When you think about someone who's in the throes of addiction, usually a very clear and stereotypical portrait comes into focus: Ragged clothes, tattered shoes, living in a tent on Skid Row, hustling for a few quarters during the day, trading them in for their drug of choice, passing out, repeating the cycle all over the next day. Or maybe you create a person who has to pause conversations every twenty minutes to head out onto the balcony for a nicotine fix. Or maybe someone who's riding the bus with an eighth of whiskey tucked neatly into a brown paper bag. The point is, when you think of addiction you rarely think of someone merely pushing a cart through a grocery store.
But maybe it's time for that to change.
For years there had been two schools of thought regarding food addiction. On the one hand, virtually everyone has anecdotal evidence of someone gaining weight rapidly due to a seeming inability to stop eating. On the other hand, there has been no veritable proof in fMRI machines for doctors to point to. Unlike spikes in the brain's "pleasure centers" when it gets a hit of nicotine or cocaine, no chemical change occurs in the brain when eating food.
Or does it? An ingenious study by the Boston Children's Hospital may prove, once and for all, that food can be addictive.
The study went like so: Two groups of overweight men drank two different kinds of milkshakes, the only difference between them being that one was made of high-glycemic index carbs, and the other with low-glycemic index carbs. (To the layperson, the high-glycemic means that it is rapidly absorbed by the body, while the low one takes longer to absorb. Or, more layperson-ey, the high is a jolt to the system, the low is a smoother transition.) And the findings are eye-opening:
The study found that during this period, the high-glycemic-shake participants' nucleus accumbens--a brain area integrally associated with addictive behaviors--showed intense activation. Dopamine activity in this brain area went cuckoo for cocoa puffs. In effect, the men were experiencing a flavor of the addictive high associated with other chemicals that we already know hook us hard. The brains of the men who drank the low-glycemic shakes didn't show the same activation pattern.
While no one is yet saying that this is definitive proof that food addiction -- as defined by brain sensory overload -- exists, the evidence certainly suggests it. So why the hesitancy to finally declare, once and for all, that food addiction is real? A doctor at Boston Children's Hospital explains:
"The concept of food addiction is very provocative and rightly so," says Dr. David Ludwig, the director of the New Balance Foundation Obesity Center at Boston Children's Hospital. "Unlike drugs of abuse, food is necessary for survival."
Perhaps the biggest hurdle in how we think of food addiction as a legitimate problem can be jumped over if we play with the definition of "food" a bit.
The word is broad and all-encompassing. Fruits and vegetables are food, as are burgers and hot dogs and chicken wings and gyros and ribs. But so are fatty potato chips and pork rinds and sugar-laden sodas and ice cream topped with whipped cream and chocolate sauce. Really, maybe we should be thinking of food in a more specific hierarchy: That which is addictive, and that which isn't. Food that provides nutrition and sustenance to a person's body, and food that is simply created by Big Food companies in order to get us addicted and buy more, more, more of it.
On an addictive spectrum, a bag of Cheetos has more in common with a hit of crack than it does with a mixed green salad. Start thinking of food in that capacity, and maybe food addiction will finally start to be taken seriously.