evaluate their own choices and actions will grab onto these studies and apply them to themselves. Report
Junk food of any sort does me in every time. Once I see it I got to have it! It is a struggle for me daily! Report
To funny I never did like Oreo Cookies not even as a kid, not a big junk food eater either my weekness and my doing in.. Soda.. I can say no to the burgers and fris easy but staying off the Soda is my battle none this week trying to stay strong... ok time to get my mind on something else Report
I think that it's all in the mind. My mother was a chain smoker for over 20 years and was able to quit cold turkey. There are people who have been on drugs or alcohol and was able to be clean the first time around. I used to eat a lot of sweets like kit-kats and Hershey bars. What stopped me from eating it is a decaying tooth that had to get pulled. Deep down, I don't think that food is addictive. It's all about what emotions you have towards food. Report
Do love junk food...but not at all into sweets. Give me chips and salsa or nuts over chocolate any day. EXCEPT, I got braces a few months chips * no nuts.....ah least my smile will be straight Report
Oh, I know I have a junk food addiction. . As soon as I let myself have a piece of cake or candy or a ( a manufactured goody or fast food meal) it seems I can't get enough! I want more and more! No amount satisfies the craving! My thinking even changes. I start justifying the choice. I tell myself oh its just a "slip up" I'm allowed. Oh just a little bit more then I will stop. All the things an addict says when using drugs! Report
If you'd like to find out whether sugar (Oreo's, after all, are made out with sweet stuff, mostly high fructose corn syrup) is addictive, try a 28-day sugar detox. If a substance is not addictive you can just stop, right? Sugar detox is painful and you get really bad cravings. Report
I think to a certain extent there are addictive foods. Fast food being a major one, there are things added to the food to bring you back again and again. I personally ate at Taco Bell a minimum of three to four times a week. Is the food there really that great? I don't think so, I think it has everything to do with all of the sodium and other flavor enhancers that is put in that food to have people like me come back over and over and frequently.

I think if Taco Bell served just healthy foods sith a minimum of sodium they would not be doing the huge business that they do. The same can be said for all the other fast food chains. And the serving sizes are out of proportion to what a normal person would eat. Although in recent years the sizes have been coming down. No longer is there the Super Size option... Report
When I was in highschool (late 70s - early 80s) there was an article that said sugar was so addictive that it took a a full 6 months to totally withdraw from it.

You can wait for a definitive study if you wish, or you can be the science. Go off it for 6 months and track your emotions and reactions carefully. I know it's addictive for me.

I can almost always walk away from oreos, but is there a huge point in determining if your kid is addicted to sucking his thumb, or just breaking the habit? Report
When I was in highschool (late 70s - early 80s) there was an article that said sugar was so addictive that it took a a full 6 months to totally withdraw from it.

You can wait for a definitive study if you wish, or you can be the science. Go off it for 6 months and track your emotions and reactions carefully. I know it's addictive for me.

I can almost always walk away from oreos, but is there a huge point in determining if your kid is addicted to sucking his thumb, or just breaking the habit? Report
I also think that some of the foods are really addictive. Like i just cannot resist eating salted potato chips. No matter how hard i try i keep on eating them. Report
I may be way out in the left 40 acres here, but I have two thoughts about the oreos and cocaine connection that is all over the airwaves.

1. I've heard that the brain developes responses to Triggers that make you think about Oreos or sugar cubes or whatever. Argument with the kids? Have a bag of chips, if that was what you did after the last argument. Just missed your monthly commission on the job? Have a smoke break - that always makes you feel better.

2. Concerning cleaning the house, work desk and stable of junk foods - Remember the experiment with the children who could resist the marshmallow or the sugar cube for five minutes for a reward? One of the articles I heard went on to say that people (adults) who resisted junk food at the store (and therfore didn't have it in the house) were more successful in their weight control.

3. So, I'm more interested in the triggers (that jerk makes me want to do something with my hands! Chips and salsa! Great Idea!) and what can be done to deal with those triggers (Write him up in my journal!. exclamation points !!!.)
Doing "something else" for five or ten minutes is a strategy I have seen recommended on SP, and I endorse it. And the other strategies listed in the article to decks of unhealthy eating opportunities. We don't have to be passive receptors of what's being thrown at us.

Okay, that was three things, and thanks for listening. Report
From an evolutionary point of view it makes sense. When we, or any animal, eats high calorie food, the brain and taste buds are there to reward us and encourage us to continue to eat this food as much as possible as its good for our survival. In nature those who don't starve pass on their traits, and those who didn't starve are the ones who ate calorie rich food.

In today's world though we have (in the first world) an almost unending supply of most any food, especially cheaper high calorie food. What used to be a favorable survival trait is now an unfavorable trait that could lead to obesity and other problems. Report
Personally, I do not believe in food "addiction", I do believe in: MMMMmmmm...that's is soooo freakin' good, I want more! (the implication here being: So, I will blame the food rather than my lack for self-control/good decision making) Hey, no blame, I have done this myself....just giving my thoughts on the subject as invited to.... :) I will, however, stipulate that caffeine is addictive...headaches abound when tapering off...I used to smoke...with God's help quit cold turkey once, when found out was pregnant quit cold turkey, and twice have used Chantix because wanted to quit and couldn't seem to utilize the self-discipline button! Three years free...plan on the rest of my for caffeine-I purposely keep it to a minimum, get more sleep, eat MUCH healthier, and exercise more to keep up the much needed energy levels and overall positive outlook on myself and life. Report
I never have to worry about Oreos. They taste good, but leave me with an upset stomach. So, years ago, I just left 'em alone. Report
I have been clean and sober for 28 years, and abstinent from most of my addictive food behaviors for 3 years. The reason junk food is "more" addictive, I think, is that it is available everywhere and considered acceptable. When we teach our kids that eating a whole bag of Oreos is as unacceptable to us as smoking a cigarette or a joint (by not keeping any of these things in our house!) we will begin to change this trend. Report
I have found that I crave what I eat. I weigh the satisfaction of that treat vs the feeling of craving more that I KNOW will kick in once that treat is gone. I still allow myself to have desserts/treats, but I make sure to portion them out and track them to make sure I'm within my SP range. I also savor each taste instead of being distracted and then wanting more because I didn't really take the time to enjoy it. But the biggest aspect for me is taking a pause to THINK about why I am wanting something chocolatey or sugary. If it is because I am stressed/lonely/tired or another emotion, then I use diversions and other tools to let that moment pass. Sometimes it's worth it to have the treat, but most times not....especially if it's cheap junk. For example, I'd rather have 1 expensive piece of chocolate than the candy you can buy in any store.

Now that I've been eating better for a solid 4 months, I've noticed a change in what is appetizing. The times I have opted to eat out at a fast food joint...well, it became evident pretty quickly that it wasn't the wisest choice and is now a VERY good reminder the next time that craving comes up! You CAN break the habit... with every next choice you make!! : ) Report
I know I am a food addict. I think about food constantly. To keep on track, I plan out my meals. I do not buy "junk food". I do eat out once a week. I plan on what I eat and where I am going to eat. This has helped me a lot. Report
It's the MSG, artificial flavors that create addictions. It is proven in studies. Report
I have had trouble with oreo's and peanut butter m and m's, they have been addictive to me. Report
Great strategies!!! Report
Spelling error:

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 "addition" (and remember it will work for other foods, too).

the word in quote should be "addiction" Report
My two-year-old enjoys cookies, but after about two smallish sized ones, he's done. He has access to the cookie jar, but he doesn't usually want more than two. It seems like if they were really addicting, he would eat as many as he could stuff in his mouth. ? Report
Being a previous addict to drugs, I can honestly say that most addictions have similarities. In my opinion, junk food is easier to get and you can do it anywhere in front of anyone.
With drugs, although you are ashamed of it, most hide when doing it and you sneak to go get it. Report
It sure does feel addictive!! Eating the sugar causes you to crave more and it seems you have to make an effort to break the cycle and it is tough for the first couple of weeks. But once you do you do not crave it as much. Report
THANK YOU!!!! You've explained this absolutely perfect!!! Report
It tastes good - for the first minute or two. After that, though, I start feeling pretty ill. I think it's because I've "denied" myself these things for so long that I'm used to not having them now, and when I do, it's overwhelmingly too sweet or too salty or too something. I actually prefer my healthier diet now because it's what I'm used to, and I'm a creature of habit if nothing else. I don't see myself going back to the way I used to eat, even if someone shoved a tray of Oreos in my face. It's just not appetizing anymore.

More has changed, for me, than just a number on a scale. Report
Whether you believe that it is an 'addiction' or not, I think we can all agree that junk food causes many people to have a strong response and a tendency to crave more. My biggest concern is that these foods are the cheapest foods in the supermarket. When people are on a tight budget, they are going to choose the processed foods because they can get more food with less money. I would like to see the government move away from subsidizing the production of corn (which finds its way in to these inexpensive processed foods) and start subsidizing healthier choices. Drop the prices of healthier food and you might find more people making that choice when they shop. Report
I believe that I have suffered physical withdraw when I cut added sugar out of my diet for a few days. I was lethargic and had splitting headaches, similar to colleagues who had attempted to give up caffeine. And one taste of a sweet and I was binging all over again. That being said people over come alcoholism, quit smoking and give up drugs everyday. It might be hard and painful but it's up to me to do it. Report
I don't believe food is addictive. I think it's more of a habit. Habits can be just as hard to break as an addiction though. Report
Although I have had experiences similar to those mentioned by 7WORSHIPS and CERULEANTEAR, where eating a junk food gives me cravings to keep going down that road, I wouldn't classify it as an addiction, at least as far as I'm concerned. But on the other hand, I can have a drink or 2 a few times a month, or maybe not feel like having a drink for a month or 2, but there are other folks that are alcoholics and either get consumed by drink or have to avoid it completely with no middle ground. So maybe it's that same way with junk food for some? Report
Drug abuse/addiction (animal models) is my area of study.

Simply using or preferring a substance, whether it is drugs or food, is not addiction. In fact, you will notice that the DSM-IV-TR criteria for addiction doesn't even mention amount of drug taken; consuming a lot of the substance doesn't mean that the individual is addicted, and vice versa.

Google "Symposium Overview—Food Addiction: Fact or Fiction?"

The search should bring up a link to an article in the Journal of Nutrition- for a good discussion and more references for those interested in learning more about this topic. Report
I have no idea if it an addiction. What I do believe is that the people making the food have paid people to make it so tempting that you can't resist it. They know what makes you crave things, and can manipulate foods to cause cravings. Fat, and sugar taste great. When given the choice between ice cream or green beans, we choose the ice cream because it tastes better. Eating the ice cream causes other cravings for sugary foods, and this may be " addiction ", but it may just be your body producing Insulin to lower blood sugars, and by doing so, lowering it enough to make you hungry. When you are hungry again, what is available? More sugar, which in your recent experience was SO tasty? It may just be that we eat too many foods that spike our glucose levels, and the body responds by lowering it by releasing Insulin ( which is what is supposed to happen ). We then feel hungry, and what we eat is what is available, and what we like. If Oreos are available, there is a high possibility you will eat them. After all, you just ate dinner 2 hours ago, so this is a snack, not another meal. Oreos are a snack,

We need to pay attention to what we eat BEFORE we get cravings, and find out why, and come up with a solution to remove those cravings. Once that occurs, you won't be eating extra calories, and will start losing weight.

I chose to use a hatchet, and not a scalpel, and just remove most carbs, especially sweets, and processed carbs, but I don't think the need is that drastic for everybody. Find the foods that cause these cravings, and either eliminate them, or severely limit them. Replace these with healthy carbs, fats, and lean meats. As the article says, and all 6 solutions accomplish, having those options out of sight will help you make better choices. The availability of them so easily is the #1 contributor to us eating them. Report
My past experiences with processed sweets confirms my belief that foods like oreos are indeed addictive. Eating sweets like this inevitably makes my body feel tired and makes me crave more. The only thing that works for me is abstinence. So even though it may not be true for everyone, junk food is addictive for me. Report
So what we need is a definition of addiction that everyone can agree to. I don't even think we have that yet - but I do know that the more junk I eat the worse I feel and that holds true for when I was Not trying to eat a healthy diet and when I am. Oh - those first few pleasure laden moments of the salty cheesy fried Cheetos melting in my mouth feel great - but just about every moment afterwards feels horrible. Even as I'm eating them!!!

And no FritoLay product ever forced me to plunk down the money. It had no little arms to drag me deep inside. I went willingly - if thoughtlessly - on the look out for something that I didn't find.

what is needed is a new goal (feel just as great!!!) and perhaps a new path to that goal. One that really gets me to that feeling great moment. Report
The food industry uses all kinds of technology and formulas to create the best product what will keep consumers buying and coming back for more. Some have even used imaging to see the response in the pleasure centers of the brain. So whether you call it addiction or cravings, junk is still a substance that changes our behavior both mentally and physically. The problem is that it is usually very low in any nutritional value, has a negative effect on our metabolism, and creates cravings for more of the same. People say that you can stop smoking/taking drugs and that's the end of it...but you cannot stop eating. The issue isn't not's a matter of eating foods that have nutritional value, don't have a negative impact on your blood sugar, and keep you satisfied. That requires changing ones mindset about food, and retraining ones tastebuds away from lots of sugar, salt, and fat. Report
I think that there is a relationship. Report
I never have been addicted to drugs or alcohol but I have heard that those who are addicted have to completely stay away from their substance abuse item or they will have serious trouble stopping themselves from using it. I am this way with certain foods. Just can't have them in the house. Report
I think fast food is addictive. A couple of weeks ago, I ate at the munchie meal at Jack in the Box (after not eating any fast food for months). For the next couple of days I ate more junk food and I started to take notice of the fast food restaurants that I drove by. About a week later I ordered the munchie meal again.

I still feel a strong desire to eat at Jack in the Box again, but I keep convincing myself that the food doesn't taste as good as I think it does. Report
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