in Healthy Eating

7 min read

Have you been feeling like eating increased amounts of sugar lately? Craving it all the time? You just might have some signs of sugar addiction.

Sugar. It’s abundant in today’s society. It’s everywhere and in everything. This has made our brain unable to cope with the available amounts. And that is the topic we will be exploring in this article.

 

The appetizer

Let’s start with something interesting. The neural systems in your brain that have evolved to motivate and reinforce your food consumption, are the same systems which also underlie drug seeking and drug use [1]. How’s that for a heavy start? Now, this raises the logic possibility that some foods can cause addiction.

And this is where sugar comes in. Obesity is one of the leading preventable causes of death in the US and the Western world in general. Multiple studies have shown a very strong overlap of obesity and an increase in sugar consumption [2, 3, 4]. The amount of soft drinks that people drink has almost doubled in the past 50 years, this is also reflected by an increase in the calories which the average American consumes. In the past few decades, it has increased by around 420kcal.

 

This picture marks the increasing trends in obesity. These overlap with the recommendation for a low fat, high carbohydrate diet. And in this carbohydrate diet, there is plenty of sugar.

A short warning – this might get a bit sciency. If you dislike free knowledge, then skip to the cherry picked information at the end.

 

The science part

Dopamine

Dopamine is a very important hormone and neurotransmitter. It has the role of a neurotransmitter in our brain, with a major role in reward-motivated behavior. Most rewards increase the amounts of dopamine in our brain, a variety of addictive drugs do the same.

A well-known characteristic of drugs is their ability to cause repeated, periodic increases of dopamine in the nucleus accumbens [5]. Why I’m talking about this will be revealed very shortly.

Nucleus accumbens

The nucleus accumbens is a brain structure in our forebrain with many roles. The more important ones for this article, are its roles in pleasure, rewards, impulsivity, and addiction.

In the past, researchers have used rats to study how they would respond to increased availability of sugar. Now prepare to be shocked. The first interesting thing was that they drank it in a binge-like way. This increased the release of dopamine in the nucleus accumbens each time they did it (you might want to check the statement before the ‘Nucleus accumbens’ explanation again).

And these weren’t the only noticeable changes. The amount of their dopamine receptors changed as well, these became more available in order for the rats to continue with such behavior. This basically means that sugar had the same effects as illegal drugs do, it increased dopamine levels in the nucleus accumbens. Moreover, there were structural changes in the availability of dopamine receptors, this reflects an increased preference for more sugar [6].

By now you might be saying:

Hey, I’m insulted by your flattery insinuation that I’m a rat which can read.

Yeah, that’s probably true. But the discussed mechanisms are older than our species, and they are same in humans. However, it is also true that our brain is more complex in certain aspects. Furthermore, there are a number of other variables to account for when we talk about these things in humans.

mRNA

Messenger RNA is a family of molecules which transmits the genetic information from our DNA to our ribosomes (where our proteins get created).

But that’s not the end of it. Having an irregular access to sugar affects our opioid receptors as well. This involves decreased enkephalin mRNA in your nucleus accumbens.

Enkephalins

Enkephalins are naturally occurring molecules which regulate our pain perception. They bind to our opioid receptors in the body.

Why did I have to include this difficult sentence in this article? Because signs of withdrawal, which you experience because of drugs, seem to be largely due to different changes of our opioid receptors. And being deprived of food, especially sugar, seems to have a similar effect on our opioid receptors. [7]

Moreover, sugar itself probably leads to an increased number and/or affinity for opioid receptors, this in return leads to further consumption of sugar, and is probably one of the biggest culprits behind obesity. [8]

You’ve made it. That’s the end of the sciency part. So let’s make a short recap.

  • Eating sugar increases our dopamine levels, as well as modifies opioid receptors.
  • These two things happen with illegal drugs as well.
  • There is a strong neural basis for sugar addiction

 

The explanation part

Now that the biology part is out of our way. Let’s take a moment to define some things about drugs.

Being drug dependent is characterized by compulsive and uncontrollable behaviors. These interfere with other activities in your daily routine, and probably intensify through continuous repetition. You can relate that to possible binges of sugar consumption you might be experiencing.

Then you have bingeing; you’re consuming bigger amounts of a particular drug with each new consumption, you’re required to consume more of it for the same effect. This required increase happens because you become more desensitized and develop a tolerance to the properties of sugar… Oops, sorry, I mean to the properties of a drug.

If you do not receive these needed amounts, you will experience withdrawal. I’ve already talked about the neurological basis of it, however, the usual subjective signs include anxiety, possible depressive symptomatics, and other unpleasant emotional states. 

And then craving. This is the third stage of dependence (the first being bingeing, and the second withdrawal). During this stage, you’re more likely to actively look for a certain drug to get that dopamine increase and reward feeling when you finally receive it.

 

The sugar part

And now something about sugar. This part will be an oversimplification of biochemistry on certain parts.

Fructose is a unique sweetener with a different metabolic effect on your body than glucose or sucrose. Sucrose is your regular table sugar, and glucose is the secondary source of energy for your body. Most carbs you eat contain glucose. As I’ve mentioned, fructose is unique as it gets absorbed further down your gut and stimulates insulin production, but doesn’t release it. Glucose, however, releases it. And this is important because insulin decreases your desire to eat (among other things), and increases the amount of available leptin, an appetite inhibiting hormone.

A meal loaded with high-fructose corn syrup reduces your insulin and leptin levels, which in turn increases your appetite. This leads you to crave more food, preferably more sugar. The worst part is that consuming fructose does not give you the satiety which you would receive from a calorically similar meal. And because high-fructose corn syrup has become a staple in the Western American diet, while lacking the metabolic aspects of insulin and leptin, it is probably one of the main factors impacting obesity. 

 

So why exactly do you crave sugar?

The sweet taste of sugar elicits a response in our brain. This response is the release of dopamine in the nucleus accumbens. Such a response happens when taking an illegal drug as well. In general, sugar is the only (legal) substance for which there have been recorded withdrawal signs and an increased motivation to consume it after withdrawal in our species – this, again, happens with drugs as well.

Different brain imaging studies of obese people show that, when they crave highly tasty food, certain brain areas become activated. And these areas are also the ones that become activated when you crave drugs.

Moreover, when we are exposed to highly tasty food that is filled with sugar, certain brain regions activate in our frontal parts. These basically increase our motivation to eat more sugar. [9]

All of this has a solid evolutionary foothold.

Since the dawn of our species, it was in our interest to inherit a desire for food which enabled us to survive. However, this desire has gone awry due to the circumstances of our modern society. Nutrients that were very scarce a few thousand years ago are presented to us in huge quantities. We have limited capacity to withstand these pressures and make the right choices. By being aware of this information, we can prepare in advance.

What do you think? Do you feel you are addicted to sugar, or know anyone who is? Share your thoughts on this!

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