Excessive sugar intake may be addicting physiologically as well as psychologically. To wit, sugar affects the dopamine receptors within the brain, making us feel good. Sodas are an excellent example of sugar addiction since they are a concentrated source of energy within many people's diets. Many become addicted to soda and need their daily fix or else experience withdrawal symptoms such as irritability, anxiety and depression.
The caffeine within coffee, like sugar, has a drug-like effect within the brain which makes us feel good. We know that caffeine is a drug because it stimulates the dopamine receptors which mediate pleasure. (Now we know why people flock to Starbucks every day--it's to get their drug fix). If their is a down-regulation of dopamine within the brain, one will feel a need to get more sugar and more caffeine in order to satisfy the urge to obtain the same pleasure. Indeed, research has indicated that overweight and obese people seem to have this down-regulation of dopamine which lends itself to an increasing need for more sugar. Since sugar contains calories, it makes sense that a chronic sugar addiction may cause one to become overweight or obese.
If sugar, caffeine, fat, and salt have addictive-like effects on the brain, then does that mean all foods having these substances are inherently bad for the body? The answer is no. The natural sugar found within fruits is not nearly as concentrated as the sugar found within refined foods made in the lab (think high-fructose corn syrup). Fats and salts are added to chips to make them more tasty and addictive but potatoes are inherently not unhealthy.
Sugars, fats and salt are added to foods to make them more sweet, have more mouth feel (thicker texture), and more salty because the body and the brain loves these ingredients. It's simple: our brains are hard-wired to eat carb-rich, fat-laden foods because the body needs sugar and fat to survive. Regularly eating foods which have unnatural concentrations of sugars, fats, and salts (as well as man-made chemicals) may indeed turn us into junkies. Yes, fast-food is addictive because it contains plenty of sugars, fats and salt to satisfy the palate. The regular consumption of fast food may indeed produce long-term neuroadaptations within the brain reward and stress pathways. Restricting fast-food and/or excessive sugar consumption may cause a withdrawal effect within the brain causing depression and anxiety.
If refined carbs behave like a drug within the brain, can psychological therapy resolve one's addiction to chips or ice cream, thus staving off bodyweight gain as a result of fat retention? Theoretically, this may be the case. But there are easier ways to lessen the addiction to chips and/or ice cream:
- Create new habits. Go for a walk when an urge for a candybar occurs. The exercise will lessen the immediate wanting for a quick sugar fix.
- Keep a food journal. Just the act of writing down the foods that you eat will provide a wake-up call to eat healthier foods.
- Reward yourself. Choose a small goal and then reward yourself when you accomplish the goal. Healthy rewards (e.g., a movie, bath, bike ride) make for healthy habits.
Brian Danley, CFT
"Motivation is what gets you started. Habit is what keeps you going."