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Mechanisms of Sugar Addiction: Or, Why You're Addicted To Bread
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December 22, 2010
11:18 am
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February 22, 2010
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(This essay is Part I of a series on carbohydrate addiction and the myth of 'complex carbs'. You can skip to Part II, "Adjacent To This Complete Breakfast!" or Part III, "The Myth Of "Complex Carbohydrates".)

Why do we crave the empty calories of bread? Answer: for the same reasons we crave the empty calories of candy.

Bread = Skittles

I've made the point before that bread—even whole wheat bread—is metabolically equivalent to Skittles, because it has the same glycemic index. You get the same sugar rush from a 'healthy' whole wheat bagel that you do from candy...and though it might not taste…

December 22, 2010
3:27 pm
Barbara Lamar

Your theory of metabolic "atrophy" is interesting, but a more straightforward explanation of sugar addiction would be that the ingestion of concentrated forms of sugar (e.g. breads, pastries, candies) stimulates insulin production, which reduces the level of sugar in the blood, leading to symptoms of low blood sugar, which prompt the addict to eat more sugar. If my understanding is correct, insulin also promotes the storage of fat (see Philologic Effects of Insulin Of all the published diets I'm aware of, the ones that make the most sense in metabolic terms are the various forms of the Paleo diet, and the South Beach Diet. The South Beach diet discourages grain consumption, but unlike the Paleo diet, it includes dairy products.

December 22, 2010
3:48 pm
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February 22, 2010
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That's what I thought, too—and the blood sugar crash is the commonly accepted explanation for post-meal fatigue. (Your understanding of insulin and sugar metabolism is correct AFAIK.)

However, the paper "Psychobiological effects of carbohydrates", which I cited above, notes the following:

"Only the carbohydrate meal significantly increased fatigue, which could not be attributed to hypoglycemia because plasma glucose remained elevated. Fatigue began approximately, when the carbohydrate meal elevated the plasma tryptophan ratio but ended even though the ratio remained elevated. Fatigue after a high-carbohydrate lunch could not be explained by reactive hypoglycemia or sweet taste, and could partially be explained by the hypothesis that fatigue parallels an elevation of the tryptophan ratio."

This makes sense: the fatigue from a high-carb meal appears relatively quickly, long before all the sugar can be metabolized. The effects of low blood sugar arrive much later, and manifest as hunger cravings—specifically for sugars (= carbohydrates).

But this doesn't explain why sugar addicts feel this hunger and its associated cravings so much more intensely, which is the central puzzle that I'm trying to solve. They have a compulsion to gorge on sugar (including high-GI carbohydrates like bread and potatoes)—causing massive insulin releases and consequent fat storage, which is (by the empirical evidence) a positive feedback loop ending in obesity and Type II diabetes.

The fact that sugar (= carbohydrate) addiction is apparently self-reinforcing demands explanation—as does the fact that paleo/South Beach/other low-carb diets empirically work better than low-fat diets, and that carb cravings generally decrease over time for people who follow paleo/low-carb diets.

Thus my explanation above.

It's becoming apparent that everything from muscle strength to cognitive capacity is maintained by our body on a 'use it or lose it' basis. My theory is that the ability to efficiently metabolize fat for energy is no different, and that a gradual atrophy of this ability accounts for the observed data.

(Thank you for helping inspire this essay, by the way.)

December 22, 2010
11:35 pm

What do you mean by "bread".

There are many, many types of bread, no doubt having various glycemic indices. Has there ever been a comprehensive research program to measure this?

You are probably referring to the most common commercial "bread substitute" made from highly refined, denatured wheat flower, sugar, yeast, chemicals, etc.

But what about real sour dough breads made with organic stone ground grain such as wheat, spelt, rye, etc. Or, even better, sprouted grain Essene or Ezekiel breads?

A macrobiotic style diet, based on whole grains has been shown to be very effective and nourishing.

December 23, 2010
5:14 pm
Tweets that mention

[...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Amy Johnson. Amy Johnson said: Mechanisms of Sugar Addiction: Or, Why You're Addicted To Bread ... [...]

December 24, 2010
12:13 am
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February 22, 2010
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Store-bought white and whole wheat bread (and bagels) both have the same glycemic index: 71-72.

Bread made from other grains tends to have a somewhat lower glycemic index, down in the 50s and 60s...but that's still up there with Coke and Snickers. I can't find any information on sprouted grain breads.

Interestingly, flour tortillas have a lower glycemic index than any other bread or grain product...most likely because of the fat required to make them.

Note that fat slows gastric emptying and intestinal absorption. Thus, low-fat diets are not only high-sugar diets by definition...they increase the effective glycemic index of all those 'carbs' (sugars), causing greater metabolic spikes and greater physical addiction! I believe this to be a primary reason why the "fat is evil, don't eat it" message from the 1970s and on was immediately followed by rampant obesity and diabetes. I suspect another post on this issue will follow soon.

January 19, 2011
6:23 pm R

[...] 30-DAY PALEO CHALLENGE–LINKS: ‘Cows eat grass’ and other inflammatory statements Mechanisms of sugar addiction, or why you’re addicted to bread Not-so-boring chicken stir fry A “start here” post from one of my favorite paleo [...]

January 20, 2011
2:05 am

Great stuff !
The one point I would argue with is "My non-scientific advice is: don’t try to go cold turkey"

In my view breaking the sugar / starch addiction is about training your body to use body fat and ketones as power sources, and to train your mind in new habits of eating, actually a new perception of what is food and what is not food. Certainly in my case, in the first few weeks while I was establishing the new habits, I found it very powerful to say to myself and others "I don't eat sugar / starches", and refuse the bread / cake / pie / nachos /soda etc. Saying "I'm trying to cut down on sugar / starch" inevitably sets up "but, just for now" and there you are starting to undermine your new habits and revert to your old ones. Of course once the new habits are properly established going off-piste a little is no harm, as long as it is not so long extended as to form a new habit in itself, but frankly I look at a lot of what people around me eat and instead of thinking "I wish I could have some of that but my diet won't let me" my response is "Wow, you actually think that stuff on your plate is food ?".

My personal journey to Paleo was via Atkins, and Atkins induction is pretty much carb cold turkey. Whereas I agree Atkins was wrong on sugar-substitutes like sucralose (to me they reinforce the sugar habit) and he missed the seed-oils issues, he deserves massive credit for popularising low-carb in the face of vitriolic opposition.

January 21, 2011
2:54 am
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February 22, 2010
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Thank you for sharing your experience!

I suspect there is a great deal of individual variation here.  My experience was that if I tried to cut sugars out entirely, my body simply couldn't burn enough fat to stay awake, and I either walked around in a daze or fell asleep.  So my problem wasn't as much the temptation to eat sugar ('carbs') as it was retraining my body to burn the fat.

In your case, however, I can understand why you'd need to go cold turkey.  I think it's a matter of which is stronger: the dopamine/serotonin reward motivation, or the blood sugar metabolic motivation.  If the reward circuit is stronger, 'cheating' is bad; whereas if the metabolic motivation is stronger, 'cheating' may be necessary to get you through the day until your body improves its ability to burn fat and ketones.

That's an interesting issue, and I'm glad you brought it to my attention.  I may revise the article if I can figure out a succinct summary.  

Please continue to read articles and contribute comments!  There's a new one up right now, and a big update coming on Tuesday.


January 22, 2011
8:00 pm

Great article. A couple of minor quibbles, however. Regarding "...Paleolithic hunter-gatherers got perhaps 1/3 of their calories from carbohydrate," it should be noted that this depended on where those hunter-gatherers lived. My own ancestors, for example, had much less opportunity to find fruits, veggies, and tubers while following buffalo herds on the plains than did other societies that lived in more tropical climes.

Also, I don't think the ability for the body to attain ketosis and start burning fat reserves can really be said to have atrophied, it is just that this switch is almost never thrown anymore. Nowadays we can pretty much get any sort of food we want, all it takes is a trip to the local supermarket, so we never go into seasonal ketosis.

However, in Paleolithic society, everything except meat was seasonal. Hunter-gatherers would gorge themselves on sweet fruit, for example, when it was available. It was a good source of vitamins, and it was a good thing to go into winter with a little extra fat as insulation. But, once that source of carbohydrate was gone, it was gone, and ketosis set in, allowing our hunter-gatherers to emerge into spring lean and ready for the next big hunt, move to the spring camp, or whatever.

Our bodies evolved in such a way that they would fatten up for winter, and lean down for summer. In fact, for most of our history, we had little choice, assuming gathering was good. This, I think, is the reason we like sweets. It was for fruit, not candy. Fruit was good for us, in moderation, so it tasted good. But to many, if sweet is good, even sweeter is better.

Now, we no longer need to hunt, gather, or eat seasonally. So, we just keep eating whatever we think tastes good, and getting fatter.

Regarding cold turkey or not, I think it may depend on how much carbohydrate you were used to eating. As far as actual sugar goes, I was never allowed much as a child, and that carried over into my adult life. Once in a great while I would get a hankering for a candy bar or somesuch, but I literally only ate like two or three a year. The same goes for chips, and snacks in general. So for me it was pretty much a question of laying off the bread and potatoes. Cold turkey was not too difficult for me. It just meant more meat or more steamed veggies slathered in guilt-free real butter. Yum. 🙂

January 24, 2011
7:25 pm
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February 22, 2010
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I think you're correct: the seasonal nature of food is a very overlooked part of the metabolic puzzle. Fructose in excess is certainly a metabolic problem…but hunter-gatherers didn't necessarily have year-round access to fruit.  Neither did they have access to domesticated sugar bombs like apples, pears, and bananas, which have been bred for thousands of years for sugar content.  And they most certainly didn't have access to table sugar (1/2 fructose) or soft drinks!  

So gorging on fruit when it was available was most likely not a metabolic issue for them, and humans didn't ever need an "off switch" for their sugar appetite.  This is suggested by the fact that fat induces satiation but sugars do not: apparently it was possible to eat too much fat, so our bodies have an "off switch" for that.

Keep in mind, though, that humans primarily evolved in Sub-Saharan Africa, where seasons don't mean the same thing.  Rains are seasonal, and crops are season, but temperatures are far less so.  "Getting fat for the cold winter" is a more recent European adaptation.

Thank you for all your thoughtful comments and contributions!



January 25, 2011
11:47 am
New move » Cro

[...] 30-DAY PALEO CHALLENGE–LINKS: ‘Cows eat grass’ and other inflammatory statements Mechanisms of sugar addiction, or why you’re addicted to bread Not-so-boring chicken stir fry A “start here” post from one of my favorite paleo [...]

January 25, 2011
11:47 am

While those studies show that there is a biological addiction to carbs, it should be mentioned that there is a psychological drive (at least for many people) wherein the desire for carbs is an ingrained behaviour (eating disorders).

From a neuro-linguistic programming (NLP) perspective for those that don't have an eating disorder, you could also say that the drive to eat carbs comes from an 'anchor'

(Off topic)
I'm sure you've heard about study's that have attempted to link dopamine release with eating chocolate?

The question is (both for bread and for chocolate with regards to dopamine) is 'how do we know anchors are not influencing the result?'

I remember reading a study a few years ago that stated couples whom described themselves as "madly in love" had similar brain activity to heroine addicts (CATscan).

My point here is that there is that nothing is being consumed yet dopamine and oxytocin levels were through the roof.

The psychology of these matters is underestimated and overlooked.

January 29, 2011
7:05 pm
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April 1, 2011
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April 17, 2011
10:03 pm
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April 28, 2011
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[...] (some of the best Paleo writing there is).  Here’s a great, short, simple explanation of the mechanisms behind sugar/grain addiction. This entry was posted on Thursday, April 28th, 2011 at 5:00 pm and is filed under CFHR Blog, [...]

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