Ever wondered why it is so difficult to give up chocolates or stop craving for your favourite doughnut? Why do we feel drawn to that sugary drink despite being completely aware that it’s unhealthy? The answer could lie within our complex brain setup.
Interestingly, the human brain perceives certain food items as ‘natural rewards’. It responds to these rewards in the way it would respond to addictive substances. This suggests that some people could get addicted to certain food items that are perceived by them as ‘food rewards’. We often wonder why some people find it difficult to resist sugar foods. Quite possibly their brain perceives sugar as a natural reward. Thus, it’s quite possible that they are addicted to sugar. While stimulating the brain’s reward system with a piece of chocolate now and then is fine and probably harmless, when the reward system is activated too often and too frequently, a negative pattern starts to develop.
Blame It on the Brain Chemicals: Dopamine in the brain
There’s a complex neural mechanism behind sugar addiction. Certain brain areas and neurotransmitters work together and lead to sugar addiction. Dopamine is one such neurotransmitter. It is released in an area of the brain, called nucleus accumbens, in response to any reward. Dopamine is also secreted after an exposure to recreational drugs. Dopamine is a stimulant and it elevates our mood. Therefore, people feel good after consuming a sugary drink. Studies suggest that highly refined foods and sugar-rich foods also trigger the release of dopamine in the brain (nucleus accumbens). So, sugar craving is not in fact about a lack of willpower but is caused by the intense dopamine signalling.
Dopamine plays a major role in the brain reward system. Pleasure, learning and approach behaviour are major parts of the reward system. This simply indicates that dopamine induces pleasure and plays a role in shaping our approach towards a choice/decision. This means that dopamine has a key role in shaping our food choices, specifically sugar-based food choices. As per a study, daily consumption of sugar leads to repeated release of dopamine. This explains addiction. People get addicted to sugar because they feel good after sugar consumption. They repeat the consumption constantly to elevate their mood levels. However, repeated access to sugar over time leads to prolonged dopamine signalling, over-stimulation of the brain’s reward pathways, and a need for even more sugar to activate all of the dopamine receptors. The brain becomes tolerant to sugar and in fact more is needed to attain the same ‘sugar high’. Sugar addiction is a perpetual cycle. The figure here explains what sugar does to our system and how sugar consumption could be addictive in nature.
Like any other addiction, sugar addiction can be grouped into stages such as bingeing and craving. So, individuals who crave for sugars or who binge-eat sugary foods often could be addicted to it. As sugar addiction is akin to any other addiction, an abstinence from sugar could also lead to the development of withdrawal symptoms.
Is Sugar Addiction Harmful?
Addiction of any sort leaves a negative impact on an individual’s health. Addiction often leads to over-consumption. Excessive consumption of anything is not good. Sugar addiction can be very damaging. Excessive sugar eating is linked to suppressed immune function, tooth decay, hyperactivity and anxiety. It can also lead to serious health disorders such as obesity, type 2 diabetes, heart diseases and depression.
Read the Signs and
- Frequent sugar cravings even when you are full.
- Over-consumption of sugar foods — more than you intended to eat; inability to resist the consumption of refined and sugar foods, even when you are aware that it’s damaging your health
- Tendency to binge-eat such food items after a withdrawal phase. Food addicts often hide the fact that they consume a lot of sugary and refined stuffs
- Presence of guilt after consumption of highly refined and sugary foods, followed by consumption of the same foods