More evidence from the same researchers

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Can you get addicted to ice cream? Maybe, study shows

By Brian Alexander

Sure, Stephen Colbert’s Americone Dream tastes so good it’s addictive, but is it, you know, addictive? Could Ben and Jerry, Häagen Dazs, or Blue Bell really be pushers of a substance akin to nicotine?  Baskin-Robbins-as-crack-house might seem ridiculous, and the idea that any food can be addictive in the scientific sense is still controversial. But, broadly speaking, as far as the brain’s circuitry is concerned, pleasure is pleasure. Activation patterns often look about the same.

Now new research shows that ice cream and drugs may share something else in common. With drugs, over time, addicts feel less and less pleasure, though they crave more and more. This effect has been linked to a lowered density of specific versions of cellular receptors for the brain chemical dopamine. It’s as if constant stimulation has blunted the ability to enjoy.

When researchers Kyle S. Burger and Eric Stice, of the Oregon Research Institute, fed kids real chocolate milkshakes (made with Häagen Dazs) while the kids’ brains were being scanned, they found a similar effect.
In a study published online last week by the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, Burger and Stice first surveyed the 151 adolescents, all of them of healthy weight, about their recent eating habits and how much they craved certain foods. Then they scanned them in an fMRI machine while showing them a cartoon of a milkshake, to measure craving, followed by the real shake.
All the kids wanted the shake, but those who ate the most ice cream over the previous few weeks enjoyed it less, as reflected in lowered activity in reward centers.  
It’s as if the brains of big ice cream eaters had been changed, Burger said. "Over consumption of these foods down regulates reward processes," he explained. "That may, in turn, make you eat more," in an effort to feel the same pleasure you once did. "You could be continually tying to match the earlier experience," he said, taking bigger and bigger portions, and gaining more and more weight.  
Importantly, these kids weren’t fat. That means that the brain changes Burger believes are at work happen before obesity sets in. "Hyper-rewarding foods cause changes in the brain akin to what we see with tobacco and alcohol. ... That is food addiction,"insisted Ashley Gearhardt, a Yale psychology PhD candidate who has also conducted research using milkshakes. (Solid ice cream can’t be fed to a subject in an fMRI.) She admitted the case for food addiction "is not open and shut," but, she said, "our food environment preys on people" by manufacturing food "designed to amp up reward" and vulnerable people can become addicts.
Burger isn’t so sure. "I personally do not say food is addictive. I say energy-dense food, high sugar food, can elicit neural responses during consumption that parallel those seen in drug addiction. So it has addictive-like properties."
That may seem a difference without a purpose, but true addiction is more complicated than diminished reward in the face of high craving. Until more is learned, enjoy -- a little -- of that Super Fudge Chunk.


Frequent ice cream consumption is associated with reduced striatal response to receipt of an ice cream–based milkshake

February 15, 2012,  doi: 10.3945/​ajcn.111.027003

Am J Clin Nutr ajcn.027003

Kyle S Burger and Eric Stice


Background: Weight gain leads to reduced reward-region responsivity to energy-dense food receipt, and consumption of an energy-dense diet compared with an isocaloric, low-energy-density diet leads to reduced dopamine receptors. Furthermore, phasic dopamine signaling to palatable food receipt decreases after repeated intake of that food, which collectively suggests that frequent intake of an energy-dense food may reduce striatal response to receipt of that food.

Objective: We tested the hypothesis that frequent ice cream consumption would be associated with reduced activation in reward-related brain regions (eg, striatum) in response to receipt of an ice cream–based milkshake and examined the influence of adipose tissue and the specificity of this relation.

Design: Healthy-weight adolescents (n = 151) underwent fMRI during receipt of a milkshake and during receipt of a tasteless solution. Percentage body fat, reported food intake, and food craving and liking were assessed.

Results: Milkshake receipt robustly activated the striatal regions, yet frequent ice cream consumption was associated with a reduced response to milkshake receipt in these reward-related brain regions. Percentage body fat, total energy intake, percentage of energy from fat and sugar, and intake of other energy-dense foods were not related to the neural response to milkshake receipt.

Conclusions: Our results provide novel evidence that frequent consumption of ice cream, independent of body fat, is related to a reduction in reward-region responsivity in humans, paralleling the tolerance observed in drug addiction. Data also imply that intake of a particular energy-dense food results in attenuated reward-region responsivity specifically to that food, which suggests that sensory aspects of eating and reward learning may drive the specificity.