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The Brain Loves Sugar

 

Sugar and the BrainSugar is as addictive as cocaine.  Being overweight, says Dr. Michael Roizen, chief wellness officer at the Cleveland Clinic, can be a clear-cut case of too much of a good thing — specifically dopamine, a feel-good chemical that gets released in your brain when you eat something delicious like sugar.

Facts about Sugar:

  • The average American eats 156 lbs of added sugar a year.
  • We consume almost 500% more soft drinks than we did in the 1940’s, according to a US Department of Agriculture Study published in 1999.  Approximately half of the added sugar we consume today comes from soft drinks, sports energy drinks, fruit drinks and the like.  On the positive side, consumption is 40% down since its all-time high in the 1970’s.
  • Research studies have linked excess sugar consumption to dangerous levels of LDL cholesterol (the bad type!), increased plaque deposits in the arteries, and breast and colon cancers. High fructose corn syrup – that insidious ingredient found in many salad dressings, ketchup, coffee creamers etc. has been linked to increased heart disease and stroke. There is evidence that some tumors have insulin receptors that feed on glucose.

 

When researchers compared brain scans of drug addicts and obese people who are food addicts, they found that the brain’s reward centers in both groups don’t light up well.

Why?  Here’s a short version of what happens, Roizen explains: “When you eat, say, a doughnut, your brain releases pleasure-giving dopamine.  At this point, many people are satisfied.  But for some people, the desire to repeat the pleasure is too strong to resist.”

So they eat more doughnuts to release more dopamine.  Pretty much any food loaded with fat, sugary carbs and/or salt will do the job.

“Eventually, the reward center in your brain gets used to having all that dopamine and stops reacting so intensely,” Roizen says.  “Then you have to overeat just to get your normal dopamine high.” This is why changing food habits can be so hard to do.  To break the addiction, you have to avoid dopamine-triggering foods.  “Like quitting smoking, it takes time and work, but eventually avoiding fatty, sugary, salty foods will allow dopamine levels to return to normal,” Roizen says.

Some overeaters crave sweets and wonder if there’s a physical reason for this.  There is.  People who identify themselves as sugar addicts are on to something: Sugar seems to activate the pleasure centers of the brain in a similar way that narcotics do, though sugar is not addictive in exactly the same way.  Lab rats that get a kick from cocaine, morphine, and nicotine get the same high when they nibble sugar.

There’s also a biological answer for the “need” for sweets.  Since the body requires sugar — the kind naturally found in whole foods, like fruit and vegetables — as fuel, doctors and researchers say, we may all be hard-wired to crave it, a tendency that’s exacerbated when a person is tired, stressed, overly hungry or when their blood sugar is low.

The best way to overcome this overwhelming desire for more sugary foods, is to eating regularly, and enough.  Incorporate more fruits in your diet, and find other snacks like nuts to snack on instead of chips and chocolates.  This can help stave off cravings and finally kick that sugar addiction.

 

Works Cited:

1. Greenberg, Melanie. Why Our Brains Love Sugar – And Why Our Bodies Don’t. Psychology Today. 5 February 2013. Web. 26 February 2013.

 

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Filed under: Addiction, Eating disorders · Tags: dopamine, Eating disorders, food addiction, junk food addiction, sugar addiction, sugar and the brain

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