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Are we becoming addicted to addiction?

Adapted from the In Practice blog on

I remember when a friend told me I ought to pray Krispy Kreme doughnuts never opened a franchise in Boston. “They should call them Krispy Krack,” she said. I also remember, years ago, the first time I entered an exam room and found the patient waiting for me tapping away at a miniature keyboard. “My Crack-berry,” he explained.

Is it appropriate or helpful to consider everything we eat/drink/do/watch/buy/use a lot an addiction?

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(Another question — one I addressed briefly in a review of a new book about drugs — is whether it’s accurate to use “crack” as a synonym for “addictive.”)

In recent years, gambling, shopping, pornography, video games, Internet use, sex, and even relationships have joined drugs and alcohol as potentially addicting entities. Some feel we overuse the concept of addiction — that we have, in effect, become addicted to addiction. A new book by British journalist Damian Thompson called “The Fix: How Addiction Is Invading Our Lives and Taking Over Your World’’ argues that our brains are wired to seek pleasure and, in a world that’s full of iPhones and giant gourmet cupcakes there’s more pleasure readily available to more people than ever. In other words, we are all capable of addiction, given unlimited access to the stuff that turns us on.

In medicine, the question of whether we should call certain behaviors “addictive” is more than semantic. Addiction implies pathology, which cuts both ways: It can stigmatize the person labeled an addict, but may also encourage researchers and insurance companies to treat his or her behavior as an illness.

A recent study at Boston Children’s Hospital showed that obese men who drank milkshakes containing rapidly digestible (high glycemic) carbohydrates, such as those found in processed sweet and starchy foods, demonstrated brain activity similar to that seen in addiction — and these kinds of carbs triggered cravings and overeating. Men who drank similar tasting milkshakes with slowly digested (low glycemic) carbs, such as those found in whole grains, fruits, and vegetables, did not exhibit this activity.

Though small, this study suggests that certain carbohydrates may be addictive and that obesity is, at least in part, a consequence of addiction. The study, coincidentally, appeared at about the same time the American Medical Association decided to begin considering obesity a disease.

One misconception, I think, is that calling a person’s behavior an addiction somehow brands that person as a victim. In 2011, the American Society of Addiction Medicine revised its definition of addiction to include not only behavior, but brain dysfunction. This definition recognizes the neuro-psychiatric roots of addictive behavior, but it doesn’t give addicts a free pass. After all, the implication of the Children’s study about high glycemic carbs and overeating is that many of us may have to address our “addiction” by avoiding the sweet, starchy foods we crave — and that will be anything but easy.

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