Breaking Bad: Why sugar is so hard to quit!

Have you ever tried to give up sugar?  Or maybe you have tried to cut out salty, starchy snacks?   Just like detoxing from drugs, alcohol, or cigarettes, detoxing from sugar and other junk foods can cause withdrawal type symptoms with severe cravings and headaches.  If you have tried strict paleo for 30 days, you may have experienced some “withdrawal” symptoms giving up certain foods.

The word for those sugary, starchy, fatty, and salty foods is hyperpalables.   Can these foods affect us in a similar manner as drug addiction?  The answer is yes!

First off, it is important to understand what dopamine is and it’s relationship to food addiction.  Dopamine is a neurotransmitter (basically a signal in the brain) that motivates us to seek rewards and signals when rewards are present.  For someone on cocaine or heroine, these drugs can take over this reward system.   Researches who are studying obesity from the standpoint of addiction neuroscience are now finding that appetite-controlling hormones can also hijack the reward system just as cocaine would for a drug addict.

Researchers have found that obese people have significantly less number of dopamine receptors than people who are average weight.   In order to get the same reward experience, or “high” they have to eat more or eat more of certain foods.   They also studied what happens to the brain when a person is exposed to a certain food and not allowed to eat it.  There is a surge of dopamine, and that is why you may be tempted to eat something like dessert when it’s right in front of you, even though you are not hungry.

So how exactly does food addiction develop?  When dopamine continually floods the brain there is a down regulation of dopamine receptors.  As a result, a greater amount of hyperpalables is needed to elicit the same level of reward.  This cycle continues and as the dopamine receptors continue to down regulate someone will have to eat more and more.  This also makes it difficult for someone to stop eating these foods after just one or two bites.  This is why it is difficult to stress moderation to someone who is addicted to hyperpalatables.

Every year at CrossFit Albuquerque we do a Whole30, which is the Whole9′s challenge for strict paleo for 30 days.  During those 30 days you have to cut out sugar, grains, dairy, beans, and your diet consists of meat, vegetables, fruit, seeds, nuts, and healthy oils.  Throughout the year at the gym you might here different people talking about doing the strict 30 days to clean up their diet and all of the positive benefits they have from cutting out certain foods.  If you have never taken a look at the Whole9 site or the Whole30 program, here is a link to the website:

While 30 days of strict paleo can definitely clean up your diet, change many bad dietary habits, and leave you feeling amazing throughout the day and in your workouts, if you have a true food addiction, it is likely not long enough to actually help you overcome your food addiction.  Many people plan out their first cheat meal after the 30 days are over, and if you have a food addiction you can totally sabotage yourself by allowing this cheat meal.  Remember, dopamine is what is signaling your desire for that cheat meal (seeking a reward).  A food addiction (let’s use sugar for an example) can take over this reward system just as a drug like cocaine would do for a drug addict.  When someone has a food addiction to sugar, they have a down regulation of dopamine receptors, and a greater amount of the sugar is needed to elicit satisfaction.  If you have a food addiction, 30 days is just not long enough to actually reset your system back to normal.  This is also the same reason that allowing yourself a cheat meal or cheat day on the weekend can also sabotage your gains, because every time you eat that sugary treat, you start the cycle of the dopamine response again.

If you find yourself still having a serious craving for sweets or salty, fatty snacks after your Whole30, the worst thing you can do is allow that cheat meal.  The best way to overcome your food addiction is to continue to refrain from whatever food it is that you may be addicted to for an additional 30 to 60 more days.  Once you start losing the desire to eat those foods, your body is essentially done “detoxing” from that food and it is more likely that you have normalized the dopamine response system.  You may realize that you can’t allow yourself to cheat with a certain food on the weekend because it will make you crave it more. As hard as it may be to change these habits, you may learn that the benefits far outweigh that cheat meal on Saturday night.

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