Highs and crashes and priming and wanting. That’s the language of addiction. “Addictive substances usually have high potency and a rapid rate of absorption,” Gearhardt says. Think snorting cocaine rather than chewing coca leaves. (The leaves contain minuscule amounts of cocaine, and chewing activates the drug’s stimulant effects slowly.) Gearhardt says there’s a parallel with foods that are highly processed and rapidly digested, “the foods that people struggle to eat in a manageable way.”
People may say they’re addicted to sugar, and the addictive model may be useful for researchers as they study food cravings and overeating. But candy is not the same as heroin, says Larry Cheskin, director of the Johns Hopkins Weight Management Center. For people, eating and overeating are not only a result of physiological cues, he says.
We also eat because we’re bored, we’re stressed, we’re celebrating, we’re with friends who are eating, or we see that it’s time to eat.
Jennifer Temple, director of the Nutrition and Health Research Laboratory at the University of Buffalo, tested whether eating sugary treats begets more eating of sugary treats.
Participants chose a favorite item and were directed to eat it every day for a week. Then they returned to the lab, where they were given a chance to earn another one. She reports finding that “not everybody, but 40 percent of people who are already overweight or obese, when they’ve eaten a favorite treat every day . . . will work three times harder for that same treat” than when they hadn’t eaten one every day for a week.