“Function: The shell of the nucleus accumbens is involved in the cognitive processing of reward, including subjective “liking” reactions to certain pleasurable stimuli, motivational salience, and positive reinforcement.
Hooked on Food: A Battle in the Brain? The Anatomy of Food Addiction
One large long-term study published in 2017 addition of Scientific Reports found that men who consumed 67 grams or more of sugar per day are 23% more likely to be diagnosed with depression than men who ate 40 grams or less. Some doctors and researchers even classify sugar as an addictive drug because this refined white crystal triggers the pleasure and reward centers in our brain much like a drug does. One area is called the nucleus accumbens and there are others.
We crave sweetness but it is clear that too much sugar leads to suffering. Large scale studies show that excess sugar consumption can significantly raise the risk of obesity, diabetes, and heart disease as well as new information about Alzheimer’s disease and other degenerative brain disorders that thrive on chronic inflammation.
Sugar in the form of glucose provides the body with quick energy. But lately, we’ve gone way beyond the Call of Duty. 200 years ago, the average American ate about 2 pounds of sugar per year. Today we each eat about 152 pounds a year according to the US Department of Health and Human Services. This sharp increase in the consumption of sugar is no mystery. Sugar is cheap, plentiful, and it tastes great.
Doctors are trying to curb our out of control sweets habit. The American Heart Association recommends that adult men consume no more than 38 grams or 9 teaspoons of sugar daily, women only 6 teaspoons, and children even less. The latest draft of the 2025 Dietary Guidelines coming out soon recommends even smaller amounts for daily consumption: no more than 30 grams of added sugar a day for an adult male. However, these numbers fall far below what a typical American actually consumes. An average soda is 39 grams and a bowl of cereal is 20 grams and that’s without dumping more spoonfuls of sugar on top of it.
Is Sugar Addictive?
Why are rats dying just to satisfy its desire for chocolate? A study gave rats unlimited access to standard chow as well as to a mini cafeteria full of appetizing high calorie foods: sausage, cheesecake, chocolate. The rats decreased their intake of the healthy but bland items of its typical rat chow diet and switched to eating the cafeteria food almost exclusively. They gained weight. They became obese.
The researcher then warned the rats as they were eating by flashing a light that they would receive a nasty foot shock. Rats eating the bland chow would quickly stop and scramble away, but time and again the obese rats continued to devour the rich food, ignoring the warning that they had been trained to fear. Their hedonic desire overruled their basic sense of self preservation.
Did they become “hooked on food”? An inability to suppress a behavior, despite the negative consequences, is common in addiction. Scientists are finding similar compulsiveness in certain people. Almost all obese individuals say they want to consume less, yet they consume or continue to overeat even though they know that doing so can have shockingly negative health or social consequences. Studies show that overeating juices up the reward systems in our brain so much so in some people that it overpowers the brain’s ability to tell them to stop eating when they have had an enough. As with alcoholics and drug addicts, the more they eat the more they want. Whether or not overeating is technically an addiction, if it stimulates the same brain circles as drug use in the same way, people also can possibly be “addicted to food.”
Our brains maintain a healthy body weight by signaling when to eat and when to stop. Hormones regulate feeding circuits that control appetite and satiety, but fatty sugary foods can motivate some people to overeat. The more they have the more they want, a sensation common in drug addiction.
What to Do? Protein to the Rescue
Many peoples’ relationship with sugar typically starts when they wake up in the morning. Many start the day with a sweet bowl of cereal or a muffin (at 600 calories) for breakfast. But this pattern can set you up to fail, so many nutritionists recommend to focus more on protein. Protein helps stabilize blood sugar which helps keep you out of fight or flight reactions and protein also provides the building blocks for your brain neurotransmitters including serotonin and dopamine. Many nutritionists advise their patients to eat protein such as eggs, cheese, nuts, peas, beans, and or even a protein shake at least an hour after they get up, and with every meal. If you snack before bed, make sure that it has protein too. Even if we strive to avoid sugar, sweet treats have a way of worming their way into our lives especially during the Holidays. If you have trouble saying no to sweets, it is recommended to eat protein proactively to keep temptations in check.