Processed Carbs Trigger Brain Reaction Similar to Drug Addiction

June 28, 2013

New research, published June 26 in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, proves there's truth behind the belief that food can be addictive.

Brain imaging reveals that after eating highly processed carbohydrates like white bread, pasta, rice, baked goods and other starches, the same pleasure centers of the brain light up as when a person takes drugs such as cocaine and heroin, The New York Times reports. In both cases, dopamine levels, which trigger happiness and feelings of reward, spike and then deplete, thus fueling addiction.

In a recent study, Dr. David Ludwig, director of the New Balance Foundation Obesity Prevention Center at Boston Children's Hospital, recruited 12 overweight or obese men between the ages of 18 and 35. On two occasions, they were given milkshakes with identical caloric counts. The only difference was the first time participants were served a milkshake made with high-glycemic corn syrup, and the other time, a source of low-glycemic carbohydrates was used.

High-glycemic carbs cause blood sugar levels to rise rapidly after eating, and they are digested quickly. Low-glycemic carbs, like fruits, vegetables, unprocessed whole grains and legumes, are digested much slower.

Four hours after they consumed the milkshakes, scientists performed fMRI brain scans on the dozen participants on both occasions to measure their dopamine-reward pathways. The scans revealed that once their blood sugar dropped after eating the high-glycemic milkshakes, there was "intense" activation in the nucleus accumbens, the brain region involved in addiction.

“This research suggests that based on their effects on brain metabolism, all calories are not alike,” Ludwig said. “Not everybody who eats processed carbohydrates develops uncontrollable food cravings. But for the person who has been struggling with weight in our modern food environment and unable to control their cravings, limiting refined carbohydrate may be a logical first step.”

Battling food addiction is extremely challenging, but changing one's diet by limiting or eliminating processed carbohydrates and sugar can significantly relieve the desire to eat excessively, and in turn reduce obesity and risk of diabetes, or help manage the disease. In the article "Native Family Returns to its Roots to Combat Poor Health and Food Addiction," David Bender, a member of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, shared his family's fight to overcome food addiction.

Mary Annette Pember, Ojibwe, has struggled with food addiction. She continues to explores the medicating role food has played in her life, leading to obesity and diabetes. She is overcoming her addiction by "recognizing the psychological factors that affect addiction, health and other social problems in Indian country.

"Separated from our traditional spirituality and cultures, however, we chose the white man’s medicines," she says. "Alcohol, drugs and foods high in fat and sugar offered short-term relief but in the end, they have betrayed us."