Does food and/ or sugar addiction actually exist?

10 February 2014
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There has been more and more media attention regarding food and sugar addiction.  The South African government is now considering putting in a sugar tax to help combat obesity and obesity related diseases such as diabetes and high blood pressure.  Does food and sugar addiction really exist or is this another excuse for the obesity epidemic?

Food affects the brain via a variety of neurotransmitters to create a good feeling for a short duration of time. Due to this physiological effect on mood, food is an attractive form of instant relief.   Chocolate for instance, raises the serotonin level (the ‘happy hormone’) in the brain and sugary foods give a temporary blood-sugar spike making you feel ‘high’.  I’m sure most people have heard of a ‘sugar high!’

Keeping this in mind, there is ongoing research into food addiction and overeating.  There are past reports about apparent similarities between overeating and drug addiction, but more recent studies show that the dopamine, a brain chemical linked to reward and motivation, response from food stimuli is in a different part of the brain than observed in studies of drug addiction. There have also been studies to show that when people are presented with a food stimuli such as visual or smell, there is only a subtle increase in the elevation of dopamine between binge eaters and non binge eaters.

With regard to the effects of the sugary and fatty foods in food addiction, the findings have been mainly on rats and there are limited human studies.  There is not enough evidence from the human literature to support the hypothesis that sugar may be physically addictive or that addiction to sugar plays a role in eating disorders.  More evidence is needed with this regard, and I think we should not distract from the fact that we are now living in an obesogenic environment where the availability of processed, highly palatable foods (high in sugars and fats) are readily available and people are making poor food choices.  So there is no such thing as a ‘chocoholic’!


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