How Sugar Affects the Brain

It’s not news that too much sugar hurts you. But we keep eating it. And not just every once in awhile for a treat. The average American ends up eating over 100 pounds of sugar every year. Those boxes of cane sugar in the grocery store are one pound each, so imagine 100 of those. It’s more than three times the amount we were consuming in the year 1900.

So why do we keep doing it? Especially at a time when we’re blasted with stories about how over one-third of Americans are obese and 18.8 million are diagnosed with diabetes. The short answer: our brains make us do it.

How it’s supposed to work

When you eat a well-balanced meal, your cerebral cortex receives a signal that you’re consuming fuel. Something that’s going to keep you going for a few more hours until it’s time to eat again. And it wants to make sure you do this again as soon as that fuel runs out.

o it gives you a nudge. It tells the brain’s reward center to release some dopamine; that feel-good hormone that tells you, “I need more!” just in case you were thinking that would be your last meal for awhile.

The amount of dopamine released depends on what you eat and how often you eat it. If you eat the same thing over and over again, the amount of dopamine released goes down with each serving until you’re disgusted just looking at it. This is meant to encourage you to eat a variety of foods so you get all the vitamins and minerals you need to function at your best.

Sugar throws the curve

Sugar doesn’t play by these rules. Every time you consume sugar, you get a stronger dopamine spike than what you’d get with a balanced meal. It’s the most quickly absorbed source of energy when you’re feeling drained, and your brain sees that as a great thing and it wants more.

What it doesn’t take into consideration is that blood sugar levels will get too high if you eat too much sugar in a short period of time. But your pancreas does. It’s the job of the pancreas to keep your blood sugar in check, and when blood glucose levels get too high it floods your system with insulin to pull glucose out of the bloodstream. That’s when you get a sugar crash.

But now your brain knows how to fix this problem. More sugar! And maybe this time, a higher dose of sugar will keep your blood sugar stable longer. So it takes a little more sugar to create a dopamine release which starts an addictive cycle of craving, sugar, crash until you can’t stop yourself.

Breaking the cycle

So how do we give up sugar? It’s something we’ve all tried, but very few of us have succeeded. Here’re some tips to take back control over what you eat:

1. Don't get hangry

If you’re getting hungry to the point where you're shaking, you're waiting too long to eat and your blood sugar levels are getting dangerously low. You’re practically asking for sugar cravings because your brain knows the quick fix to boost those blood glucose levels.

Make sure to eat a well balanced meal (with lots of protein, vegetables and healthy fats) every 4-6 hours to keep yourself from getting to the hangry stage.

2. Know what counts as sugar

The less you eat sugar, the less your brain’s going to turn to it as a quick fix. But in today’s world, sugar doesn't just come in the form of raw sugar cane. 

Common forms of sugar include corn syrup, fruit juice, honey, molasses, syrup and agave. It can also be listed as sucrose, glucose, maltose, lactose and dextrose. And starch too.

Yes, starches count as well. When they’re broken down they turn into sugar and processed by the body in a similar way.

Unlike sugar, there’s some nutritional value to whole grains, so it’s not something you need to avoid forever. But when you’re trying to get over sugar cravings, it can help to avoid these until your body regains balance.

3. Eat your fiber

Fiber has a lot of advantages, one being that it keeps your blood sugar levels stable even when you’re eating something starchy or sugary. It slows the absorption of sugar into the bloodstream so you don’t get that same spike and crash. Without a crash, you don’t need to get your blood sugar back up and there’s less reason for your brain to bring on the cravings.

Fiber comes from vegetables, avocados, berries, legumes and nuts. It can also be found in whole grains, but if you’re trying to wean off the sugar cravings then those aren’t your best choices. At least not until the cravings are gone.


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