The Rumor: Sweets are addictive

Superman has Kryptonite. Werewolves steer clear of silver bullets. Achilles had, well, his own heel. My can’t-say-no-gotta-have-it weakness isn’t nearly as exotic or capable of spawning its own blockbuster movie/beloved comic book series: It's a warm, soft brownie. Or five. Make it the whole pan, m’kay? 

So, my love of brownies is well-documented and supported by testimony from dozens of family, friends and innocent bystanders in line at potluck functions. But, am I (or could I) be addicted to them? New research suggests this isn’t such a long shot.

The Verdict: Yes, sweets can be considered addictive (according to one study, anyway)

Addiction studies are obviously very important. Alcohol, illicit drugs, painkillers and even sex are just a few of the vices that can get out of control and quickly become life-threatening. When you consider the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s startling obesity epidemic statistics (35.7 percent of adults and 17 percent of kids ages 2 to 17 are obese) the possibility of addiction to sugary snacks is certainly a serious concern.

Connecticut College researchers recently presented lab rats with one of America’s most popular snacks -- Oreo cookies -- to find out how the treat ranks in comparison with hard drugs, like cocaine and morphine. Not surprisingly, the rats (placed in a maze) consistently chose the side of the maze that held the cookies/morphine/cocaine over the side that held boring stuff, like saline and rice cakes. But the big news is that the Oreos stimulated the rats' brains in much the same way as the drugs did. In fact, more neurons in the “pleasure centers” of their tiny brains were activated when feasting on the cookie than the drugs, indicating that sweets are addictive. Of course, the lead researchers point out that the findings are preliminary and require further testing, but hold some promise.

The effects of sweets on the brain has been studied many times over. “Sugar is a carbohydrate, and they create a serotonin surge,” says Lyssie Lakatos, RD, an upwave review board member and one of The Nutrition Twins. “Serotonin is a feel-good chemical that can cause relaxation and a good mood. Sugar is a carb that affects this, so it makes sense that it would bring on the good mood, and could be addictive like exercise or drugs.”

So, is rehab the next step for people with a fixation on sweets? Probably not, but some may require a dietary intervention. Tammy Lakatos Shames (the other half of The Nutrition Twins and a fellow member of upwave's review board) frequently consults with clients looking to take a break from their sugary habits. The approach is not one-size-fits-all, and often requires time, commitment and trial and error.

“It’s so individualized,” says Shames. “Some people can have a little [sugar] and that works. Some of them are ‘all or nothing,’ meaning that if they have some, they’ll completely binge.”

I’m not going to pretend that my plan is to totally cut sugar from my diet. However, it’s always healthy to have a better understanding about the types of things we put in our bodies and how they affect us. Next time, I’ll probably just stick with one brownie (or two). Baby steps, you know?


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