How Sugar Hijacks Your Brain And Makes You Addicted

“No one can exert cognitive inhibition, willpower, over a biochemical drive that goes on every minute, of every day, of every year.” – Dr. Robert H. Lustig

If you’ve ever tried to cut back on sugar, you may have realized how incredibly difficult it is. In some cases it may seem downright impossible.

It seems clear that when it comes to foods like sugar and other junk foods, that something in the brain does not function like it’s supposed to.

The system in our brain that is supposed regulate our food intake and prevent us from gaining weight malfunctions. The question is: Why?

To understand why this happens, Dr. Robert H. Lustig, pediatric endocrinologist and Dr. Elissa S. Epel, psychologist, explain in the video above how sugar and other junk foods can “hijack” the brain chemistry to make us want more and more.

Overstimulation of The Reward Centers of The Brain Causes Addiction

Sugar is uniquely fattening, primarily due to its high content of fructose.

There are several ways that sugar causes us to overeat and gain weight and I will be covering all of these in the coming weeks.

Today I am going to talk about one of these mechanisms, the powerful impact sugar has on the reward centers of the brain.

When we eat foods that contain a lot of sugar, a massive amount of dopamine is released in an area of the brain called the Nucleus Accumbens.

When we eat these foods often and in large amounts, the dopamine receptors start to down-regulate. Now there are fewer receptors for the dopamine.

This means that the next time we eat these foods, their effect is blunted. We will need more junk food next time we eat in order to get the same level of reward.

Sugar and other junk foods, due to their powerful effect on the reward centers of the brain, function similarly to drugs of abuse like cocaine and nicotine (1).

The exact same brain centers are at play. People who have a certain predisposition to addiction become addicted to these foods and lose control over their consumption.

This is basically how sugar and other junk foods “hijack” the brain chemistry to make us crave more and eat more.

Sugar Has a Powerful Influence Over Our Behavior

For some people there will be anatomical changes in the brain when exposed to these sorts of foods. In many cases, this can end up in full-blown addiction (2).

I can support this idea with some personal experiences.

I am a recovering drug addict who has been to 6 rehabs. I was also a smoker for many years and it was a long battle for me to quit. You could say that I know addiction like the back of my hand.

I’m here to tell you that addiction to sugar and junk foods is exactly the same as addiction to abusive drugs like nicotine, amphetamine and cannabis.

There is no difference, except the substance of abuse is different and the consequences of relapse aren’t as severe.

Since learning about this, I’ve spoken to several other recovering addicts and all of them say that they experience cravings for junk foods in the exact same way as they used to crave drugs and alcohol.

I personally haven’t touched sugar or gluten in about 5 months now. I’ve lost almost 30 pounds and I never crave these foods anymore.

There is only one thing that consistently works for true addicts to overcome their addiction and that is complete abstinence.

This is what worked for me giving up drugs and this is the only way I have ever been able to cut back on my consumption of sugar and other junk foods.

18 Comments

  1. This is a very blunt way to put it, and like Dr. Epel said in the video, addiction is a strong word, but it is an appropriate word.

    We have stopped eating to satisfy hunger and have shifted to eating to make us feel good, leading to many of the chronic diseases that we see. Very eye opening video! Thanks for the info Kris.

    • Hey Danny,

      I like Kris’ blunt message; straight to the point, effective and no ambiguity.

      I think you’re slightly off about eating in the past being only for sating hunger. Of course, it’s pretty difficult to prove either way, but I suspect that our hunter-gatherer ancestors (and those cousins in the non-westernised groups still left) would always go for those types of food that gave them greatest satisfaction and eating enjoyment, when given the choice, at any rate.

      I think that where this has become a problem is more to do with how our modern, highly processed, foods ‘trick’ our minds and bodies into wanting more. The food companies are well and truly aware of this, and take full advantage of it. It’s also why I think that the low-carb and/or paleo type of eating is most appropriate for people like me and Kris, who can struggle with addictive type personalities and traits.

      Yours,
      George
      AdventuresInHealth

  2. Hey, just a small typo from a grammar nut:
    “It seems clear that when it comes foods like sugar and other junk foods” should be:
    It seems clear that when it comes TO foods like sugar and other junk foods

  3. Thanks for this information Kris. I often hear how bad sugar is for you but have never had it explained so well. It has made me rethink the sugar in my diet. Is fruit the culprit also?

  4. I’m so addicted to sugar for emotional comfort, how do I just stop?

    Is there rehab for sugar addiction?

    • The only thing that worked for me was complete abstinence. I’m working on an e-book right now that will be out in February.

      There are no “rehabs” but some psychologists are experts in treating these sorts of conditions.

      • Hey Fiona,

        You might some help in Julia Ross’ work. Try this book, for example: http://www.amazon.co.uk/The-Diet-Cure-Rebalance-Swings-Naturally/dp/0143120859/ref=ntt_at_ep_dpt_2

        It might not work for those of us who have more of a psychological dependance than a biological one (and I do appreciate that the boundary between the two is fuzzy, at best), but it’s sure worth a try.

        Where the issue is strongly psychological (and you’re willing to try the biological one at the same time) I would recommend seeing an NLP hypnotherapist, as I’ve found this work to be highly effective with my clients (but then I am biased, being an NLP Hypno!).

        Hope this helps,
        George
        AdventuresInHealth

  5. I am my dad’s caregiver who had the IQ of a genius. Today he, (and consequently we) live with Alzheimer’s. I see the effects of his addiction to sugar on a daily basis. Every time he “binges”, his cognitive functions worsen. I So wish he had listened to me concerning his sugar addiction all these years. Thank you for sharing this information, I will be sharing it with my family to say, “See…mom was right!”

  6. I love the information you send in your emails! It keeps me so motivated and focused. I think the hardest thing about figuring out what to eat is that there is so much information out there. Eat this, don’t eat that, only small amounts of this, etc. It is very confusing and I often give up and eat how I always have. I love that this way of eating is unstructured and I don’t have to give up butter, cream, and cheese! AND the inches are coming off. Ha! Thanks for doing the research and sending it our way. :)

  7. Thank you so much for your informative emails and atrticles. I think it’s great that you’re able to learn from your experiences and share your insights with us.

    I’ve been on your email list for over a year now, but unfortunately I haven’t been able to drastically change my diet because I still live with my parents. I can buy a few healthy snack alternatives for myself, but for the most part I can only eat the groceries they buy and the meals they cook. And they’re extreme sugar addicts. When I move out and I control the food that’s stocked in my kitchen, I think it will be easy to change my diet and my sugar addiction (I was able to quit soft drinks cold turkey and experienced no caffeine withdrawal or cravings).

  8. No blog with the byline “evidence based” should be referencing a Lustig video.

  9. Marguerite says:

    This is a very interesting article. I’m definitely a sugar addict myself. Learning about the addictive qualities of sugar and understanding the reasons behind sugar cravings is a good start to kicking the habit. Here’s another article I found to be relevant to this that helps expand on the addictiveness of sugar:

    http://gskfree.blogspot.com/2013/11/the-socially-acceptable-drug-3-reasons.html

  10. So, how does your body react to other sugar substitutes like Stevia? Splenda? Etc?

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