Pure Genius

Withdrawal is cruel, whether it's from coke or cookies

Posting in Design

A new study explores the effects of compulsive eating. Symptoms experienced when breaking a food addiction aren’t all that different than those suffered by a drug addict.

My friend Dave and I walk our dogs together nearly every afternoon. When I’m in a bad mood, he brings me cookies. When he’s between diets, I bring him baked goods from my oven. We’re dependable enablers. And every few weeks, without fail, he’ll say, “I’m trying this new thing.” Sometimes it’s eating an early, healthy dinner, followed by a cookie reward. Sometimes it’s a different breakfast or zero caffeine or a new workout. This week, he’s cutting out all refined sugar.

I tried to cut out sugar for two weeks last year after an NFL player told me he’d done so during the off-season and felt like a million bucks. He warned me that the withdrawal process would cause headaches at first, but soon, I’d feel infinitely better. Likewise, Dave told me yesterday, he’d had some headaches since he began this diet. I commiserated, and then asked him how long he’d stick with it.

“You tell me,” he laughed, reminding me that he’s been yo-yo dieting since high school. Indeed, I’ve seen Dave diet for a few weeks, only to succumb to his wife’s amazing cupcakes (guilty here, too). Or test out a program that counts calories, only to become so frustrated that he would later double his cookie intake. But through all these cycles, or perhaps because of them, he is more aware than most people of how foods affect him.

So neither of us were surprised to learn about the recent study out of Boston University’s Laboratory of Addictive Disorders, appearing in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, that shows depriving oneself of yummy foods (read: sugar, fat, carbs) can cause compulsive eating, similar to the chemical reaction of a drug addiction. The study showed that after rats were deprived of “palatable food” (in this case, sugary, chocolate-flavored rat chow—yum), they would exhibit overeating of this tasty food once they had access again. In fact, they proceeded to binge on it.

As the study progressed over seven weeks, the effect became more pronounced, and the binging rats were eating roughly 20 percent more food when they had access to chocolate chow than rats in the control group (who only had regular rat chow). According to ScienceNOW, the rats going through chocolate chow withdrawal also spent less time in the exposed parts of a specially designed maze, a measure of increased anxiety. When the chocolate chow was returned, the anxiety disappeared.

So not only were they pigging out on chocolate and avoiding the healthier food option, but the rats’ emotional states were affected. This shows the root of the vicious cycle with which yo-yo dieters and drug abusers are all too familiar: cut out pleasurable substance; ache for pleasurable substance; feel awful (physically and mentally) while enduring absence of pleasurable substance; finally give in to pleasurable substance, consuming even more of it than before, to make up for lost time.

So what is a sugar addict to do? Do not run for the cookie jar. Or the chocolate chow bin. Check back tomorrow when I discuss sugar addiction and withdrawal with Greg Lewis, co-author of the new book End Your Addiction Now: A Proven Nutritional Supplement Program That Can Set You Free.

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Melanie D.G. Kaplan

Contributing Editor

Melanie D.G. Kaplan is a Washington, D.C.- based journalist. She is a regular contributor to The Washington Post and National Parks Magazine. Her website is www.melaniedgkaplan.com. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure