Neurobiology Of Sugar Cravings


The scientific basis behind the recommendation to cut out sweets for weight loss and overall health benefit is often overlooked.1, 2, 3, 4, 5 Did you know that the more sugar you consume, the more you come to crave it?6, 7, 8, 9, 10 Or how about that eating sweet foods causes a reward in the brain and mesolimbic dopamine pathway?11, 12, 13, 14

The science behind sweet is surprisingly complex, and also paints these foods in a fairly negative light.15, 16, 17, 18 Gambling, shopping, cocaine, heroin, and alcohol – are all common addictions supported by salient science.19 But food and sugar addiction is still questioned – even though our world’s population has never been fatter than we are right now.20, 21, 22 Oftentimes, we see clients turn to artificial sweeteners. And while these may be good as a “methadone” to getting off of sugar, they actually tend to result in weight gain, not weight loss.23, 24, 25

Neurobiology of Sugar Cravings | The Paleo Diet

Yang, Qing. “Images in This Article.” Yale Journal of Biology and Medicine. U.S. National Library of Medicine, 29 Nov. 0005. Web. 18 Nov. 2014.

Neurobiology of Sugar Cravings | The Paleo Diet

Ahmed, Jessica, […] Robert Preissner. Oxford University Press. U.S. National Library of Medicine, 14 Oct. 2010. Web. 18 Nov. 2014.

There are a multitude of reasons to avoid both sugar and artificial sweeteners.26, 27, 28 The body responds to sweet food with a need for more sweet food, and ignores foods that will contain more nutrients, and have more satiety.29 If we look at something like fructose specifically, some researchers have pointed out fructose is nearly equal to alcohol, in both societal function, hedonic and neuronal response, among others.30, 31

Molecularly, the structure of artificial sweeteners is interesting.32, 33 These creations have only existed for a little over 100 years, so we know very little about how our genome responds to them, at least in the long term.34, 35, 36

Neurobiology of Sugar Cravings | The Paleo Diet

Yang, Qing. “Images in This Article.” Yale Journal of Biology and Medicine. U.S. National Library of Medicine, 29 Nov. 0005. Web. 18 Nov. 2014.

In 2008, only 15% of the population consumed artificial sweeteners, but that number has increased every year since. The number of products containing artificial sweeteners has also increased substantially, from 369 in 1998 to 2,346 in 2010. Interestingly, table sugar and glucose activate human taste pathways differently than artificial sweeteners.37

Neurobiology of Sugar Cravings |The Paleo Diet

“Download PDFs.” Altered Processing of Sweet Taste in the Brain of Diet Soda Drinkers. N.p., n.d. Web. 18 Nov. 2014.

Sucrose elicts a stronger brain response in the following regions: the anterior insula, frontal operculum, striatum and anterior cingulate.38 Sugar also stimulates the dopaminergic midbrain areas in relation to the behavioral pleasantness response.39 Your brain can tell the difference between artificial sweeteners and sugar, but does that mean that artificial sweeteners are better for us?

Neurobiology of Sugar Cravings | The Paleo Diet

“Download PDFs.” Altered Processing of Sweet Taste in the Brain of Diet Soda Drinkers. N.p., n.d. Web. 18 Nov. 2014.

The answer: No.40 41 The link between artificial sweetener consumption and obesity is an interesting one.42 Presumably, non-nutritive sweeteners would be a better alternative. However, there are alterations in reward processing of sweet taste in individuals who regularly consume diet soda.43 The more the reward process is altered, the more diet soda is consumed.44

Addictive drugs cause increases in extracellular dopamine in the brain’s “pleasure center,” the nucleus accumbens.45 When you consume sugar, binging on the substance releases dopamine, similarly to addictive drugs.46 The brain responds to chronic high sugar consumption by altering its own dopamine receptors.47 The sugar-opiate similarities are fascinating, and even work at a genetic level.48 In fact, research shows sugar-dependent rats have alterations in dopamine and opioid mRNA levels, similar to morphine-dependent rats.49

The best way to combat sugar cravings and live a healthier life? Consume a Paleo Diet. You will be loading up on nutrient dense foods, and avoiding large amounts of sugar. You will also be cutting out artificial sweeteners entirely. By resetting your taste for sweet foods, a little fruit here and there, will go a long way, to satisfying your sweet tooth. And if you must indulge, aim for some very dark, organic, chocolate. Enjoy the slimmer, trimmer, version of yourself, as a result.

Table of Contents


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