Is Sugar a Drug?

Have you ever had a meal that just doesn’t live up to your expectations? It seems like it should be amazing and the description sounds really satisfying and then it’s just…not. That’s how I feel about cake. It’s beautiful and everyone else seems to really like it, but it just always falls short of my expectations. But even if it’s not very good, it’s easy to eat a whole piece because it’s not bad and maybe the next bite will be better. 

This reminds me of a study I read in college that rocked my world, and I want to tell you about it! The study looks at dopamine production and the reward center of your brain in the context of food. The entire study is based on this fact: “Certain foods, particularly those rich in sugars and fat, are potent rewards that promote eating (even in the absence of an energetic requirement) and trigger learned associations between the stimulus and the reward (conditioning). In evolutionary terms, this property of palatable foods used to be advantageous because it ensured that food was eaten when available, enabling energy to be stored in the body (as fat) for future need in environments where food sources were scarce and/or unreliable. However, in modern societies, where food is widely available, this adaptation has become a liability.” AKA: We always have room for dessert because the ability to eat beyond fullness has protected our ancestors from starving, but is now a bummer because we have lots of food available so it’s easy to gain weight. 

Jen Lyman, dietitian and owner of New Leaf Nutrition, pulls muffins out of the oven

These tasty foods are delicious because they produce rewarding neurochemicals like dopamine, cannabinoids, opioids, and serotonin, which make us feel good. We can get that reward even by thinking about a food, which is what they did in this study. They looked at how the reward center of a person’s brain would respond to being shown a picture of something they liked, let’s just say a milkshake, and then compared that to how the brain looked when the person was actually drinking the milkshake. 

Here’s what they found: obese people tended to get really excited about the milkshake, but when they actually drank it, it didn’t create as much dopamine as it did when they were anticipating the milkshake. The researchers suggested that this disconnect between the anticipation and the actual experience could be what leads to overeating because the person is wanting the “high” they thought they’d get. In reality, as the person continues to eat the food, dopamine production drops, leaving the person feeling pretty lousy. 

Sugar and fat are not drugs, but our brains do like them, and for good reason! High calorie foods kept our ancestors from starving and it’s in our DNA to like these kinds of foods. My husband and I went to see a comedian recently who was really candid about his history of drug abuse. He told a story about how his doctor had a difficult time getting him to fall asleep under anesthesia because he had such a high tolerance to pain medications and sedatives. In the context of drug abuse, the abuser experiences tolerance, which makes him or her need a higher dose the next time to get the same high. But we can’t do that with food because the dose of food doesn’t increase neurotransmitters the way that increasing the dose of a drug would. Instead, it just leaves us feeling really disappointed and bad. 

I was reviewing one of my textbooks, which suggested that we only have control of 75% of the fat on our bodies; the remaining 25% of our body fat is due to genetics and is outside of our control. Part of this that’s outside of our control is the dopamine response that was described in that study. You can’t control the neurotransmitters that your body makes or how many receptors for those transmitters it has, so if you’re having a tough time feeling satisfied or find it easy to overeat, there might be factors at play that are outside of your control. 

If you think your brain doesn’t respond correctly to food, here are two things you can do to help prevent that drop in dopamine production and the yucky feelings that go along with it: 

  1. Regularly plan treats. The more you incorporate foods you crave, the less you’ll crave them and the less out of control you’ll feel.
  2. Pre-portion your treats. It’s really easy to keep eating when you don’t feel the dopamine high that you expected to get in the first bite because you’re chasing the satisfaction you thought you’d get. Portion out your ice cream and put the rest away, put your M&Ms into little sample cups, or only put one soda in the fridge at a time—whatever your favorite food is, there’s a way to enjoy it and not go overboard. 

All that being said, there are definitely factors outside of our conscious choices that impact how we are genetically prone to think about food, but that doesn’t mean all hope is lost and it doesn’t mean that the effort to be healthy is for nothing. If you need help tackling how to eat, let us know, we’d be really happy to help you figure it out. 

-Jen Lyman, RDN, LD, CLT


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