Friday, March 25, 2011

Wheat and Sugar: Addiction in the Brain

Kris over at Kris' Health Blog has just posted a really nice summary of the addictive effects on the brain of junk food, namely sugar and wheat. I've quoted a few of his paragraphs here, but you should check out his article for a more in-depth look at things.

Junk Food and Physiological Addiction
Over the last 30 years, there has been some leaps in our understanding of how foods can cause physiological addiction.

The majority of this research has looked at how foods effects our opiate and dopamine receptors in the brain, just like nicotine, amphetamine, heroin, cocaine, etc. 

The top two culprits in our diet are sugar and "healthy whole wheat" (sarcasm), two of the foods that to be leaders in causing our "diseases of civilization"- heart disease, diabetes, obesity, fatty liver, etc.

During our evolution, sugar just was not available in the quantities and with the relative ease that it is now. As Paul Jaminet at the Perfect Health Diet explains, sugar was a signal that foods were probably safe to eat.

We probably evolved a taste for sweetness and bitterness as a mechanism to detect which foods were poisonous. 

Kris looks at two studies on this,
"When rats are fed with sugar, they experience behavioral and neurochemical changes that are similar to what happens when they consume narcotics. These changes are specificially related to dopamine and opioid receptors in the nucleus accumbens of the brain (1).
Another rat study found that development of obesity in rats was correlated with down regulation of dopamine receptors in a part of the brain (2), which is similar to the changes involved in reward homeostasis in cocaine or heroin addicts. These rats ate bacon, sausage, cheesecake, pound cake, frosting and chocolate."
So you wonder why it's hard to stop eating bagels, bread, cakes, and sweets? They really are addictive, in the same way drugs are.

Kris does a really nice job of explaining where the opioids in wheat come from, and how they exert their effects on the brain: 
Soft, fluffy, poison
"Opioid peptides are short amino acid sequences that can cross the blood-brain barrier and stimulate opioid receptors in the brain. What substances do we know that do this as well? Well, heroin and morphine are the most commonly known, along with natural opioid peptides like endorphins that the brain releases after activities like exercise.
When wheat is broken down by enzymes, it forms four types of opioid peptides: A4, A5, B4 and B5 (3). These substances are believed to be able to cross the digestive tract, in to the blood, across the blood brain barrier to get to the brain and stimulate opiate receptors there, making us addicted to wheat."
He makes the speculation, that I would agree with, that children are exposed to wheat and sugar at a very young age, and develop the beginnings of addiction. They are rewarded in school, sports, etc with sweets, which also contributes to the psychological addiction component.

Addiction isn't Permanent
Just keep this in mind: addiction can be overcome, especially when you make a good plan that allows you to replace the foods that are addictive, with foods that you enjoy but are more in line with your goals.
Side Effects of Avoiding Wheat and Sugar, plus some x-fit
When I first stopped eating the majority of sugar and began eating an evolutionary based diet, I definitely had some cravings for candy, soda's, baked goods, and all that good stuff... but what I did is replace those foods with things that I enjoy, but aren't negatively impacting my health in moderate quantities: 
  • Dark Chocolate
  • Berries and Cream
  • Coconut Macaroons
  • Fruit
  • Full Fat Ice Cream
After a few months of this, my cravings for sweet and wheat completely disappeared.

Now, when I see sugary foods and baked goods, I am mildly revolted. If I actually taste them, they are disgustingly sweet, evidence that my taste buds are probably much more sensitive now.

What are your experiences with food addiction or overcoming a sweet tooth?
Are there other foods that you prefer now?

Be sure to check out Kris' article here: Junk food causes addiction in the brain.


  1. Hey Tyler, thanks for mentioning my post :)

    I really think it is important for all of us who are trying to advice people on how to eat healthy, to realize why some people have such a hard time following our advice.

    I've spoken to one doctor who is a general practicioner, he told me that more than half of the people he sees have lifestyle related diseases, but they just won't follow the advice he gives them.

  2. Really good article. It is more important for us. I provide such useful information like this from this blog.

  3. But wait! Experts have told us for years that while WHITE flours quickly convert to sugars, whole wheat/grain flours are a complex carb that digests more slowly and is healthful. So, what about that?

  4. @Anonymous

    I believe you are referring to the glycemic index (GI) of white vs whole flour, correct? The glycemic index is a measure of how fast something becomes glucose and raises blood glucose levels.

    The idea that eating low-glycemic index foods (for example whole wheat vs white flour), has become very trendy in the last few years, in part because it just "makes sense".

    Unfortunately, it turns out that using the glycemic index of foods to eat a low GI diet does not positively effect weight loss, insulin response, or glucose levels. Read Stephen's post for a very good explanation:

    Also stephen says about wheat: "I believe wheat is a uniquely unhealthy food, that promotes inflammation and general metabolic havoc over a long period of time. This probably relates at least in part to its gluten content, which is double that of rye. Dr. William Davis has had great success with his cardiac patients by counseling them to eliminate wheat. He agrees based on his clinical experience that wheat has uniquely damaging effects on the metabolism that other sources of starch do not have."

  5. Nice article and it is given useful information. Addiction of any thing or food is may be very affect on our health. Overcome addiction can be dangerous for health.

  6. Good advice from you, as always, I have never thought of article posts like that before. I keep in mind, and your knowledge is increase my knowledge. I hope you send more knowledge like this.

  7. I really think it is important for all of us who are trying to suggest on how to eat healthy, experts tell us that for many years, and quickly converted into sugar, white flour, whole wheat flour is a complex carbohydrate slower digestion is healthy. Thanks !

  8. What would you consider "full fat ice cream" if sugar is not added? If I purchase Breyer's Ice Cream, one of the main ingredients is sugar. Ice Cream has sugar, which makes it Ice cream. I understand "full fat" but what is Ice Cream without sugar?

  9. ForgottenPhotos,

    Full fat ice cream is relative to low-fat ice cream, it still has sugar in it. Manufacturers will add more sugar to the low-fat ice cream so it still tastes good. This is not an effective strategy for health improvements.