Are Carbs as Addictive as Cocaine?

By Chrisanne Grise 06/27/13

Highly-processed carbohydrates can trigger cravings and lead to dependence, a study finds.

The new face of hard drugs? Photo via

A new study suggests that certain foods—specifically, starchy foods like pizza, pasta and sweets—may be as addictive as hard drugs. And researchers say limiting these foods could help in the nationwide fight against obesity. According to new research by the Boston Children’s Hospital, foods with a high-glycemic index (processed carbohydrates) may stimulate areas of the brain responsible for cravings, causing excess hunger. "These findings suggest that limiting high-glycemic index carbohydrates like white bread and potatoes could help obese individuals reduce cravings and control the urge to overeat," says David Ludwig, PhD director, New Balance Foundation Obesity Prevention Center. In the study, twelve overweight or obese men consumed test meals designed as milkshakes, some of which contained rapidly digesting carbohydrates (high-glycemic index) while others contained slowly digesting carbohydrates (low-glycemic index). After the subjects consumed the high-glycemic index milkshake, researchers noted an initial surge in blood sugar levels before a crash four hours later. The rapid decrease caused excessive hunger, and activated the brain region known as the nucleus accumbens, which is responsible for addictive behaviors. Prior studies have examined the link between food and drug cravings, but this is the first time researchers have observed brain activity for a full four hours after the meal. The findings indicate that these foods are not only "addictive" because of their taste—but may be physically addictive, eliciting withdrawal symptoms similar to drug addiction. "Beyond reward and craving, this part of the brain is also linked to substance abuse and dependence,” says Ludwig, “which raises the question as to whether certain foods might be addictive.”

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Chrisanne Grise is a multimedia journalist specializing in health/fitness, lifestyle, travel, bridal, and music. Her work has appeared in print and online for publications such as Martha Stewart Weddings, Parents, FitnessMagazine, Fisher Price, Bridal Guide, Scholastic's Choices,,, and more. She is the Senior Editor at The New York Times Upfront. Follow her on Linkedin and Twitter.