Addicted to love (of carbohydrates)

Think the “food addicts” that appear on daytime talk shows are just copping out?

Think again.

It turns out, the Pringles’ slogan–“Just one pop and you can’t stop”–is true.

We now know that processed foods influence specific “pleasure centers” in the brain. And eating foods made with highly processed carbohydrates–such as cakes, cookies, ice cream, chips, and French fries–creates intense cravings. And even addictions.

In a new study, researchers studied a dozen overweight or obese men, ages 18 to 35 years. They gave their subjects two types of milkshakes: one with high-glycemic and one with low-glycemic ingredients. Then they took MRI brain scans of the men.

The MRIs showed high levels of activity in the “addiction center” of the brain after the men drank the high-glycemic milkshakes. This addiction center, located deep within the brain, is called the nucleus accumbens.

The researchers also described prior studies, which compared the brain activity after consuming strikingly different foods, such a boiled vegetables and cheesecake. Again, they found that the brain responds with intense feelings of pleasure when eating cheesecake versus boiled vegetables.

Your body responds differently to highly processed foods too.

You digest and metabolize processed carbohydrates such as pasta, white bread and white rice very quickly. By comparison, you digest and metabolize fruits, legumes, vegetables, and whole grains much more slowly. It takes the body more time to break down these foods.

In addition, “bad” carbs have a high-glycemic index. This causes rapid spikes in blood sugar. But your blood sugar plummets sharply within four hours. And when your blood sugar falls rapidly, excessive hunger develops. You probably already understood all of that.

Now, here’s where it really gets interesting…

The rapid rise in blood sugar from processed carbs causes metabolic disruptions that lead to diabetes. But the rapid fall leads to “addiction” through stimulation of brain centers.

In the end, neither the body nor the brain, is designed to deal with rapid changes, up or down in “nutrient” levels. Taking a nutritional roller coaster ride every time you eat is not a prescription for a healthy mind or body.

The concept of “food addiction” remains controversial. But we know for a fact that certain foods stimulate pleasure centers in the brain–at least for many people. Certain types of highly processed, “synthetic” foods activate the same areas of the brain as certain types of illicit drugs.

And remember, we are talking only about processed foods and sweets.

Natural sugar known as fructose (found in fruit) is twice as sweet as the sucrose (table sugar) found in processed foods. Yet it does not have the negative metabolic effects of sucrose.

Nor does it lead to food addiction and the same kind of cravings as processed foods. Metabolically, fructose from fruits does not cause your blood sugar to go up or down rapidly. This is because when you eat whole fruit, the fructose is taken in as part of the natural biomatrix. So you get the fructose, but you also get plenty of fiber. And the fiber slows the absorption of fructose from the intestines. And it makes the contents thicker. This allows sugar to “trickle” into the bloodstream.

So, strive to limit your consumption of high-glycemic, processed carbs. It will help stave off cravings and overeating. As a result, it will help prevent weight gain and keep you healthy.


1. “Effects of dietary glycemic index on brain regions related to reward and craving in men,” American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, June 26, 2013