Can't Put Down the Oreos? It Might Be in Your Head

New research suggests sugary snacks and drugs can stimulate the brains of lab rats in similar ways.
6:40 | 10/17/13

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Transcript for Can't Put Down the Oreos? It Might Be in Your Head
Speaking as a man who has on more than one occasion consumed an entire sleeve of oreos and entered a shame spiral I was intrigued by a study that hit the news, that involved giving oreos to rats. What scientists found in the tiny rodent brains was similar to what happens when rats are given cocaine. Tonight the company that makes oreos is responding to all of this. Meanwhile some experts are saying -- I told you so. Here is abc's juju chang. ♪ Reporter: It seems people the world over have a love affair with oreos. The milky dunk, the creamy center. ♪ but can that powerful mix of creamy crunchy sugary fat we as addictive as morphine or cocaine. Those provocative findings caught buzz today. When given a choice between a bland food, rice cake, sugary fat food like an oreo, lab rats display a clear favorite. Perhaps they activate the pleasure center of the brain to a greater extent than ordinary foods. Reporter: Sure, a no brainer. When researchers looked at neural active tef aity it showed as strong a response in pleasure centers as hard core addictive substances like narcotics. Animals exposed to oreo cookies, high fat, high sugar foods will develop a preference. But the oreo parent company downplayed results. Saying research is yet to be published much less peer reviewed so they're not in a position to comment. They did caution against interpreting any results as s specific to oreo cookies. Addiction specialists say it is a stretch off to label it an addiction and not fair to compare junk food to narcotics which have a painful withdrawal. Nutrition experts, dr. Pam peak have long been making a case for food addiction. We call them hyperpalatables, can be just as addictive as cocaine and other drugs of addiction. Reporter: She says the oreo study is in line with evidence linking high sugar high, fat, and highly salty food with brain science. This recent study adds yet another piece of the puzzle to mounting evidence that we have been accumulating over the last ten years showing a very strong relationship between certain foods and addiction. Reporter: Last year "nightline" spent time with dr. Peak who offered "the hunger fix" one of the first consumer books on food addiction and huh to beat it. The organic changes that happen in the reward system, drugs, alcohol or food. Reporter: It may be playing into america's obesity epidemic. More americans die of obesity related diseases than all cancers combined. Dr. Peak argues for some people, food can be as addictive as cocaine. With cravings, binging and withdrawal. You are secreting lots of that wonderful pleasure reward brain chemical called dope meamine. Giving you the fantastic feeling of wow this is wonderful. Dr. Peak introduced us to a recovering addict. The substance she abused food. The former plus-sized model wasn't just overeating she was out of control. Give me the full-on experience? I would get wings, waffle fries, cheese, gravy, pick up a pint of ben & jerry's and a box, and that meal was 6,000 calories. Oh, my god. Reporter: By age 22 she tipped the scales at 316 pound. Then decided to shed the weight in the most public way possible. On the tv show "the biggest loser." She lost an astonishing 155 pounds. Landed on the cover of magazines, like "okay" and "woman's world" when some of the weight begin to creep back. It wasn't just her body she was battling it was her mind. It's not all will power. There might be something wrong up here. Reporter: Dr. Peak offers prescription to get food addicts on the way to detox, rehab, recovery. THE THREE Ms, MIND, MOUTH AND Muscle. Step one. Strengthen the mind. At whole foods we discuss healthy alternatives. Then reveal the snacks we krach mo -- crave most. For me, cheese. For pam, a cupcake. Now time to medicate the we head to central park. Take a deep breath. I am in control. I am in control. I am powering up my brain. I am powering up my brain. This know it a new age moment. This is hard core neuroscience. Powering up the brain to stay vigilant, to say no, and to be able to rein in impulses. Step two, trick the mouth the we stopped in at a restaurant where instead of ice cream we try a chocolate cherry almond protein smoothie. Not an ounce of refined sugar in it. Reporter: Instead of a protein bar. Banana. Peanut butter. One of my favorite things. Reporter: Move your muscles. By working out reg larularly she stafz off cravings and reward her brain. The scans from yale show the reward centers of the brain reacting to a chocolate milk shake. For some people the pleasure receptors turn off. For others it keeps reacting. Wanting more. BY FOCUSING ON THE THREE Ms, Mind, mouth and muscle, dr. Peak believes you can retrain the brain. This is my new current vision board iflt w board, I want to keep going and be strong. Tara says she will be a recovering food addict for the rest of her life. Just knowing that she says is a victory. I wish I could be normal with it. You know twhuwhat? I have the hope it will be okay. The science helped people feel relieved. It wasn't all their fault. But what they must now do is take action to get the stuff out of their life. Rope as Reporter: As for delicious ore oreos. Noefrnt t everyone is addicted to oreos. A large number of people out there struggling with their weight right now find themselves attracted to these kind of foods and also out of control around these foods. For those people, we need to be able to have programs to help them. For everyone else, have your oreo. Reporter: For "nightline," juju chang, new york.

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