Saturday, March 16, 2013

Craving or Addiction?

Today I want to talk about a remarkable finding that’s a bit “older” than what I typically cover. However it is particularly relevant to women and provides the basis for a field of research that we will see a great deal of over the next decade: food addiction. Let me start by saying that I have terrible eating habits. In general, I wake up late, skip breakfast, never miss my morning latte and then work for about 10 hours. While at work, I rarely make time for lunch unless it’s for something or someone special By the mid-afternoon, I am crashing, so I either make another run to Starbucks or brew coffee in my lab. Then, I go home, walk my adorable puppy (Tolstoi) and eat dinner. By this time in the evening I am usually so agitated and starving that my cravings are for large quantities of carbohydrates. Being a city girl, my go-to is always either Chinese or Thai, but boxed mac’n’cheese often makes it onto the menu. I always thought these cravings were related to my liking these foods and that the hungrier I was the more I would crave foods that I love. It seems that’s not really true.

As it turns out, some foods that are readily available today may actually be addictive. Many research scientists consider this to be quite controversial, given that food is also something that we can’t live without. But given that obesity is a major public health concern in the United States, having a better understanding of some of the foods we innocently consume on a daily basis, may help us understand what prevention efforts are worth our time and resources.

Addiction is defined by a few characteristic features. Among them are: tolerance or needing more of the substance to get the same benefit, withdrawal or experiencing negative physiological symptoms when you don’t have the substance. In a review published in 2008, Dr. Nicole Avena from the University of Florida explained a number of experiments using rats which demonstrate that foods that are high in sugar bring out addiction-like behaviors in rats as well as addiction-like responses in their brains. For example, if you deprive rats of food for 12 hours and then give them access to their typical rat food and sugar water, they consume the sugar water voraciously. This is compared with rats with unlimited access to rat food and sugar water throughout the day. Now, alone this observation indicates bingeing behavior more than addictive behavior. However, if you do this repeatedly, the amount of sugar water they consume increases each day, which is more in line with the addiction characteristic of tolerance. The story gets more interesting when you see these “sugar addicted” animals after they have not been given access to sugar water. They display highly anxious behavior, which may indicate withdrawal from the substance. This is just one finding among many by Dr. Avena and her colleagues. You can check out other thoughts she has about food addiction on her blog here.

The implications of these findings are in line with what many people were afraid of, sugar may be addictive. Now, the message isn’t that we should avoid it the way we should avoid things like heroine and this research is far from being easily translated into recommendations for human lifestyles, but there is something to be learned here. Many nutritionists will tell you “never skip breakfast” or “don’t eat your biggest meal in the evening” and “eat many small meals throughout the day;” pretty much, don’t do what I do. The more I talk to other busy, young female professionals like me, the more I learn how common this type of diet is. Well, the truth is that waiting all day to eat is likely making us crave and consume more potentially addictive foods, like fats and sugar. At the very least, the way we manage our lives in relation to food is crucial to how different foods are going to impact us. By not eating all day, I am forcing myself to binge, and am likely consuming more than I need of addictive foods.  Will this new research change how I schedule my work day? Probably not. Has is convinced me to give up sugar? Certainly not. But will this help remind me that when I haven’t eaten all day and think I am craving cupcakes or French fries, that I should really have a spinach salad with grilled chicken? Hopefully.

Avena, N. M., Rada, P., & Hoebel, B. G. (2008). Evidence for sugar addiction: behavioral and neurochemical effects of intermittent, excessive sugar intake. Neuroscience and biobehavioral reviews, 32(1), 20–39. doi:10.1016/j.neubiorev.2007.04.019

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