This Is Your Brain On Sugar

(Originally posted on on Oct 25th, 2012)

This Is Your BrainHalloween is just around the corner, which means candy is coming to a child near you! But not only that, it will be on sale and in your face everywhere you go for the next few weeks as stores try to unload all the stock that was not grabbed up for the little munchkins. Candy is everywhere right now. So this is the perfect time to talk about a very serious problem.

Sugars (Simple Carbs) are addictive. We, as a species, have evolved to favour carbohydrates. They are the main source of fuel for our bodies and, prior to agriculture, they were fairly scarce. Thus, our brains are designed to recognise carbohydrates as essential food sources and let us know this by wanting more. We are specifically wired to experience carbohydrates as a positive experience. They make us feel safe and comforted.

This brings us back to the present day when all the little kiddies, and many of the adults too, are gearing up to dive into a big collection of carbohydrates. Even with moderated intake this will be in excess to what our bodies are used to and need. We flood our bodies with simple sugars that zip straight into our blood stream in a rush and cause our brains to chemically identify these foods are essential to survival. Eating sugars like this has been shown to lead to dependence and addictive behaviours and neurochemical reactions (chemical changes in the brain) in animal models (because doing this research on humans is unethical)1,2.

A wave-like rush of sugars creates addiction, which leads to withdrawal and cravings, which leads to more carbohydrates in the diet. This is how we spiral out of control. One of the things that people claim is the hardest to get over when dieting or eating healthy is the cravings. Every pastry looks like it’s manna from heaven and you feel like a Disney character being carried by the nose on the wafting smells of a bakery. This is our brains craving the next hit.

If we are not careful, this leads to a diet high in simple carbohydrates. In fact, that is what the Standard American Diet now is. As a society, we have let this carbohydrate addiction have control and now we are seeing the cost, a huge portion of the general population is obese, rates of cancer, heart disease, and diabetes are through the roof, and nutrient deficiency is rampant.

But there is good news. Research shows that limiting carbohydrate intake over a period of time (2 years in the study I found) can significantly decrease cravings for these foods3. The study also showed decreases in overall appetite and low carbohydrate dieters were less bothered by hunger than other groups3. The brain is incredibly flexible and its habits can be changed. This is how we can break the cycle of addiction. Limiting dietary carbohydrates to complex carbs and fibres will allow us more control over our nutrition and health in the future. But like any addiction, even after the habit is beaten, it is very easy to fall back into its trap.

The best way to control cravings for any food and maintain a healthy lifestyle is to have a balanced diet with lots of veggies. This will provide everything your body needs and will decrease misinterpreted cravings. Fibre will keep us full and our blood sugar level for longer. A balanced diet has been shown to decrease our risk of heart disease, type II diabetes, and even cancer.

So, I’m not saying that we need to do away with Halloween all together or hand out toothbrushes to the trick-or-treaters, but we do need to practice moderation and only have a little candy now and then and only as a supplement to a good balanced diet.

Thanks for reading and have a safe and Happy Halloween.
Dr. Ben

Reference List
1. Avena NM, Bocarsly ME, and Hoebel BG. Animal models of sugar and fat bingeing: relationship to food addiction and increased body weight. Methods Mol Biol. 2012;829:351-65.

2. Nicole M. Avena, Pedro Rada, and Bartley G. Hoebel. Evidence for sugar addiction: Behavioral and neurochemical effects of intermittent, excessive sugar intake. Neurosci Biobehav Rev. 2008; 32(1): 20–39.

3. C. K. Martin, D. Rosenbaum, H. Han, P. Geiselman, H. Wyatt, J. Hill, C. Brill, B. Bailer, B. V. Miller, III, R. Stein, S. Klein, and Gard D. Foster. Change in food cravings, food preferences, and appetite during a low-carbohydrate and low-fat diet. Obesity (Silver Spring). 2011 October; 19(10): 1963–1970.


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