There's Rehab for Sugar Addiction?

By Paul Gaita 12/05/14

While there may be questions whether or not food addiction is real, a growing pile of evidence is tipping the needle toward the affirmative.

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Though the concept of food addiction continues to be a subject for debate in the media and among health and nutrition experts, a wealth of research exists to support the idea that certain foods with high levels of fat or sugar can exert an addictive hold on the consumer.

Sugar, in particular, produces a release of dopamine from the nucleus accumbens—the reward center of the brain—that resembles the same response from neurotransmitters generated by drugs. The powerful addictive properties of sugar have spurred several rehabilitation centers to provide treatment for sugar addiction among their programs.

Dr. Paula Peeke, the best-selling author of The Hunger Fix: The Three-Stage Detox and Recovery Plan for Overeating and Food Addiction, serves as senior science advisor for Malibu Vista, one of the first treatment centers to offer treatment for sugar addiction. She is aware of the controversial nature of labeling food as an addictive substance, but cites the growing list of research that backs the notion as proof positive. “That word, ‘addiction,' is thrown around everywhere,” she said. “We had to have specific [and] powerful science to help us understand that this isn’t a copout with food.”

Peeke cites the Yale Food Addiction Scale a 25-point questionnaire developed by Yale University’s Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity and based on DSM-IV codes for substance abuse criteria, as among the newest tools in properly diagnosing food addiction. Once an addictive cycle has been established, Peeke says that a “recovery nutritional approach” (like the one provided at Malibu Vista) can help direct individuals toward making healthier choices.

“We look for all those foods that were going to make you absolutely satisfied, cut your carb cravings [and] give you pleasure so that you don’t care about that sugar any more, because you have countless alternatives,” explained Peeke.

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Paul Gaita lives in Los Angeles. He has contributed to the Los Angeles Times, Variety, LA Weekly, and The Los Angeles Beat, among many other publications and websites.