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Wired for Addiction: 6 Ways to Curb Sugar Cravings

20 J0000002UTC 2011


“Moderation in all things!” is the Aristotelian quip I hear about vice-foods nearly every day. It would work except that humans are consumption driven, compelled more by quantity than “a small smackrel of something sweet.” It would work except that we are wired for addiction, not moderation.

In evolutionary terms we should stock up on sweets. As sweetness was largely absent in our primitive ancestors’ fine dining experience, when they stumbled upon berries and bee hives, the eating was good. The rapid-fire reward was energy and happy feelings sent to cells, muscles and the brain– the sugar rush.

It’s not likely that any caveman became too reliant upon sugar (or our beloved white bread). If there was any, it was used up by the time he turned over the next stone or climbed the next tree. Stored sugar (glycogen in the muscles and liver) only hang around for 18ish hours– a caveman used those building a fire or chasing a bunny. No one ever left sugar uneaten. “Maybe I’ll just leave some honey for Barney.” No way. Fred ate as much as he possibly could.

The problem is that you and I are pretty much eating as much sugar as we possibly can, too.

Sugars, or carbohydrates, come in many forms, on a spectrum from nutrient-dense and health-helpful to nutrient-deficient and health-harmful. Some carbs occur naturally in the world, like in a kiwi, a carrot or an oat; some, like Mountain Dew, Domino’s pizza crust or a Snickers Bar, are made by men in little white coats. Basically carbohydrates come from plants: fruits, vegetables, legumes, grains plus all of their bastard food industry offshoots.

Our ancestral roots cannot solely be blamed for our seemingly unquenchable desire for carbohydrates, mainly processed grains, white sugar and high fructose corn syrup. We can blame the hunters and gatherers of former generations; we can also blame our own pleasure seeking brains for our addictions.

“Not all addictions are to drugs or alcohol. People can be seriously addicted to gambling, even to running. All addicts show a loss of control of the activity, compulsively seek it out despite negative consequences, develop tolerance so that they need higher and higher levels of stimulation for satisfaction, and experience withdrawal if they can’t consummate the addictive act. All addiction involves long-term, sometimes lifelong, neuroplastic change in the brain. For addicts, moderation is impossible…”

A Princeton University scientist, Bartley G. Hoebel, did a bunch of studies on rats with sugar and sugar water. He watched their brains, neurotransmitters and drug receptor sites in their brains. He witnessed in those fuzzy little creatures the same behaviors I witness in Americans: demand for a substance (sugar/carbs), eating in excess, crazy withdraw symptoms, consumption in greater excess when the desired substance returned and an overall inability to be satisfied, even with a limitless supply. The main difference is that I listen to people openly admit addiction to Gummy Bears, caramels, venti mochas, fettuccini alfredo and sprinkle donuts.

Eating sugar affects both the opioid and dopamine receptor sites in the brain. Even the taste of sugar (think Splenda or Equal) activates the same areas that are activated by heroin and morphine, creating a drug-like response. What Hoebel discovered was that when his rats ate sugar in increasing amounts, it looked like substance abuse– cocaine, morphine, nicotine or alcohol. The more the rats ate and drank, the duller their dopamine (reward) receptors became, causing them to require more and more sugar to achieve the same gratification; also, their opioid receptors increased, a similar effect to someone on cocaine or heroin. The more sugar the rats consumed, the more they demanded.

Beyond sugar, more and more studies are being conducted on the effects of gluten (the protein found in wheat, barley, spelt and rye) and casein (the protein found in dairy) on the brain. Our country has a bread-and-cheese addiction. Mac-and-cheese, cheese pizza, cheese and crackers, grilled cheese and so on. For many people gluten and casein have a morphine-like effect on the brain and body. When the proteins are broken down in the stomach, they form into peptides (chains of amino acids) with digestive enzymes which create “gluteomorphines” and “casomorphines”. These cross the blood brain barrier, bind to the dopamine receptor sites and create a morphine response, a tranquil, euphoric state– temporarily. It sounds good, but the problem comes when a person is deprived of these proteins and the morphine derivatives. He or she gets angry, demanding and goes through a type of withdrawal. It is most pronounced in children, some of whom will only eat the bread-and-cheese diet, to the exclusion of much needed protein and vegetables. Many children with autism and Asperger’s Disease who go on a gluten free-casein free diet see amazing improvements in their conditions because they finally wean off of morphine.

If you are addicted to sugar, other (non fruit/veggie) carbs or the bread-and-cheese duo and don’t want to be…what do you do?

1. Don’t Ever Get Too Hungry. Eat before you are ravenous– this includes breakfast. When we get too hungry, our blood sugar drops really low and sugar is the quickest fix. You will instinctively want to eat Rice Krispie treats or sugar dipped strawberries when your blood sugar is too low. Then you get a short-lived spike and another equally low low. If you eat real food before you’re too hungry, you stay more stable and need/want sugar and bready carbs less.

2. Try Logic. It’s easy for me to see that a Coca-Cola has no nutritional value, is empty calories and is not needed for my daily routine, so I pass. If I needed to run after a deer or from a mountain lion, I’d probably drink the Coke.

3. Pair Carbs with Fat and/or Protein. Fat and protein help deliver sugar more slowly to the bloodstream. This keeps blood sugar from spiking and you from acting like a crazy person. Have nut butter, meat or olives with your fruit, crackers or scone.

4. Pair Alcohol and Dessert with Real Food. Alcohol and dessert are sugar. Lots of it. Drink your alcohol with dinner, not before. If you feel that you require or deserve dessert, or you’re finally eating at a restaurant where dessert is worth it, share it with someone– as close after dinner as possible. Your dinner will slow down the sugar in the alcohol and the sugar/flour combo.

5. Don’t Eat From a Box or Carton. Seriously, that’s kind of gross. We’ve all done it, but it’s not a good idea. It’s proven that we eat in units (whichever unit is in front of us) and, reminiscent of ancestor caveman, we somehow still believe we should consume as much as possible in one sitting. Put 1/2 cup of ice cream in a dish. Break off three squares of chocolate. Put two cookies on a plate. Make your unit smaller, eat slowly and enjoy every bite. You’re not a caveman.

6. Eat Grown-Up Food. Encourage your children to also. Begin the shift away from cheese pizza, mac-and-cheese and grilled cheese. You think they taste good, but your brain is tricked into believing they taste good because of the effect they have. Really they just feel good, and only for a bit. Other foods taste far better than Papa John’s, Kraft and Wonder Bread– I promise.

You can only succeed at moderation if you know how to handle your body and brain. If you simply ‘try’ to be moderate with chocolate chip cookies, potato chips, your afternoon muffin run or your default dinner, I think I know how it will go. The brain is a push-over. It wants to be rewarded, tranquil, elated, happy, successful all in one. Sugar and carbs afford those feelings, even if for a moment. Then it demands more. And more unused sugar in the 21st century means more fat storage…then obesity…then disease. You see where this is going.

We are wired for addiction, not moderation. But…you can make great choices to manage your known, acknowledged addictions into a moderate position. You can master them into moderation — mostly through not depriving your body too severely and balancing when and what you eat.


McPhearson, Kitta. “Sugar Can Be Addictive, Princeton Scientist Says.”, 2008.

Hoebel, Bartley G. “Evidence for Sugar Addiction: Behavioral and Neurochemical Effects of Intermittent, Excessive Sugar Intake.” Neuroscience and Behavioral Reviews, 2008.

Doidge, Norman M.D. The Brain That Changes Itself. Penguin Books, London. 2007.

Milne, A.A. Winnie the Pooh. 1926.

One Comment leave one →
  1. 20 J0000003UTC 2011 1:56 pm

    Thanks for the post! I look forward to future sugar related topics.

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