All pleasures are rewarding and food is nothing but a “natural reward”. It is an encouragement for us to survive. That is the main reason why eating is so pleasurable to our brain and why we want to repeat this action. But not everything we eat makes us feel equally rewarded. Depending on your taste you might prefer sweets over sour and bitter flavours. This is because our hunter-gatherer ancestors used their taste buds as a reference to know if a berry was ready to be eaten. If the berry was sweet, then it was ready to be eaten; if the taste was sour it was not ripe yet. Bitter was the taste to watch out for as it meant poison!
Every single cell in our body needs carbohydrates (glucose) extracted from sweet foods to function. When eating something sweet, our brain activates what is called the “Reward System,” which makes us feel pleasure to ensure that we continue eating and surviving. Unfortunately, modern diets rely heavily on processed foods, therefore the source for the glucose that our cells extract is not as pure as the one extracted from natural produce e.g. fruit.
But, did you know that you can become addicted to sugar? Sugar increases the release of dopamine in the brain and so do drugs of abuse such as cocaine. They can also hijack the brain’s reward pathways. Most types of reward increase the level of dopamine in the brain and a variety of addictive drugs increase dopamine neuronal activity.
Another challenge is that the addiction becomes a vicious circle. The sugar in simple carbohydrate (eg sweets) is quickly turned into glucose in your bloodstream and blood sugar levels spike. Simple and refined carbs are also found in fruits, vegetables and dairy products, but these foods from nature contain fibre and/or protein that slow down the process of sugar release. Syrups, cold drinks, sweets and table sugar don’t. Your body needs to move glucose out of the bloodstream and into your cells for energy. To do this, your pancreas makes insulin. With these foods, your blood sugar level may drop suddenly, leaving you feeling wiped out and shaky and searching for more sweets to regain that sugar “high.” And the cycle repeats. The first sugar high has set you up for worse eating. Furthermore, the brain becomes tolerant to sugar and to be able to get the same “sugar high” you will need to eat a larger amount.
There are four major components of addiction: bingeing, withdrawal, craving, and cross-sensitisation (the notion that one addictive substance predisposes someone to become addicted to another).
It seems as if the same is happening with sugar. You might wonder how long it will take until you’re free of cravings and side-effects, but there’s no answer, everyone is different and no studies with humans have been done on this topic. However, feedback from people suggests that the cravings do subside in a few days. You can retrain your taste buds and, over time, you will lose your need for that sugary taste.
Eating protein is an easy way to curb sugar cravings. High-protein foods digest more slowly, keeping you feeling full for longer. Protein doesn’t make your blood sugar spike the way refined carbs and sugars do. Pick proteins like lean chicken, fish and eggs.
Make sure that every meal has proteins in to prevent those sugar cravings!