Hooked on Junk Food? New Research Shows It’s All in Your Brain

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It is no secret that high-sugar, high-fat foods are damaging to our health in numerous ways. But why is it so hard to resist gorging on donuts, fries, and candy? And to make matters worse, once you start eating junk food you crave more of it.  

You are not imagining this — and it is not your fault. According to a breakthrough study in Cell Metabolism,1 researchers from Max Planck Institute for Metabolism Research in Cologne and Yale University have discovered that unhealthy foods rich in sugar and fat actually rewire the brain. Even small servings of these foods can spell trouble, “teaching” the brain, unconsciously, to prefer them over healthy foods like vegetables. 

Foods like chips, cookies, cake, etc. stimulate the brain’s reward and motivation center, releasing the feel-good neurotransmitter dopamine.

Brain Activity Before and After Sugar and Fat

For this study, a group volunteers were given a small serving of a pudding-like milkshake high in fat and sugar for eight weeks — this was added to their regular diet. A control group consumed the same amount of milkshake but with less fat and little to no taste. Scientists measured the subject’s brain activity over the eight weeks. The brain’s response was significantly heightened in those given the sugar- and fat-laden milkshake — especially within the dopaminergic system involving reward and motivation.  

“Our measurements of brain activity showed that the brain rewires itself through the consumption of chips and [other junk food]. It subconsciously learns to prefer rewarding food. Through these changes in the brain, we will unconsciously always prefer the foods that contain a lot of fat and sugar,” says lead study author Dr. Marc Tittgemeyer. 

How to Boost Your Dopamine Levels Naturally

Brain scans show that common additive substances, such as sugar, alcohol, and recreational drugs, affect dopamine release in the brain’s reward center. Certain prescription drugs for depression work by targeting dopamine release. Regular exercise, quality sleep, and meditation are a few healthy ways to boost dopamine.  

Some research shows that magnesium supplements can help increase dopamine — magnesium deficiency is linked to lower levels of dopamine and higher risk of depression. Probiotics, vitamin D, the amino acid tyrosine, curcumin, and ginkgo, among other supplements, may also enhance dopamine function.2-6  

Chemical and Psychological Underpinnings of Sugar Cravings

Sugar cravings are a chemical response in the hypothalamus. When you eat a lot of sugar, you get a sense of dryness and of needing more. One of the tricks to combat sugar cravings is just to hydrate yourself — many times, when you drink enough water, sugar cravings will die down. Also, when you get a spike of insulin, cortisol, and adrenaline, all of which have an addictive nature, then everything drops very quickly after the spikes. This “sugar crash” is like when the effects of recreational drugs wear off — then the addict craves more.  

From a psychological perspective, high-sugar foods provide a comforting, connective feeling. “Sugar is a very sticky substance, and a craving for that stickiness, that binding action of the sugar, reflects how most people are lacking “earth energy” — a grounded connection to nature, our families, and our communities. We may not even be aware of it, but today our connection to the earth is very weak. So, we are craving the connections to the earth, to nature, to our core family, to our tribal family, our community. Sugar may come to replace it. 

Nutrients That Help Combat Sugar Cravings

Certain mineral deficiencies are associated with strong sugar cravings. Your body knows in its wisdom that when you get nourishment, you get minerals, and the quickest “nourishment” can come from sugars, because they metabolize the fastest. So, when you have a deficiency in minerals — especially chromium and zinc — you may experience a lot of sugar cravings. Supplementing with zinc and chromium picolinate often helps reduce sugar cravings.7  

Healthy foods high in zinc include oysters and shellfish, seeds, nuts (including peanuts), dairy, and eggs; beans, green beans, oats, grapes, whole grains, broccoli, and garlic are some good sources of chromium.   

The amino acid L-glutamine can help control sugar cravings when taken as a supplement as well. Also, inositol (a B vitamin) has been shown in some studies to help those with metabolic syndrome, particularly when combined with the antioxidant alpha lipoic acid.8 Even on its own, inositol is known anecdotally to take the edge off sugar cravings. 

Poor Digestion Impacts Sugar Urges

You can get sugar cravings when the body has too much of a digestive burden — i.e., when you need to digest a lot, but you don’t have enough energy to do so. This digestive weakness is often not limited to the digestive system, but also “mental digestion.” For example, if somebody must study a lot, cram for an exam, or learn a lot of math, calculus, etc., they often get cravings for sugar. As an aside, acupuncture treatments can help the sugar cravings go down, and the memory and ability to study improves.

Additional Causes

And overgrowth of certain microbes — especially candida — can trigger intense sugar cravings (the microbes demand it and signal to the brain). Also, sleep deprivation can provoke sugar cravings. 

Removing junk foods high in fat and refined sugar from your diet is difficult, especially in the beginning since your body will crave it for several days — anecdotal reports claim it takes 21 days to detoxify from junk foods. Once you turn the corner, you will notice many benefits of adopting a refined sugar–free diet — including more energy, clearer skin, brighter mood, weight loss, balanced blood sugar numbers, and enhanced mental clarity. Saying goodbye to highly processed, nutritionally empty food is one of the very best things you can do for your health and wellness.

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Sources:

  1. Thanarajah, S., DiFeliceantonio, A., Albus, K., et al. Habitual Daily Intake of a Sweet and Fatty Snack Modulates Reward Processing in Humans. Cell Metabolism 2023 Mar (22).
  2. Serefko, A., Szopa, A., Wlaz, P., et al. Magnesium in depression. Pharmacol Rep. 2013; 65(3):547-54.
  3. McKean, J., Naug, H., Nikbakht, E., et al. Probiotics and Subclinical Psychological Symptoms in Healthy Participants: A Systemic Review and Meta-Analysis. J Altern Complement Med. 2017 Apr;23(4):249-258.
  4. Yoshitake, T., Yoshitake, S., and Kehr, J. The Ginkgo biloba extract EGb 761 and its main constituent flavonoids and ginkgolides increase extracellular dopamine levels in the rat prefrontal cortex. B J Pharmacol. 2010 Feb;159(3);659-668.
  5. Kulkarni, S. and Dhir, A. An Overview of Curcumin in Neurological Disorders. Indian J Pharm Sci. 2010 Mar-Apr;72(2):149-154.
  6. Bertone-Johnson, E. Vitamin D and the Occurrence of Depression: Causal Association or Circumstantial Evidence? Nutr Rev. 2009 Aug; 67(8):481-492.
  7. Anton, S., Morrison, C., Cefalu, W., et al. Effects of Chromium Picolinate on Food Intake and Satiety. Diabetes Technology & Therapeutics. 2008 Oct; 10(5): 405-412
  8. Capassa, I., Esposito, E., Maurea, N., et al. Combination of inositol and alpha lipoid acid in metabolic syndrome-affected women: a randomized placebo-controlled trail. Trials. 2013 Aug 28;(14): 273.

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