Food addiction is the term for an unofficial condition that occurs when certain foods in a person’s diet produce the same reactions as a mental/physical addiction to alcohol or some sort of drug or medication. Researchers continue to debate the reality of this condition, and food addiction does not have the recognition of the American Psychiatric Association, which defines the basic criteria for mental illnesses in the United States. However, according to the results of a new study published in 2013 in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, consumption of a diet high in processed carbohydrates can indeed produce the reactions that one would expect to find in someone affected by a food addiction.
Food Addiction Basics
The essential premise of food addiction is that consumption of certain foods triggers a change in basic brain chemistry by increasing the average levels of a pleasure-producing substance called dopamine. This change effectively mirrors the change in brain chemistry brought about by alcohol consumption or the use of certain medications and drugs. According to the model provided by the organization Food Addiction Research Education, the cycle of an addictive relationship to food begins when any given individual starts to rely on the pleasure generated by eating to offset the effects of commonplace or unusual reactions to stress, physical or mental pain, or specific emotional states associated with depression or anxiety.
Processed Carbohydrate Basics
Processed foods are foods that have gone through some sort of handling and preparation designed to do such things as prevent spoilage, intensify taste, or make new food products. Depending on the food in question, levels of processing can go all the way from relatively minor (such as the packaging of salad greens) to relatively extreme (such as the creation of entire ready-to-eat meals featuring a variety of individually processed foods). In general, food addiction theory points toward highly processed foods as the most likely sources of harmful changes in brain chemistry. From an addiction standpoint, the majority of the most worrisome foods contain substances called processed carbohydrates.
Carbohydrate is the name given to any food that’s made from calorie-containing substances called starches and sugars (as well as foods made from a third calorie-free substance called fiber). When starches and sugars break down inside the body, they form a very simple form of sugar called glucose, which serves as the main energy source for the brain and a wide variety of other cells. Some carbohydrates deliver glucose to the bloodstream in a relatively slow manner; however, processed carbohydrates deliver glucose to the bloodstream in a relatively rapid manner.
In the study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, a team of researchers from Boston Children’s Hospital compared the addictive effects of highly processed carbohydrates to the addictive effects of more minimally processed carbohydrates. They did this by giving two different types of milkshakes to a group of men who qualified as obese or overweight according to general health guidelines. These milkshakes were identical in all respects except for their processed carbohydrate content.
The study participants who drank the milkshakes containing highly processed carbohydrates experienced a sharp spike in their glucose levels immediately after consumption, as well as a steep dip in their glucose levels after a four-hour interval. When this dip in glucose levels occurred, it was accompanied by two things: unusually strong hunger pangs and a rapid, heavy increase in activity in a part of the brain known for its role in the formation of addictive substance relationships. The glucose crashes, unusual hunger pangs, and increased brain activity associated with the consumption of highly processed carbs did not appear in the study participants who drank milkshakes containing less processed carbs.
The authors of the study believe that their findings support the reality of food addiction as an actual phenomenon, as well as the role of highly processed carbohydrates in the formation of food addictions. They also believe that their findings indicate that obese and overweight people who consume diets rich in highly processed carbs unwittingly form addictive food relationships that undermine their attempts to keep their weight down and lead a healthier lifestyle. By reducing the consumption of processed carbs (and other carbohydrate-containing foods, such as white potatoes, that deliver glucose to the bloodstream rapidly), the average person can simultaneously control his or her weight and significantly reduce the chances of developing a food addiction.