Refined carbohydrates and sugar hit you right where it counts… the pleasure centers in your basal ganglia. This is the part of your brain that releases the neurotransmitter dopamine, and it’s the epicenter for addiction cycles.
This very common issue is often referred to as “food addiction”, however the culprit is sugar and the refined carbohydrates that break down into sugar once inside your body. If we were addicted to real food – vegetables, lean proteins and complex carbohydrates – we wouldn’t be talking about addiction.
Proof – Sugar Addiction is REAL:
Researchers from Boston Children’s Hospital’s Obesity Prevention Center devised a high quality test to prove whether meals with a high glycemic index (read high sugar) trigger an addiction phenomenon, not in behavior alone, but in the brain.
- Investigators analyzed 12 obese men ages 18-35.
- The men were given two different meal replacement shakes, indistinguishable by sight and taste and even calorie count, but very different in glycemic content (amount of sugar).
- One milkshake had a high glycemic index (high-GI), one had a low glycemic index (low-GI).
- The participants had one shake one day and the other shake weeks later.
- Immediately after eating the high-GI shake, participants experienced a surge in blood sugar that was 2.5 times higher than after they ate the low-GI shake – a good old-fashioned sugar high.
The really interesting impact of the high-GI meal shake was what happened in the brain four hours later:
- Four hours after each shake was eaten, when the participants would likely be thinking about what to eat at their next meal, they were asked to rate their hunger.
- At the same time, the investigators took blood to measure glucose levels and used functional MRI to measure blood flow to the brain.
They found that, compared to the low-GI shake, at four hours after eating the high-GI shake the participants experienced:
Decreased plasma glucose:
- This is evidence of a sugar crash – that drop in energy that occurs as blood sugar levels fall.
- When you experience a sugar crash, you’re going to be compelled to reach for more sugar to get back to the energy high. It’s a vicious cycle.
- High glycemic index meals intensify hunger.
- That means that if you are trying to lose weight, eating refined carbs or sugar will make it much harder to eat less.
Intense activation in the “addiction” regions of the brain:
- Every single participant in the study showed a significant difference in cerebral blood flow, with particularly intense activation of the nucleus accumbens, an area of the brain within the basal ganglia related to pleasure and addiction.
Dr. Amen’s 5 Ways to Conquer Sugar Cravings
The results of this study show that refined carbohydrates intensely trigger the pleasure and reward centers of the brain, leaving you wanting more, more, more! – this a classic addiction pattern.
If you’re stuck in the sugar addiction cycle, here are 5 powerful ways to break free and feel great again:
1) Stabilize Your Blood Sugar
Cravings may come on because you did not eat enough protein, vegetables or healthy fats at meals.
From The Omni Diet – “How to Conquer Carb Cravings”
- Eat small amounts of protein and healthy fats with each meal.
- Protein is key so don’t go more than a few of hours without eating some.
- Increasing your protein intake throughout the day will rev your metabolism and enhance weight loss.
- For greater satiety, increase the volume of your meals by adding LOTS of vegetables and a little bit of fruit.
2) Stop eating Sugar – Cold Turkey
I mean it. The more sugar you eat the more you crave. Just give me 3 days to get over the hump… 3 days! Yes, you may have strong cravings at first, yet trust me… within a couple of days the cravings start to disappear.
- Take out the all bread, pasta, crackers, cereal, most grains, white rice, white flour, soda/diet soda, sugar and artificial sweeteners out of your diet.
- During a craving look for a healthy sweet substitute. Try sugar free dark chocolate by Dante Confections or Simply Lite.
- Pair 3 squares of dark chocolate with 10 nuts. The protein and healthy fat will help you stay satiated longer than the dark chocolate alone.
- Use stevia as a way to get over the hump. Check out Sweet Leaf Drops – they come in 17 different flavors!
3) Address Your Triggers Head-On
Stop letting your brain get hijacked by unresolved emotional issues that you “treat” with food (or other addictions). Calm your brain’s emotion centers by:
- Talking – it gets the issues out of your head.
- Journaling (rather than eating) when you’re upset.
- Writing down 5 things you are grateful for every day.
- Killing the ANTs (automatic negative thoughts) – you don’t have to believe every thought that goes through your head, especially if it’s negative.
4) Calm Anxiety
The nucleus accumbens is part of the basal ganglia. When the basal ganglia work too hard, we can be anxious or overly driven; when they are low in activity, we are unmotivated. Balance your basal ganglia by:
- Consciously limiting use of technology – it wears out your pleasure centers.
- Using relaxation techniques (consider relaxation exercises found in the Amen Solution [link to https://www.theamensolution.com]).
- Taking supplements like vitamin B6 and magnesium to calm anxiety.
5) Before You Reach for Food, Use H.A.L.T .
Ask yourself, am I: Hungry? Angry? Lonely? Tired?
Hungry: If you are hungry, ask yourself: “Would I eat an apple right now?”
“Yes” = truly hungry
“No, I want cookies” = sugar craving
Angry: Instead of eating take a walk.
Lonely: Instead of eating call a friend.
Tired: Instead of eating take a nap
At Amen Clinics, we know that food addiction issues are not a function of not trying hard enough, being lazy, or not having enough willpower. We will work with you to address your specific brain type so that you can eliminate food addiction, reach your weight loss goals and feel amazing every day. Click here to learn more about how the Amen Clinics can help, or call today at 888-288-9834.
Latest posts by Daniel G. Amen, MD (see all)
- Getting to Know the ADD Types – Type 7: Anxious ADD - October 20, 2017
- Getting to Know the ADD Types – Type 6: Ring of Fire ADD - October 11, 2017
- Getting to Know the ADD Types – Type 5: Limbic ADD - October 6, 2017