“Eating is not merely a material pleasure. Eating well gives a spectacular joy to life and contributes immensely to goodwill and happy companionship. It is of great importance to the morale.” Elsa Schiaparelli
How many times have we heard that sugar is addictive? Is that true? We don't know, but what we do know is that foods high in sugar trigger the same responses in the brain as drugs like cocaine or heroine. It’s not the flavour that makes a biscuit or an ice cream so irresistible. Rather it’s the addictive power of sugar.
An interesting study published in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition was looking at how sugar may affect the brain. The researchers tracked more than 100 teenagers as they drank various chocolate milkshakes identical in calories but either high in sugar and low in fat or vice versa. The MRI scan results have shown that although both kinds of shakes lit up pleasure centres in the brain, those who had a shake high in sugar had a greater activation in a food-reward area of the brain that plays a major role in a compulsive eating than those who had a low sugar shake. The study concluded that what really causes people to crave sugary foods is not the fat or flavour or the texture, but, primarily the sugar. In fact, sugar had such a powerful effect on stimulating the brain that it overshadowed fat, even when sugar and fat were combined in large amounts.
This research gives us a more complex understanding of what drives people to overeat in the first place. The conclusion is powerful and straightforward; highly processed foods loaded with sugar and fat activate and potentially modify the same reward centres in the brain that are triggered by alcohol and drugs. This mechanism may explain why millions of people who try all kind of diets and struggle to lose weight, ultimately are doomed to failure.
We do know that sugar acts like a drug by activating certain circuits of the brain. What we don’t know, however, is how this mechanism may play out in influencing the brain and how it may change our behaviour.
Scientists made an attempt to answer this question by inviting 106 teenagers and experimenting with more chocolate milk shakes, but this time with different sugar and fat content.
All participants had an MRI scan done four hours after their shake consumption to observe the potential changes in their brain. It turned out that although low fat, low sugar shakes activated areas of the brain associated with taste and sensation, they had no impact on reward centres. Relatively high fat, low sugar shakes, however, lit up parts of the reward area and a high sugar shakes with a triple amount of sugar but only 25% of the fat had even greater impact, lighting up various so-called food reward structures like the putamen, insula and rolandic operculum. These centres control our cravings for food. The more active these are, the more we want to eat. Scientists concluded that increasing fat content in the high sugar shake didn't activate the reward area any further.
In other words, the results of the study have shown that high sugar foods are not inherently addictive simply because of their flavour. It’s the effect they have on our metabolism that makes them so addictive. Sweets stimulate reward regions indeed, but they also cause spikes and drops in the blood sugar levels. These blood sugar drops cause further changes in the brain that trigger cravings. What’s really interesting, is that those cravings are typically for foods that can quickly rescue low blood sugar levels, like biscuits or omnipresent bars. The brain knows exactly what foods are needed to restore sugar levels quickly and by triggering the craving centres it sets us up for the next sugar-crazy cycle.
The fact that sugar consumption contributes to obesity, type 2 diabetes, or cancer, has been well documented, but could an addiction to sugar be actually a sign of an already existing health condition? Could sugar addiction be triggered by an underlying, undiagnosed problem?
It turns out that it is possible. Sugar addiction may be for example a sign of thyroid problems along with other symptoms like fatigue, muscle tension and headaches. It can also be triggered by yeast infections; people on antibiotics, antacids, and steroids have an increased secretion of cortisol that tends to suppress the immune system, making them more susceptible to overgrowth of toxic bacteria that thrive on sugar. Eating more sugar multiplies the yeast faster, which creates a vicious circle and constant sugar cravings.
Adrenaline overload may be another reason for craving sugary foods. Adrenal glands are responsible for stress hormones production like adrenaline and cortisol. The glands need to work particularly hard when put under constant pressure so a proper dose of sugar gives them a quick boost of energy. Typical signs of this problem are chronic stress, dizziness in standing position, frequent sore throat and unusually intense thirst or very common irritability when we are hungry.
How to cope with sugar cravings?
The human brain is wired to crave sugar and refined carbs which make us feel even hungrier. We develop a taste for fat but are born to prefer sugar. Many people eat foods full of processed sugar and worry about the calories, but the calories don’t actually make any difference. The quality of sugar does. Sugar cravings, overeating and the obesity epidemic have nothing to do with eating natural whole foods even if they contain large amounts of sugar. Rather, they have a lot to do with consuming processed sugar and fat.
Here are a few practical ways to limit sugar cravings in a healthy way.
1. Eat the real whole foods like vegetable, fruit, nuts, beans and seeds. No processed foods!
2. Eat nutritious breakfasts and stop eating, at least, two hours before going to bed.
3. Eat mindfully and slowly to digest food properly. When we eat fast, we tend to eat more.
4. Become aware of trigger foods like sugary drinks, biscuits, or bars.
5. Control your stress level. Meditate.
6. Exercise the right way. Go for a walk, jog, dance, do whatever works for you. Just move.
7. Get enough sleep. Sleep deprivation contributes to insulin resistance and makes you feel more hungry.
8. Start a journal to write your feelings down instead of eating them up.
We tend to think about overcoming sugar cravings in the context of willpower or habit or perhaps a whim. In reality, it is far more complex than that. If the brain reward centre gets activated in a way that causes it to fight against its willpower, then it's almost impossible to control it and what we call a craving becomes an addiction.
All the addictive drugs light up the addiction centre in the brain. Sugar and anything that contains sugar does exactly the same. It’s time to rethink the way we approach sugar cravings, overeating and binge eating. Sugar is an addictive toxin that should be regulated in the same way as cigarettes or drugs.