Sugar on the Brain: What’s the Deal with Sugar Addiction?

“We don’t abuse lettuce, turnips and oranges…But when a highly processed food is eaten, the body may go haywire. Nobody abuses corn as far as I know, but when you process it into Cheetos, what happens?”

Dr. Kelly D. Brownell, director of Yale’s Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity

 There are a lot of books and diets out there that talk about food and addiction, but what does research on this actually show? A Princeton study from 2009 made the argument that sugar can act on the brain in similar ways as addictive drugs. The study argued that rats who were fed sugar showed signs of addiction such as bingeing, withdrawal, craving- even neurochemical changes to the brain-  in a similar fashion as they would to addictive substances such as cocaine.

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In the study, rats were shown to “binge” on sugar when they were hungry, which provokes a surge of the neurotransmitter dopamine in the brain. Even after only a month, the brain structures of these rats had changed due to the increased dopamine levels. Dopamine is a key mechanism for the brain’s reward and motivation systems, and similar changes to the are also seen in the brains of rats given addictive drugs like cocaine or heroin.

When the researchers took away the sugar supply, the rats showed signs of withdrawal. The brain levels of dopamine dropped, which caused symptoms of withdrawal such as anxiety, teeth chattering, paw shaking, and disengagement. When sugar was reintroduced, the rats worked who had binged on sugar worked harder to get it and they consumed 23% more sugar than they had before.

One thing that has been shown to ease cravings for food is…exercise! Several studies have shown that exercise can also modulate the brain’s motivation and reward structures. A study reported in the New York Times showed that after beginning a regimen of regular exercise, in this case running, participants started feeling satiated faster without even realizing it:

“A related study published in December looked at the effects of moderate exercise, the equivalent of brisk jogging. It found that after 12 weeks, formerly sedentary, overweight men and women began recognizing, without consciously knowing it, that they should not overeat.

But after three months of exercise, the volunteers consumed fewer calories throughout the day when they had the high-calorie shake than the lower-calorie one. Exercise “improves the body’s ability to judge the amount of calories consumed and to adjust for that afterward,” says Catia Martins, a professor at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology in Trondheim, who led the study.”

 

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