The real scare for some comes after Halloween
It happens every year. You bought bags of candy to hand out to trick-or-treaters and now there’s a big bowl of leftovers sitting at home and in the office. How do you deal with being surrounded by chocolate all day long? If you are someone who has serious problems controlling your intake of sugary foods and drinks, this is no laughing matter.
While some people can stick to eating one to two pieces of candy per day, others end up bingeing or eating unhealthy amounts. Scientists who study food addiction are starting to look at the parallels between how people eat certain foods, use substances, gamble and engage in internet gaming.
When is it overindulgence and when is it addiction?
Though many of us struggle with controlling our consumption of fattening and sugary sweets during certain holidays, “food addiction” is something different. Experts describe it as a physical and psychological dependence on highly palatable foods, particularly those with high sugar and fat content. In the brain, sugar stimulates the reward system in some individuals in a way that parallels how drugs affect the brain. For some people, certain types of food can cause cravings and a loss of control similar to what other people experience when they use drugs.
Researchers have found that laboratory animals experience sugar like a drug and can become addicted to it. These sugar-addicted animals display symptoms resembling a substance use disorder, including cravings, tolerance and withdrawal. Researchers also found that when given the choice between sugar and nicotine or cocaine in a lab, rats choose sugar. Humans are, of course, more complicated and have more choices than rats in a maze.
According to Ashley Gearhardt, PhD, psychologist and co-creator of Yale University's Food Addiction Scale, the most addictive food is ice cream, with candy coming in at second, french fries in third, and chocolate in fourth place. Gearhardt points out that it is the unique combination of sugar, fat and salt that makes candy so addictive. And beyond its possible addictive properties for some people, excess sugar consumption can be harmful and a contributor to obesity, diabetes and other diseases.
To see if you might have symptoms of food addiction, take this quiz, a modified version of the Yale Food Addiction Scale. And for more information about food addiction, you can visit the websites of centers leading the research on this topic: The Rudd Center for Food Policy & Obesity and the Food Addiction Science & Treatment Lab.
Kate Feiner, MSW
Kate Feiner is a Research Associate at CASAColumbia