Science suggests carbohydrates could be more addictive than hard drugs. Could you go without your fix? And what is it really doing to your body? We investigate…

It’s 10am on a Wednesday. I watch a queue of people – among them a mother and two teenage girls – shuffle towards their dealer. Once they’ve scored, they dash to the nearest table to get their fix in full view, eyes averted. It’s all over in a matter of minutes, but they’ll soon be back for more. This, mind you, is not seedy den. It’s a gleaming operation, an outlet of one of the country’s best-loved chain café.

Description: Are we carb addicts?

And the junkies are people just like you. They’re grabbing their early morning hit of what turns out to be one of the biggest habit-forming, health-sapping substances on the open market: carbs, crusty, chocolate-filled croissants, fluffy white rolls…

The fact about your fix

Released last year, research from Yale University suggests that sugars and starches (which convert to sugar in the blood) affect the brain in much the same way as Class A drugs. When participants saw so much as an image of a chocolate milkshake, the addictive areas of their brains lit up like a neon sign. “Many of the same brain regions and responses implicated in heroin, cocaine and nicotine [-addiction] are present in problematic eating,” explains Ashley Gearhardt, the leader of the study.

It doesn’t stop at visual cues. When participants wolfed down a mouthful of carby goodness, brain scans revealed an instant craving for more. It’s no wonder then that for so many, not reaching for the doughnut barely registers as a choice. Nor that obesity, insulin-resistance and type II diabetes, for example, have risen steeply since “hyperpalatable” foods – those unfairly tasty quick-fixed – became standard in our diets.

In an abut-turn recently, respected sports science expert Professor Tim Noakes has also come down heavily on carbs and its related diseases. He has lost 15kg since adopting a new diet a year ago, and his meals are now high in protein and fat. This was after decades of advocating the benefits of “carbo-loading”.

Description: This was after decades of advocating the benefits of “carbo-loading.

This was after decades of advocating the benefits of “carbo-loading”.

The carb-drug comparison isn’t new, points out Mbombela dietitian Manfred Cyril Hlatshwayo. “We’ve long known carbs give us a rush by raising the amount of sugar in our blood. After a sharp spike, blood-sugar levels come crashing down, which leads to cravings.” Even this traces roughly the same biochemical cycle set in motion by hard drugs.

Yet received wisdom still holds that we give in to “naughty” foods because our willpower is weak. Now, Gearhardt and others in her field are showing that sugar and carbs don’t just cause craving; they sidestep our defenses against overeating.

It’s still a controversial notion, Joburg dietitian Tabitha Hume isn’t convinced: “Although it feels like a ‘food addiction’, the overwhelming need for food is not an addiction but a natural physical response to depression [which makes us crave quick-releasing carbs to boost serotonin levels] and/or unnatural energy restriction[the well-documented ‘yo-yo effect’],”

Cape Town dietitian Lila Bruk is doubtful for different reasons. “As soon as you say you’re ‘addicted’ to a food, it becomes much harder to resist it.” Gearhardt herself admits: “It’s difficult to tease apart the physical and psychological components of craving because they’re so intertwined.”

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