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This is Your Brain on Sugar

The craving for sweets has nothing to do with taste

Every January 1st, hundreds of thousands of people resolve that this will be the year they lose ten pounds. Or twenty. Or whatever the magic number may be for them. But by the end of the month, most of these resolutions have fallen by the wayside. And by Valentine’s day most people have given in to their sugar cravings and decided that instead they’ll try to lose the weight before summer.

Sugar is a powerful thing.

It’s no secret that sugar is highly addictive. It’s also no secret that for many, the craving for sugar is an almost physical need. It’s no secret that food manufacturers add sugar to everything from salad dressings to hot dogs in an effort to keep us coming back for more. What has been a secret is why our bodies get hooked on the stuff so easily. Now scientists think they know.

It’s not about the taste

We’ve always assumed that it’s the sweet taste of sugary foods that makes them attractive to us. But somehow, the low-cal or sugar-free versions of our favorite treats are never quite the same, and it’s not just because of the unpleasant aftertaste some artificial sweeteners leave behind. There’s a reason “non-caloric” sweeteners like aspartame don’t satisfy your sweet tooth like real sugar does. Research from Yale University shows that—in mice, at least—the craving for sugar has nothing to do with the taste. It’s all about the calories. And it’s not our bodies that crave them, but our brains.

We humans have big brains. It’s our big brains that led us to do things like discover fire, make tools for hunting mammoths, and invent the internet. And big brains, like big muscles, need a lot of fuel. Sugar provides a lot of calories and it’s quickly broken down into useable fuel by the body. So, over the millennia, our brains have learned to prioritize sweet-tasting food as a source of easily-accessed fuel.

All this fits with the long-held idea that what we crave is the sweetness of sugar. However, the surprising information researchers uncovered is that the brain responds to the sweet taste and the calorie content of sugar in entirely different ways—and that if given a choice, it will choose calories over sweetness every time.

We’re programmed to choose high-calorie foods

The study, published in the journal Nature Neuroscience, found that information about sweetness and about energy content were processed by different parts of the brain. Both were handled by the oldest region—the part that existed long before we stood up and walked on two legs—but both were handled by different areas within this region.

For the experiment, mice were fed either a solution that tasted sweet but had no calories, or one that was high in calories but tasted terrible. The sweet taste had no effect. Mice preferred the high-calorie version, even though it tasted awful. And when researchers stimulated the brain area that calculates the energy content of food, the animals also chose the high-calorie, bad-tasting solution. This demonstrates that the brain is hard-wired to choose calories over taste, even sweet tastes.

Maybe this explains why so many of us will choose a nutrient-poor dessert over an equally sweet piece of ripe fruit. Or why we may continue to eat something sugary even when the taste leaves something to be desired.

You’re not tricking your brain after all

The decades since the 1970s have seen a flood of “diet,” low-fat, and artificially-sweetened products hit the market. They’re all intended to trick our brains and our mouths into thinking we’re getting the real deal when we’re actually getting a lot fewer calories. In a perfect world, we’d get fewer calories from these foods than from their conventional counterparts and so lose weight–or at least not gain any.

But something strange has happened. We tend to overeat these manufactured foods even more than we do the full-calorie or full-fat version. Conventional wisdom says because they’re lower in calories, we feel like we get a “free pass” to eat more. But the Yale study suggests the very fact that they are low calorie is what drives us to eat more of them in a sitting.

In other words: your brain isn’t fooled by the sweet taste of Splenda. It’s looking for calories, and if it doesn’t find them it will just tell you to keep eating till you get them.

Conquer your sugar cravings

Eating sugar—real sugar, not chemical sweeteners or stevia—activates the reward centers in your brain. When you eat sugar, your brain releases “feel-good” chemicals. This is ok if you only eat sweets occasionally. But when you overload the system by indulging in sugar too often, you build up a tolerance. It takes more and more sugar to get the same effect…and instead of eating one scoop of ice cream you find yourself eating the whole carton.

How do you combat this? Like any other addictive behavior, there is no single “right way.” Different approaches may work better for different people, but here are some of the most common:

  • Go cold turkey. If you’re a serious sugar addict, this may be difficult—but it may also be the most effective method. You may even find yourself having real sugar withdrawals. After all, your brain is used to getting a regular hit of feel-good chemicals, and stopping cold turkey may leave you feeling pretty lousy at the outset. But take heart: the first 48-72 hours are the worst, and most people report that by the end of a week they feel better and have more energy than they’ve had in years.
  • Walk away from temptation. Literally. When you find yourself craving something sweet, get up and do something physical.  Go for a walk. Exercise for ten minutes. Do a little yoga. You’ll not only avoid temptation, you’ll get a little fitter every day.
  • Grab some fruit instead. Fruit can satisfy both your “sweet tooth” and your brain’s craving for sugar. You also get a healthy dose of vitamins, minerals, and fiber.
  • Don’t eat artificial sweeteners. They don’t do anything to satisfy the craving, and they’re bad for your body and your brain besides.
  • Eat plenty of protein. Protein damps down the activity in your brain’s reward center, making it easier to do without sugar.
  • Eat mindfully. Stop and savor what you’re eating, whether it’s a fresh, juicy peach or a sloppy joe. Take time to really experience your food—its flavor, its texture, its smell. Eating mindfully can change your whole relationship with food, including sugar.
  • Try a pickle. As odd as it may sound, many people find that when a craving for sweets hits, a dill pickle may satisfy the urge as well as something sugary.

And last but not least: don’t beat yourself up if you backslide. Like quitting smoking, quitting sugar can be stressful and it may take more than one try. But we promise–when you do give it up, you’ll have achieved something that will truly change your life and your health.  If you’re ready to become a quitter, give the CodexOne Sugar Challenge a go and let us know how you do in the comments. 

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The craving for sweets has nothing to do with taste
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