Are Sugary Foods Addictive?

Are Sugary Foods Addictive?
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Evidence from PET scans suggests brain activity changes from the overconsumption of sugar may parallel that of drug addiction. Diminished “pleasure center” dopamine pathway sensitivity in obese individuals may be analogous to that found in cocaine addicts and alcoholics.

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Below is an approximation of this video’s audio content. To see any graphs, charts, graphics, images, and quotes to which Dr. Greger may be referring, watch the above video.

People have chewed coca leaves for at least 8,000 years as a mild stimulant without any evidence of addiction. But, when certain components are isolated and concentrated into cocaine, we’ve got a problem. The same may be true of sugar. People don’t tend to binge on bananas. It’s perhaps the reason we’re more likely to supersize soda than sweet potatoes; why we’re less likely to overeat this kind of corn, compared to that kind of corn.

“The…overconsumption of sugar-sweetened diets has often been compared to drug addiction, though this parallel was based until very recently more on anecdotal evidence than on solid scientific grounds.” But now, we have PET scans—imaging technology that can measure brain activity. It all started with this publication, showing decreased dopamine sensitivity in obese individuals. And, the heavier they were, the less responsive they appeared to become. We see the same thing in cocaine addicts and alcoholics. “This would suggest that a reduction in [dopamine] receptors is associated with addictive behaviour, irrespective of whether it is due to food,…or to addictive drugs as seen in substance abusers.”

Dopamine is considered the neurotransmitter primarily involved in the pleasure and reward center of our brain, helping to motivate our drive for things like food, water, and sex—all necessary for the perpetuation of our species. It was healthy and adaptive for our primate brains to drive us to eat that banana when there wasn’t much food around. But now that fruit is in Loop form, “this adaptation has become a dangerous liability.” The original Coca-Cola formulation actually included coca leaf, but now, perhaps, its sugar content may be the addictive stand-in.

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Below is an approximation of this video’s audio content. To see any graphs, charts, graphics, images, and quotes to which Dr. Greger may be referring, watch the above video.

People have chewed coca leaves for at least 8,000 years as a mild stimulant without any evidence of addiction. But, when certain components are isolated and concentrated into cocaine, we’ve got a problem. The same may be true of sugar. People don’t tend to binge on bananas. It’s perhaps the reason we’re more likely to supersize soda than sweet potatoes; why we’re less likely to overeat this kind of corn, compared to that kind of corn.

“The…overconsumption of sugar-sweetened diets has often been compared to drug addiction, though this parallel was based until very recently more on anecdotal evidence than on solid scientific grounds.” But now, we have PET scans—imaging technology that can measure brain activity. It all started with this publication, showing decreased dopamine sensitivity in obese individuals. And, the heavier they were, the less responsive they appeared to become. We see the same thing in cocaine addicts and alcoholics. “This would suggest that a reduction in [dopamine] receptors is associated with addictive behaviour, irrespective of whether it is due to food,…or to addictive drugs as seen in substance abusers.”

Dopamine is considered the neurotransmitter primarily involved in the pleasure and reward center of our brain, helping to motivate our drive for things like food, water, and sex—all necessary for the perpetuation of our species. It was healthy and adaptive for our primate brains to drive us to eat that banana when there wasn’t much food around. But now that fruit is in Loop form, “this adaptation has become a dangerous liability.” The original Coca-Cola formulation actually included coca leaf, but now, perhaps, its sugar content may be the addictive stand-in.

Please consider volunteering to help out on the site.

Nota del Doctor

For tips on moving our children away from junk food, see Tricks to Get Kids to Eat Healthier at Home and Tricks to Get Kids to Eat Healthier at School.

What about artificial sweeteners? Though some are less harmful than others (see Erythritol May Be a Sweet Antioxidant, as opposed to Aspartame-Induced Fibromyalgia), they could still have adverse effects, regardless of their individual chemistry. See my three-part series:

  1. How Diet Soda Could Make Us Gain Weight
  2. Neurobiology of Artificial Sweeteners
  3. Unsweetening the Diet

What about fatty foods like meat? See Are Fatty Foods Addictive?

If you haven’t yet, you can subscribe to my videos for free by clicking here.

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