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Are Sugary Foods Addictive?

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. The isolation of sugar from the whole food may be the reason we’re more likely to supersize soda than sweet potatoes, or why we’re less likely to eat too much corn on the cob, but can’t seem to get enough high fructose corn syrup.

The overconsumption of sugar-sweetened diets has often been compared to drug addiction. However, until very recently this parallel was based 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 a publication from the Institute of Clinical Physiology that showed decreased dopamine sensitivity in obese individuals. The heavier they were, the less responsive to dopamine they appeared to be. We see the same reduction in sensitivity in cocaine addicts and alcoholics, which “would suggest that a reduction in dopamine receptors is associated with addictive behavior 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 fruit 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.

What about artificial sweeteners? Though some are less harmful than others (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 3-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? Does fat have addictive qualities as well? Good question! Check out my video Are Fatty Foods Addictive?

In health,
Michael Greger, M.D.

PS: If you haven’t yet, you can subscribe to my free videos here and watch my live year-in-review presentations Uprooting the Leading Causes of Death and More Than an Apple a Day.

Related:
7 Ways to Tame Your Sweet Tooth
Tricks to Get Kids to Eat Healthier at Home
Tricks to Get Kids to Eat Healthier at School
Is There a Safe, Low-Calorie Sweetener?

Read more: Health, Addiction, Diet & Nutrition, Eating for Health, General Health, Men's Health, Natural Remedies, Obesity, Videos, Women's Health, , ,

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Dr. Michael Greger

A founding member of the American College of Lifestyle Medicine, Michael Greger, M.D., is a physician, author, and internationally recognized speaker on nutrition, food safety, and public health issues. Currently Dr. Greger serves as the Director of Public Health and Animal Agriculture at The Humane Society of the United States. Hundreds of his nutrition videos are freely available at NutritionFacts.org.

60 comments

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1:51PM PDT on May 13, 2014

Of course sugar products are addictive.It is still a lot better than getting addicted to artifical sweetners.They are very bad for you!!
thx

9:14PM PDT on Apr 29, 2014

Yes. Thank you.

8:24PM PDT on Apr 29, 2014

thanks

2:34PM PDT on Apr 27, 2014

Stick with HEMP !!!

2:00PM PDT on Apr 26, 2014

Sugar and carbs are most definitely addictive, and now with all the added chemicals and preservatives the food is designed to make you want more of it. Even fruit is addicting - TC Fry, a once prominent name in natural hygiene, ate so much fruit it made him sick and sickly.
Fat is only addictive if you consider how delicious it tastes on everything. I've said it before, however, that you literally cannot overeat on dietary fats and they do not make you fat by consumption alone. It's when fats are paired with carbohydrate and sugar in foods such as cakes, pizzas and burgers it gets utilized poorly. These are often the wrong fats too and these bad, rancid fats such as seed oils and vegetable oils high in omega-6 cause hormone imbalances and contribute to respiratory trouble.

8:49AM PDT on Apr 25, 2014

TYFS

5:26AM PDT on Apr 25, 2014

Ron, Stevia is a plant, not an articficail sweetener.

5:25AM PDT on Apr 25, 2014

Barbara, where did you see a sweet apple? They are terribly sour.

2:46AM PDT on Apr 25, 2014

Thanks

11:12PM PDT on Apr 24, 2014

If you're addicted to Stevia, could you get artificial diabetes?

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Disclaimer: The views expressed above are solely those of the author and may not reflect those of
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A little blush and mascara has never hurt anybody these guys need to relax.

This video should have a warning: tissues needed! Thank you very much

Wonderful recipes and ideas. Thank you. Very interesting.

Thank you for sharing and thank you for caring..

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