Sugar on the brain: Study finds food addiction may be real

A new study from Aarhus University in Denmark sheds light on the controversial idea of 'food addiction,' indicating that it may exist in a way similar to other pleasure-seeking addictions. Rather than using lab rats, the study used pigs given sugar water to determine the effects the sugar had on their brain. It took less than two weeks for the animals' brains to experience changes involving the opioid and dopamine systems.

Food addiction is the idea that one may become addicted to eating food — particularly bad foods, the kind that tends to send one spiraling into the realm of obesity and chronic health conditions like type-2 diabetes. Self-proclaimed food addicts report being unable to resist the call of food, sometimes going to great lengths to acquire their preferred snacks. Sugary items tend to be particularly appealing to some food addicts who may report drinking large quantities of soda or eating sugary items daily.

Despite these reports, many health experts have remained skeptical over whether food addiction is real. Researchers with Aarhus University set out to determine this by studying the brains of pigs who were given two liters of sugar water to drink every day for the duration of 12 days.

The pigs underwent brain scans at the start of the experiment, as well as following the first day of sugar intake and again after the 12th day had ended. When looking at the data, the study found that sugar had a 'clear' influence on the brain's reward system, one described as similar to the effects addictive drugs have on the brain.

One of the study's main authors, Michael Winterdahl of Aarhus University's Department of Clinical Medicine, explained that sugar's effects on the brain's opioid system were apparent after the first day of consumption. In addition to its potentially addictive nature, refined sugar is a known health risk, increasing one's odds of developing certain cancers and type-2 diabetes, among other things.