A recent post I wrote on sugar addiction and whether or not it exists seemed to touch a nerve. Some readers agreed with the conclusion of the recent review in the "Journal of Clinical Nutrition," which examined 160 studies on the topic and concluded there was "no support from the human literature" for the claim that sugar is addictive, or that it plays a role in eating disorders.
Others, however wrote in, perplexed, since they have read about experiments that have come to the opposite conclusion. And all it takes is a quick peek online and a scan of reality TV to know that talk of food and sugar addiction is rampant.
One researcher who has been conducting interesting laboratory studies with rats is Princeton psychologist Bart Hoebel. He's shown that if they are deprived of food for a day, then drink a sucrose solution with their food, rats begin bingeing on sugar daily. Dopamine is release in their brains, similar to the response seen in humans addicted to drugs. After a few weeks of daily bingeing, their brains show neurochemical adaptations, again, similar to the brains of drug-addicted humans.
But psychobiologist David Benton, a researcher at the University of Swansea who specializes in dietary influences on mood and cognitive function, suggests that only when sugar is administered in "a highly prescribed and unusual manner," as Hoebel did in the rat studies, "is it reported that signs of addictions occur." He notes that the study could also be seen as making the assumption that bingeing only involves a preference for sweet food, when in fact salty, high-fat or other palatable foods can be equally appealing to binge eaters.
What is interesting is Benton's assertion that dieting is not necessarily a precursor to binge eating. But what about bulimics and binge eaters, who do spiral into increasingly serious eating disorders by exactly such starve/binge cycles? Hoebel's rat studies may accurately reflect the behavior of at least a certain segment of binge eaters and bulimics.
In any case, you can see how Hoebel's research could support the veritable deluge of chat we're hearing these days about sugar and food addiction in general.
Then, several weeks ago, results of a two-year, Yale University study were published in the "Archives of General Psychiatry" that claimed to, for the first time, be able to separate so-called "food addicts" from overeaters. The study subjected 39 women to an image of a milkshake. Fifteen of them exhibited dramatically greater neurological response to the image, just as alcohol imagery activates the reward centers in the brains of alcoholics.
The researchers noted that just as with people who abuse alcohol or drugs, there is no single explanation or solution to so-called food addiction. Most devastatingly to those who struggle with binge eating, the psychiatrists who conducted the Yale study added that neither gastric-bypass surgery nor lifestyle changes were likely to be long-term solutions to food addiction, and that "the current emphasis on personal responsibility...may have minimal effectiveness."
This concerns us: what kind of message is this to give the millions of people who struggle with overeating, a signification percentage of whom, if the study's findings are accurate, are food addicts? Without some form of hope, it's a cruel diagnosis.
The difference between alcohol and drug addiction is that if people can somehow keep from walking into a bar, a crack house, the arms of their dealer or other dangerous situations, they will still live. So-called food addicts can't abstain from their addiction and still live. As Marcia says, "One approach to this debate is that it doesn't matter. We live in a world of food and we have to eat and manage our urges to binge. This is unlike smoking and alcohol where going cold turkey works because we don't need these substances to live."
Eating disorders experts, including nutrition counselors such as Marcia as well as inpatient and residential programs, use a kind of exposure therapy. The aim, says Marcia, "is to show patients that they don't gain weight when they eat sugar (or whatever they tend to binge on) in reasonable amounts. The other goal is to show patients that they can eat reasonable amounts of sugar or other highly palatable foods when they eat regularly" rather than in a chaotic or binge-and purge pattern.
In my next post, I will tell you about my interview Chevese Turner, founder and CEO of the Binge Eating Disorder Association (BEDA). Chevese has many interesting thoughts on the implications for binge eaters of this latest research on so-called sugar and food addiction.