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Sandie Leonard couldn’t wait to get her next fix. She would wake up with cravings and search her hiding spots when she felt low — in her kitchen, her car, her desk at school.
Leonard’s drug of choice? Sugar.
“Little Debbie was my best friend,” she said, adding that she ate at least box a day of Swiss rolls, fudge rounds or cupcakes. “She was always in my car with me. She was in my dressing room as I was getting ready in the morning. She was, you know, everywhere.”
So the teacher from Tennessee went to Malibu Vista, one of the first treatment centers for people hooked on sugar.
While “food addiction” is still a controversial label, recent research estimates that more than 8 percent of women ages 45 to 64 could be considered food addicts. Sugar may play on the reward centers of the brain and cause the same highs and withdrawal as illegal drugs.
“The effect of the sugar on the reward center is to cause changes that literally keep you addicted,” said Dr. Pam Peeke, author of “The Hunger Fix” and senior science advisor at Elements Behavioral Health Centers.
But there’s hope for people like Leonard. Early studies suggest it’s possible to retrain your brain to stop craving junk food.
After a month of therapy, Leonard can pass on Little Debbie, and says she uses exercise to soothe herself. It’s not easy — and she’s embarrassed to admit sugar had the same hold on her that drugs do on other addicts. But she’s committed to change.
“This is going to be a lifelong choice that I have to make. And I have to do it for my health. I have to do it for myself. I have to do it for my family,” she said.
Dr. Peeke explained the addiction and treatment in this interview with NBC News’ Maria Shriver.
Is sugar addiction a real thing or is it just made up?
Sugar addiction and food addiction is one of the hottest new sciences emerging over the last 10 years. What we've been able to find is that, in my estimation, heck yeah, it's real. Because we now have credible science, and it's being published on a daily basis, by the top universities, funded by the National Institutes of Health … showing a relationship that is so powerful between sugar — specific foods we call the hyperpalatables, sugary, fatty, salty — food combinations, and their very, very strong association with addiction, and now proven changes, organic changes that take place in the brain, specifically the brain's reward center.
What is the effect of sugar addiction on the brain?
The effect of sugar addiction on the brain has been seen now in both clinical — trials, as well as in animal work that we have done in the laboratory. … What we see (in the reward center of the brain) are identical, indistinguishable changes between sugar or food addiction and any other addiction, for instance, cocaine, methamphetamine, morphine, alcohol.
How does a person know that they're a sugar addict? What are the signs?
Thankfully, we have a new tool that has been credentialed and published called the Yale Food Addiction Scale. And this is something that has been generated by scientists who are using a classic blueprint that we use in all addiction. We ask a lot of the same questions.
Some people might say, "Everybody's talking about addiction. You know, people say, 'I'm addicted to this, I'm addicted to that.’ It's just really a copout. Just stop eating."
Do you wanna know something? That word "addiction" is thrown around everywhere. But I'm here to tell you, we had to have specific science, powerful science … to help us understand that this isn't a copout with food. Let's look at that word "food." Do you really call a lot of that manufactured, refined, processed product "food"? I don't think so. I like to call it a science fair project. If you read that side label, it looks like jet fuel, it probably is. And it's laced with sugar. So many of these products are laced with sugar. So when you take something like this — it's not an apple. I don't see anybody going in the corner and doing apples or trying to score an apple. … Instead what I see is it's the manufactured, refined, processed foods in the big boxes and bags that are causing the big problems.
You come here to treatment, you get off sugar, you have to spend the rest of your life in what you call the recovery diet. Really, what is that?
It's not a diet. It's just a recovery nutritional approach. So what we simply do is this: We look for all those foods that were going to make you absolutely satisfied, cut your carb cravings — give you pleasure so that you don't care about that sugar anymore because you have countless alternatives.
For more information about Dr. Peeke’s recovery diet, go to her website. For more on food addiction treatment at centers like Malibu Vista, go to Elements Behavioral Health. This interview has been condensed.