Are processed carbohydrates really addictive?

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Highly-processed carbohydrates like cakes, cookies and chips elicits an addictive behavior similar to drugs, finds an intriguing new study.

Researchers have found that intake of highly pleasurable food triggers addiction-like neuroadaptive responses in brain reward circuitries, leading to serious cravings that might cause compulsive eating.

“Beyond reward and craving, this part of the brain is also linked to substance abuse and dependence, which raises the question as to whether certain foods might be addictive,” said study author Dr. David Ludwig, director of the New Balance Foundation Obesity Prevention Center at Boston Children’s Hospital.

A small study
Researchers conducted experiments to establish that some sugary foods can be addictive and have the same effect on the brain as drugs and alcohol. They recruited 12 overweight or obese men between the ages of 18 and 35 years old. The subjects were fed test meals designed as milkshakes with the same taste, calories, nutrients and carbohydrates.

The two milkshakes were similar except that one contained rapidly digesting – high-glycaemic index – carbohydrates (white bread, pasta, rice and baked goods), and the other slowly digesting – low-glycaemic index – carbs (fruits, vegetables, unprocessed whole grains and legumes).

Revelations of the study
As a part of the study, the participants underwent Functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to measure activity of the networks and pathways of the brain. The men experienced an initial surge in blood sugar levels followed by a sharp crash four hours later after the consumption of the high GI drink.

Apart from triggering excessive hunger, the sudden drop in blood sugar exhibited intense activation of the nucleus accumbens, a region of the brain linked to addictive behaviour.

“These findings suggest that limiting high-glycemic index carbohydrates like white bread and potatoes could help obese individuals reduce cravings and control the urge to overeat,” said Ludwig.

Though the concept of food addiction is a controversial subject, the findings suggest that there is need for more interventional and observational studies.

Dr. Lisa Young, RD, PhD, adjunct professor of nutrition at New York University stated, “I wouldn’t jump so fast to call it addiction, but it’s possible in a certain subset of people. There are other factors you need to look at, at the same time. When some people eat a cookie they can’t stop, but other people can stop. You’re dealing with psychological behavior.”

The new study published in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition

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