Are You Addicted to Carbs?

Posted on the 30 May 2012 at 13:30

For a long time, we have waged diet wars against fats believing that eating fat will make us fat. However, evidence now shows that it is in fact sugars and refined carbohydrates that cause us to pile on the pounds. Not only do foods such as white bread, sweets and biscuits cause you to gain weight, they have now been shown to be physically addictive. The rise in the availability of these foods has also led to a rise in the numbers seeking bariatric or weight loss surgeries such as gastric banding.

Scientists in New Zealand carried out a study which found that foods containing high amounts of refined sugar and flour have the same addictive qualities as tobacco.

'Heavily processed carbohydrates such as cornflakes, sweets and croissants quickly raise the amount of sugar in your blood,' explains lead researcher Dr Simon Thornley, a registrar with the Auckland Regional Public Health Service. 'This rush of sugar stimulates the same areas of the brain that are involved with addiction to nicotine and other drugs.'

Could carbohydrate addiction be to blame for your weight gain?

Studies of brain scans suggest that people who put on a lot of weight could be doing it to improve their mood; the same reason addicts take drugs.

This research shows that people with a high Body Mass Index (BMI) have fewer receptors in the part of their brains that generate pleasurable feelings. The same pattern is evident in people addicted to cocaine and alcohol. As with any addiction, over time, addicts need more and more of their drug of choice to achieve the same effects which could explain the link between excess carbohydrate consumption and weight gain.

In one study, a group of overweight women were offered two drinks that appeared and tasted identical. However, one contained only sugary carbohydrates, such as dextrose and rice syrup, while the other had some protein added. First they were made to feel depressed by thinking about something sad, when they were given the drink most of them preferred the pure carbohydrate drink reporting that it cheered them up. Experiments like these are regularly used to test if a drug is addictive.

Eating ‘high glyceamic index’ foods cause a sharp spike in the blood sugar level causing changes in various chemicals and hormones, including insulin and an amino acid called tryptophan in the brain. This creates more serotonin, the brain chemical known as the ‘happy hormone’. Nicotine also raises serotonin levels explaining why high sugar foods can give you a temporary 'lift' if you're feeling low or irritable – in the same way a cigarette does. It’s an instant hit ensuring a strong association between the drug of choice and that feeling.

Blood sugar explained:

  • Your blood sugar level is the amount of glucose (simple sugar), circulating in your blood stream. Its function is to provide cells with energy.
  • Blood sugar comes directly from the food we eat.
  • ‘High glyceamic index’ foods break down quickly and send a surge of sugar into the blood stream. These include refined ‘white’ carbohydrates and food high in sugar. Stimulants like coffee, tea and alcohol also increase your blood sugar level.
  • This also has a direct effect on the brain chemicals responsible for making us feel good, however, this is short lived.
  • Only so much glucose can be converted into energy at any one time - the excess will be carried away by the hormone insulin and may be stored as fat.
  • When insulin has lowered the blood sugar level, energy levels and mood dip with it.
  • ‘Low glyceamic index’ foods break down over a longer period of time, providing sustained energy release to the body and brain. They minimise the likelihood of fat storage and mood swings.
  • If blood sugar levels are poorly controlled over a long period of time, a number of health problems can occur as a result. The most directly linked are obesity and diabetes. 
    Blood Sugar Illustration Chart

The Glyceamic Index or Glyceamic Load (GI/GL) is a scientific rating of how quickly carbohydrate foods release sugar into our blood stream. ‘Low GI’ foods, such as proteins and complex carbohydrates take longer to break down, providing the body with a steady supply of fuel over a longer period of time. In real terms this means we are satisfied for longer after a meal, we are less likely to suffer mood swings, crave sweet foods and our bodies are less likely to store our food as fat.

Tips for Balancing your Blood Sugar

  • Include protein at all meals (lean, organic meats, fish, eggs, pulses, nuts, tofu, quorn…)
  • Aim for 3 main meals per day at regular times - don’t skip breakfast!
  • Choose low Glyceamic Index/Load (GI/GL) foods
  • Limit stimulants such as tea, coffee and alcohol
  • Reduce refined/white carbohydrates and sugary foods
  • For more information about the glycemic load of various foods you can visit: www.nutritiondata.com
  • If you think you may be addicted to carbohydrates you can supplement the amino acid tryptophan in the form of 5HTP. Tryptophan is needed by the body needs to produce the feel-good neurotransmitter serotonin.
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