(EUGENE, Wash.) — There are people who say that for them, food is like a drug, and a new study suggests that high-calorie foods like ice cream can affect the brain in some of the ways drugs do.
Researchers Kyle Burger and Eric Stice of the Oregon Research Institute in Eugene tested whether eating ice cream very often would lead the brain to require more and more of it before sending signals that it’s an enjoyable treat.
They surveyed 151 adolescents who were a healthy weight about their food cravings, and then scanned their brains while showing them images of a chocolate milkshake to determine how strong their cravings were. The researchers also measured brain activity when the subjects drank a tasteless liquid as a comparison. The teenagers were then fed actual milkshakes.
The participants who reported eating more ice cream over the previous two weeks enjoyed the shakes less — at least according to the brain scans. The scans showed less stimulation in the area of the brain associated with reward.
The experiment, the authors wrote, show that frequently eating ice cream “is related to a reduction in reward-region responsivity in humans, paralleling the tolerance observed in drug addiction.”
The notion that food can be physically addicting is a controversial one. Researchers are divided.
“I think ice cream use is like a drug in that it can become a strong reward for some people,” said Dr. John Hughes, a professor of psychiatry at the University of Vermont in Burlington, who was not involved in the Oregon study. But, he added, “not all strong rewards are addictive.”
True addiction, he said, is characterized by tolerance, withdrawal and loss of control over use. Ice cream does not have these effects on people.
Dr. Bob Gwyther, a professor of family medicine at the University of North Carolina School of Medicine in Chapel Hill, disagreed.
“Addicts exhibit behaviors that are harmful to themselves (and they know it), yet they continue to engage in the behavior,” he said in an email to ABC News. “Picture someone standing in front of the refrigerator with a pint of ice cream, eating the entire carton, despite the fact that they are obese, diabetic or whatever.”
Gwyther said many of his patients have tearfully described times when they gulped ice cream, knowing it was unhealthy but unable to stop their behavior.
While Burger and Stice’s study does not go so far as to say that ice cream is addictive, they said they hope their findings can contribute to the understanding of how the brain’s reward centers function, and how they are linked to obesity.
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