Can’t put down the box of Oreos? As it turns out, that “sugar high” might actually be a thing. In a groundbreaking study out this week from Connecticut College, researchers discovered that “America’s favorite cookie” might be as addictive as such illicit drugs as cocaine and methamphetamine.
The study was designed to examine the effects of high-sugar, high-fat foods on the pleasure centers of the brain. In it, lab rats were exposed to one of three variables: Oreo cookies, rice cakes, or injections of illicit drugs including cocaine and methamphetamine. What the researchers found was that the Oreo cookies lit up the same regions of the brain as addictive substances. Astoundingly, the Oreo cookies activated more neurons in the brain’s pleasure center than the drugs.
So does this mean Oreos are the crux of society’s ills? “Of course not,” says Dr. Pamela Peeke, MD, MPH, FACP, Senior Science Advisor at Elements Behavioral Health and author of The Hunger Fix. “The study isn’t meant to be a condemnation of Oreos. But in certain individuals who are vulnerable to addictive eating behavior, the Oreos can prove to be problematic.”
Oreos were chosen because they are a classic example of what Dr. Peeke calls “hyper-palatable foods”—foods that contain a potent, irresistible combination of sugar, salt and fat that may trigger an addictive response in certain individuals. “What this study shows is that certain foods are indeed acting like addictive substances in vulnerable brains,” Dr. Peeke says. “These high-fat, high-sugar foods are inducing organic changes in the reward center of the brain, much in the same way that a drug like cocaine would.”
Interestingly, the rats in the study were particularly enticed by the sugar-and-fat-dense filling of the Oreo, which might explain why children tend to pry apart their Oreos and lick off the frosting.
Dr. Peeke says the study should act as a wake-up call for parents everywhere. “When we look at the issue of obesity and disordered eating in our society, there’s a mountain of evidence indicating a strong association between food and addiction,” Dr. Peeke says. “We need to ask ourselves, ‘What are we weaning kids on?’ Are we weaning children on hyper-palatable foods that may be conditioning their brains toward the over-ingestion of sugary, fatty, salty foods? Or are we feeding them whole foods?”
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Are some individuals more vulnerable to become “sugar junkies” than others? “As it turns out, there’s a huge crossover between food addictions and other addictions,” Dr. Peeke says. “It’s what we call a transfer addiction.”
In other words, the same individuals who are prone to patterns of binge eating and overeating may also be predisposed toward a drug or substance addiction. Because of this, Dr. Peeke believes that food addiction cannot be resolved by diet alone and that it must be treated in a manner similar to substance addiction: “There are people who are seriously addicted to certain foods. These individuals need more of the addiction model, meaning that detox and lifelong recovery is the answer. A low-calorie diet alone won’t cut it.”
But for people who may be hooked on high-fat, high-sugar foods, there is hope for recovery, Dr. Peeke says. Slowly, by gradually eliminating the problematic foods and replacing them with healthier alternatives (for example, a yogurt with berries in lieu of a Twinkie), individuals can begin to overcome their food addictions and reclaim their lives.