A new study indicates that high-fat and high-sugar foods can cause a form of addiction. This conclusion is based upon how our brain rewards pleasurable experiences over time. Should we be worried?As our understanding of biology increases science can explain with greater and greater detail how our everyday choices affect our wellbeing and in turn influence our future actions. For instance, pioneering neuroscientists are now beginning to understand exactly how the brains of alcoholics or drug addicts are physically changed by the substances they cannot seem to live without. This information is invaluable for both the sufferer and the physician or therapist due to the fact that improved medical knowledge leads to better treatment of the addiction. The hard work of scientists and doctors should be lauded far more than perhaps they are currently.
Yet this increased knowledge can lead to uncomfortable truths for certain people. As we learn more about how the substances we put into our body affect the body’s internal chemistry certain of life’s pleasures begin to take on a far more guilty aspect. Tobacco is an excellent example. Most everyone (even the cigarette companies) recognises that smoking tobacco greatly increases the risk of many forms of cancer. Yet people had been smoking for centuries before scientist’s proved tobacco’s harmful properties a few decades ago. Tobacco isn’t alone. Not a week goes by it seems without the news media highlighting a scientific claim that something we interact with on a regular basis could potentially cause some form of illness or addiction.
Now we can add ice cream to that list, although to be fair, this could include any type of high-sugar or high-fat food. New research recently published in the American Journal for Clinical Nutrition indicates that overconsumption of these high-fat or sugar items could over time lead to a form of addiction. How can this happen? The answer lies in the way these food items can alter the chemistry of the brain.
The research has found that prolonged overeating of high-fat and high-sugar products can lessen the reward (or for lack of a better word, pleasure) that the brain causes people to experience when consuming these items. As a result, people feel a craving for more of these products in an attempt to bring about the good feelings they received from these foods in the past. This can lead to increased consumption of the high-sugar or fat items that creates a vicious circle of needing ever more of the pleasure-bringing food to experience the same level of satisfaction.
The process just described is very similar to the path many people follow towards drug addiction. As people build up a tolerance to a drug such as cocaine, they require larger amounts of said drug in order to bring on the expected pleasurable sensation. Dr Kyle Burger, the co author of the study, explains, “This down-regulation pattern is seen with frequent drug use, where the more an individual uses the drug, the less reward they receive from using it. This tolerance is thought to increase use, or eating, because the individual trying to achieve the previous level of satisfaction. Repeated, overconsumption of high-fat or high-sugar foods may alter how the brain responds to those foods in a way that perpetuates further intake."
What are we to make of these findings? Should we completely avoid high-fat or high-sugar foods in order to protect ourselves from ourselves? As with many of life’s pleasures, be it food, drink or sex, moderation is very important. It is entirely possible to have too much of a good thing. The dangers inherent in eating, drinking or sex come at the extremes in many cases. Anorexia is an eating disorder where people can end up withering away due to not eating as they should. The same can be said about compulsive overeating except that people are eating far more than is necessary. A few alcoholic drinks at a party among friends is an great way to relax and socialize. Binge drinking multiple times a week can do incredible damage to physical and mental wellbeing. Sex addiction can tear apart healthy relationships, or prevent the sufferer from being able to form loving relationships at all.
As stated before, moderation in the pleasures of life and the self-awareness to recognize when you might be overdoing it are vital to healthy living. Sometimes this can be difficult, but if you feel like you may be struggling there is always help available if needed. Finally, if you enjoy the occasional bowl of ice cream, please do not let this article put you off. Nobody is perfect.