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Food Cravings Similar to Addictions - What we need to know for the Holidays

This interview with Dr. David Winter originally appeared on Baylor Health Care System’s blog Scrubbing In and in the December issue of Natural Awakenings Dallas Magazine.


Have you ever heard someone say they are addicted to cupcakes? What about ice cream or any other type of food? Well, they aren’t just using the word “addicted” as a figure of speech, at least according to one new study.

Like drugs, alcohol or nicotine, certain foods can trigger an addictive response in the brain similar to that of other vices. I sat down with NewsRadio 1080 KRLD to give the “skinny” on food cravings.

Q: We all have foods that we crave. But is this new study saying it’s not just a craving, it’s an actual addiction?

Studies show that certain foods impact the same brain pathways as drugs or gambling.

In another study out of Boston Children’s Hospital, they looked at foods’ dietary glycemic index, a measure of a food’s ability to raise blood sugar levels and the effects on the brain.

Foods that were higher on the index, namely refined carbohydrates, can alter brain function in similar ways to someone who is addicted to drugs/alcohol or cigarettes. Foods that are high on the glycemic index unsurprisingly are those that are high in sugar like sweets, but also foods like white break, white rice, breakfast cereals, potatoes and processed foods containing glucose, maltose and maltodextrins.

Another problem with these foods, the study notes, is that consuming these foods temporarily raise blood sugar levels and can lead to a crash which leads to feelings of hunger again later.

Q: How were researchers  able to tell that these carbs were indeed altering the brain in ways that other foods don’t?

In a study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 12 obese men were given one of two different milkshakes. The milkshakes had different kinds of sugars—one had high-glycemic index carbohydrates while the other milkshakes had low-glycemic carbohydrates. They were similar in every other way including calories, proteins, fat and taste. MRI scans of the participants were taken afterwards.

In the high-glycemic group, they showed intense activity in nucleus accumbens, which is a part of the brain that is associated with addictive behaviors including drugs and gambling.

There have been similar studies before using MRIs but those have been questioned because they normally compare foods like vegetables against cake. This particular study compared food essentially the same in every way except for one.

Q: Whether we call it a craving or addiction, when you step back, this study doesn’t really seem to be telling us anything that new. We all know we like to eat food that we’re well aware is bad for us. So what are the implications?

The biggest cause of obesity is overeating—so understanding that the reason people overeat may be the same process behind addiction, which could help develop new treatments. It may not just be a lack of willpower that leads people to eat, there are biological factors at work too.

Most anti-obesity drugs have ended in failure. Learning more from these studies can be a step in changing that.

Dr. David Winter is the President, Chairman and Chief Clinical Officer of HealthTexas Provider Network. He is the voice of “This Week in Medicine” airing on NewsRadio 1080 KRLD.

Posted by Publisher of Natural Awakenings Dallas Metroplex edition Magazine.  For more articles like this and other information about Green, Healthy and Sustainable living see us at 

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