Study Finds Strong Incentives Drive Food Addictions

May 29, 2013 - News Release

Trying to lose weight or curb overeating? University of Guelph researchers comparing cravings in animals for sugary foods and cocaine found shared vulnerabilities, which could lead to potential treatment options for people who cannot stop eating.

In a new study of food addictions published in the journal Addiction Biology, the researchers found that rats that preferred sugary foods also preferred cocaine.

In fact, after feeding Oreo cookies and flavourless rice cakes, they gave rats the opportunity to self-dose with cocaine. Rats favouring high-sugar cookies were more likely to dose themselves with cocaine.

“It has been found that the criteria for substance dependence are similar to that for food dependence,” said Prof. Francesco Leri, Department of Psychology. “When we looked at our animals, we observed that foods with properties which are more appealing, such as those high in sugars and fats content, are preferred and engender addictive-like responses. In addition, these foods and cocaine produce similar effects on goal-oriented behaviors.”

Leri and his PhD student Anne Marie Levy began this research of food addictions in 2008, a little-studied field. They wondered why, with the same availability of foods, certain people develop food addiction and others do not.

The study, funded with a grant from the Canadian Institutes of Health Research, generated large public interest when it was presented at the recent annual meeting of the Canadian Association for Neuroscience in Toronto. The findings were reported by Global Television and CTV News, and were featured on several national and international health-oriented websites.

“Some rats were considerably more driven by the Oreos, and we need to determine the nature of these individual differences,” said Levy, the lead author on the paper. “We have studies planned to investigate possible genetic markers and mechanisms in the brain associated with vulnerability to addictive foods and addictive drugs. We’ll then be able to go beyond understanding that food addiction does happen, to knowing why it happens and how it could be treated.”

Future studies might help people struggling with weight loss and overeating, said Leri. The two scientists believe their findings could lead to novel pharmacological interventions for obese individuals that could help them selectively reduce intake of unhealthy foods.

“This knowledge could also help increase the public’s understanding of the effects of unhealthy food choices,” said Leri. “An effective strategy to combat obesity is to educate people about the causes and consequences of their choices.”

For more information:
Prof. Francesco Leri
Department of Psychology
University of Guelph
Phone: (519) 824-4120 x 58264

For media questions, contact Communications and Public Affairs: Lori Bona Hunt, 519-824-4120, Ext. 53338, or; or Kevin Gonsalves, Ext. 56982, or

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