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24-carrot hold: Can you have a compulsive craving for carrots?

“Eating raw carrots may be as addictive as cigarette smoking and every bit as difficult to give up” said The Independent newspaper back in 1992. The paper was reporting on a study by Czech researchers Ludek Cerný and Karel Cerný who published a paper in the British Journal of Addiction (BJA) concerning three case studies of people allegedly addicted to carrots. So can carrots really be addictive?

When I started to research this a little further, I was surprised to discover that there are many reports in the medical literature dating back almost 100 years of the consequences of excessive carrot eating. The most commonly reported consequence is that excessive carrot eating can cause people’s skin pigmentation to turn yellow (a condition that has since been given the name hypercarotenemia). In 1975, there was an infamous case that received widespread news coverage concerning the death of a 48-year old man who drank excessive amounts of carrot juice. The coroner actually attributed the man’s death as addiction to carrot juice although Dr Ivan Sharman (writing in an article in a 1985 issue of the British Medical Journal on hypercarotenemia) speculated that the person’s addiction to carrots may have reduced the patient’s intake of more nourishing food. Cases of hypercarotenemia have also been reported amongst people with anorexia, hypothyroidism, and Down’s Syndrome.

The 1992 BJA paper described three cases (one male and two females) who the authors claimed had developed a psychological dependence on carrots. The dependence was – in part – caused by the ‘active ingredients’ (including carotine) found in carrots. When unable to eat carrots, these people displayed symptoms of irritability and nervousness, and were said to have an inability to simply discontinue. All three people were cigarette smokers and the two women described their dependence on carrots as stronger than that of nicotine (whereas the man described it as slightly weaker). The man was eating “five bunches” of carrots daily and had – somewhat ironically – started eating carrots as a way of trying to reduce the amount of cigarettes that he smoked. When he gave up carrots, he resumed smoking. One of the women ate a kilogram of raw carrots a day, and was treated for ‘neurological disturbance’. The other woman – pregnant with her first child – started eating large quantities of carrots. She managed to stop eating carrots excessively for 15 years after the baby was born. However, following a stomach upset she relapsed. According to the authors, there was a happy outcome when the woman switched to radishes and developed a diet totally free of carrots!

In 1996, another paper was published in the Australian and New Zealand Journal of Psychiatry by Dr. Robert Kaplan (a consultant psychiatrist at the Liaison Clinic in Wollongong, Australia). The paper concerned the case of a 49-year-old female compulsive carrot eater who after a period of depression (caused by the breakdown of her marriage) started to eat 2-3kg of carrots every day, and lost interest in eating any other food. As in the cases outlined above, she was also a heavy smoker. As Dr Kaplan wrote:

“She rapidly lost interest in eating any other foods. Attempts to resist the craving were useless and she would get out of bed at night to eat more carrots. Her activities began to revolve around this activity, particularly the almost- daily visits to the supermarket. She became an expert in assessing the carrots, selecting them on size and shape: features which would determine the woodiness and succulence when eaten. As she put it: ‘I just wanted to eat a nice juicy carrot and couldn’t stop munching after that’…[She then developed a] noticeable orange/yellow discolouration of her face and hands. She explained that the carrot eating had overtaken her life and she had been too embarrassed to tell me about it at earlier visits. However, the skin discoloration was now quite visible and she felt self-conscious in public. In an attempt to overcome the problem she had stayed with her parents for several weeks, where they had encouraged her to eat normal meals. However, the craving continued and she became concerned about her appearance and the loss of control” (p.699).

The carrot eating continued and she was unable to stop eating carrots (she couldn’t last more than half a day before she gave in to the craving. Any attempt to stop eating carrots led to intense withdrawal symptoms (including anxiety, restlessness, shaking, craving, irritability, and insomnia). During a hysterectomy, the surgeon discovered that the woman’s internal organs were a bright yellow colour. Dr. Kaplan then noted:

“Losing her appetite, she stopped smoking cigarettes and eating carrots. The first few days lead to intense cravings for both substances, which settled, followed by cigarette cravings for a few more weeks. She felt that the postoperative distress and nicotine withdrawal symptoms had a combined effect which helped her overcome her carrot craving. Within 4 weeks, she felt she had overcome the carrot addiction, with cessation of both psychological and physical symptoms” (p.699).

The woman maintained her cessation of carrot eating although still occasionally craved cigarettes. Dr Kaplan reported that the thought of eating carrots now repulsed her. Interestingly, the woman believed that she couldn’t have stopped eating carrots without the discomfort produced by the nicotine withdrawal. It was concluded that compulsive carrot eating is a rare condition and that the basis for the addiction is most likely beta carotene (found in carrots). Although the woman was administered sertraline for her depression, it had no effect on the amount of carrots that she ate.

The idea that food can be addictive is not new and there are certainly reports of specific foodstuffs being addictive (chocolate perhaps being an obvious case in point). However, based on these few published case studies (particularly the one reported by Kaplan), it would appear that in extreme and very unusual circumstances, that carrots may indeed be addictive to some people.

Dr Mark Griffiths, Professor of Gambling Studies, International Gaming Research Unit, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK

Further reading

al-Jubouri, M.A., Coombes, E.J., Young, R.M. & McLaughlin, N.P. (1994). Xanthoderma: an unusual presentation of hypothyroidism. Journal of Clinical Pathology, 47, 850-851.

černý, L. & černý, K. (1992). Can carrots be addictive? An extraordinary form of drug dependence. British Journal of Addiction, 87, 1195-1197.

Corwin, R.L. & Grigson, P.S. (2009). Overview – food addiction: Fact or fiction? Journal of Nutrition, 139: 617–619.

Hess, A.F. & Myers, V.C. (1919) Carotenaemia: A new clinical picture. Journal of the American Medical Association, 73, 1743.

Kaplan, R. (1996), Carrot addiction. Australian and New Zealand Journal of Psychiatry, 30, 698-700.

Leitner, Z.A., Moore, T., & Sharman, I.M. (1975). Fatal self-medication with retinol and carrot juice. Proceedings of the Nutrition Society, 34, 44A.

Pelchat, M.L. (2009). Food addiction in humans. Journal of Nutrition, 139, 620-622.

Schoenfeld, Y., Shaklai, M., Ben-Baruch, N., Hirschorn, M. & Pinkhaus, J. (1982). Neutropenia induced by hypercarotenemia. The Lancet, i, 1245.

Sharman, I.M. (1985). Hypercarotenaemia. British Medical Journal, 290, 95-96.

Sherman, P., Leslie, K., Goldberg, E., Rybczynski, J. & St-Louis, P. (1994). Hypercarotenemia and transaminitis in female adolescents with eating disorders: A prospective, controlled study. Journal of Adolescent Health, 15, 205-209.

Storm W. (1990). Hypercarotenemia in children with Down’s syndrome. Journal of Mental Deficiency Research, 34, 283-286.