Most of us know that drugs like morphine and cocaine are dangerously bad for our health and are, hopefully, wise enough to avoid them. Conversely, most of us consider sneaking a piece of candy or dipping into the cookie jar now and then a harmless indulgence – and for the most part, it is. However, a steady diet of processed foods that are notoriously high in sugar and fat is not only harmful but highly addictive. According to a new study, sugary foods may are as addictive as morphine and cocaine.
Weighing in on Sugar
If you’ve ever suspected that the high fat, sugary foods that are responsible for giving your birthday suit extra padding are engineered to make you crave more, then you’re right on target. In fact, it’s fair to say that the expression “having a sweet tooth” is a testimonial statement to support the idea that the brain responds to high sugar intake with hunger signaling.
Specifically, it’s the fructose sugar found in processed foods changes brain function in a way that can trigger overeating. Last month, the results of an animal-based study conducted at Connecticut College not only confirmed this theory, but also showed that the sugary fluff in middle of an Oreo cookie is as addictive as hard core morphine and cocaine.
Psychology professor Joseph Schroeder and a group of Connecticut College students designed a two-sided maze, with one side containing Oreo cookies and the other plain rice cakes. When hungry rats were permitted to enter the maze and freely choose which side to hang out in, they spent much more time in the cookie zone. Although it’s not relevant to the aim of the study, the researchers were amused to observe that the rats broke the cookies open to eat the creamy middle first.
Meanwhile, another group of rats were exposed to a similar maze, but one that offered morphine and cocaine on one side and simple saline as a control on the other. Just as with their Oreo-binging counterparts, the rats in this scenario gravitated much more frequently to the drug zone. Finally, the results between these two groups of rats were compared.
Wired for Pleasure
Using functional magnetic resonance imaging, the scientists focused on the nucleus accumbens, the area of the brain involved in the perception of pleasure. To measure just how much pleasure the rats experienced, the researchers mapped the expression of a protein called c-Fos that triggers neuronal activation. They found that the rats who indulged in Oreo cookies not only had greater expression of this protein in the pleasure center of the brain, but that these rats demonstrated even more neuronal activity than the rats given morphine and cocaine. Professor Schroeder is expected to present these findings at the Society for Neuroscience conference in San Diego, California in November 2013.
It should be noted that sugar is not inherently bad for you in moderation, but not all sugar is equal. (The same is true of fats.) Fructose sugar typically found in processed foods (i.e., high fructose corn syrup) is not metabolized the same way as simple glucose. Further, because fructose exerts narcotic effects on the brain that are similar to alcohol abuse, the potential set-up for addition and overindulgence is coupled with an increased incidence of non-alcoholic fatty liver disease and other metabolic disorders.
While an occasional Oreo or other snack in the junk food category isn’t a big deal, reaching into the cookie jar or candy dish with regularity appears to be just as detrimental to well-being as hitting “the sauce” on a daily basis. So, skip the processed, refined, sugary treats and opt for healthier choices like fresh or dried fruit to satisfy that sweet tooth instead.