Some Addictive History

Almost 10 years ago, carbohydrates were under scrutiny, as Dr. David Ludwig and others explored the properties of fast-digesting carbs. Brains were scanned, to discover changes triggered by the anticipation of delicious treats that the subjects had tasted before. But science was starting to realize that the brain can be affected even when people don’t know what they are eating.

NPR correspondent Allison Aubrey wrote of a typical experiment,

After the participants drank the rapidly digesting carb shake, their blood sugar spiked and then crashed four hours later. And it’s at this point that researchers documented activation of a part of the brain called the nucleus accumbens, a small area that is involved in emotions and addiction.

The possibilities and implications of food addiction were starting to look scary in a lot of ways. A 2015 study (encompassing 120 students and 384 community people) started out with these words in its declared objective. The researchers kind of half-stepped it, referring not to actual addiction, but to “addictive-like eating.” The study’s authors wrote,

We propose that highly processed foods share pharmacokinetic properties (e.g. concentrated dose, rapid rate of absorption) with drugs of abuse, due to the addition of fat and/or refined carbohydrates and the rapid rate the refined carbohydrates are absorbed into the system, indicated by glycemic load (GL).

In the report’s Conclusion, they referred to “food addiction” in quotation marks, but did credit the study with giving preliminary evidence that highly processed foods can share characteristics with drugs of abuse.

Dr. Bret Scher was one of the professionals who felt there were not enough human studies in the area of food addiction. He wrote about how a University of Michigan research team looked for one of the defining conditions associated with addiction, withdrawal symptoms. They devised a “Highly Processed Food Withdrawal Scale.” Over 200 students cut back on their junk food and reported feeling sad, irritable and tired.

With hard drugs, withdrawal can be severely debilitating; with alcohol, it can be fatal. No one was expected to actually die from reducing their intake of highly processed foods. Still, they did feel crummy, and there were questions:

Was it a true withdrawal? Could it have been due to decreased calories? Or were they having the “carb flu” from getting rid of the main source of carbohydrates? That is unclear and makes it a little murky if these were true withdrawal symptoms.

In the article there seemed to be a slight hint of scolding, of maybe trying to put across the idea that people seem to be hypocritical when debating food addictiveness, “and that may be important for policy and regulatory decisions.” Who is kidding whom? The longer society continues arguing policy and regulatory points, the longer we can put off needing to really do something.

Of course, everybody knows junk food is harmful, and everyone should act accordingly right now, in their own lives and in the lives of any minor children they happen to be in charge of. Sometimes, to the untrained eye, bureaucratic procedures can look very much like stalling and denial.

Your responses and feedback are welcome!

Source: “Can You Be Addicted To Carbs? Scientists Are Checking That Out,”, 06/26/13
Source: “Which Foods May Be Addictive? The Roles of Processing, Fat Content, and Glycemic Load,”, 02/18/15
Source: “Processed food addiction — Is it real? Does it matter?,”, 10/02/18
Image by Jamie/CC BY 2.0

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About Dr. Robert A. Pretlow

Dr. Robert A. Pretlow is a pediatrician and childhood obesity specialist. He has been researching and spreading awareness on the childhood obesity epidemic in the US for more than a decade.
You can contact Dr. Pretlow at:


Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation at the American Society of Animal Science 2020 Conference
What’s Causing Obesity in Companion Animals and What Can We Do About It

Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation at the World Obesity Federation 2019 Conference:
Food/Eating Addiction and the Displacement Mechanism

Dr. Pretlow’s Multi-Center Clinical Trial Kick-off Speech 2018:
Obesity: Tackling the Root Cause

Dr. Pretlow’s 2017 Workshop on
Treatment of Obesity Using the Addiction Model

Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation for
TEC and UNC 2016

Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation at the 2015 Obesity Summit in London, UK.

Dr. Pretlow’s invited keynote at the 2014 European Childhood Obesity Group Congress in Salzburg, Austria.

Dr. Pretlow’s presentation at the 2013 European Congress on Obesity in Liverpool, UK.

Dr. Pretlow’s presentation at the 2011 International Conference on Childhood Obesity in Lisbon, Portugal.

Dr. Pretlow’s presentation at the 2010 Uniting Against Childhood Obesity Conference in Houston, TX.

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