Processed Carbs Light up Addiction Centers in Brain, Study Finds

Posted on July 28th, 2013

Processed Carbs Light up Addiction Centers in Brain, Study FindsNew research has revealed more evidence in support of food addiction, after detecting increased activity in the brain region responsible for addiction in participants who had eaten a meal scoring highly on the glycemic index. Aside from providing support for the idea that food is addictive for essentially the same reasons as drugs, it suggests that the type of carbohydrates you consume could be playing an important role in the process too. It could even reveal a useful method of dealing with food addiction – encouraging compulsive eaters to switch to foods that don’t active the dopamine pathway with the same intensity.

Addiction and Food

The notion of food addiction is somewhat controversial, but to understand it you only need to learn a little bit more about the mental mechanisms underpinning all addictions. Drugs such as cocaine only create their effects through their similarity to ordinary biological molecules or their ability to increase the quantities of them. Ultimately, when a cocaine user gets high, he or she is actually enjoying a flood of dopamine, a natural neurotransmitter.

Dopamine is used naturally in the brain’s “reward” center, which is basically the portion of the brain that encourages you to do things vital for survival, including eating. You feel so good after a high-piled, delicious meal because you get a natural dose of dopamine, which makes you want to do it again. However, like some people are able to take drugs without becoming addicted, most people can enjoy a calorific meal without giving way to compulsive eating. For others, though, the situation appears to be worse.

The Study

The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition published the study, which looked at the brains of 12 overweight men after they consumed milkshakes with identical calorie-counts but different scores on the glycemic index (GI). This index basically ranks carbohydrates according to how much they increase your blood sugar levels after you eat them, with low GI foods producing a much more gradual increase due to their slower digestion. Research has shown that a low GI diet can reduce the risk of things like coronary artery disease, and low GI diets can also improve the health of diabetics. High GI carbohydrates include those found in foods like white bread, rice, pasta, and baked foods, whereas low GI foods include unprocessed whole grains, fruits, and vegetables.

The researchers conducted fMRI scans on the brains of the participants four hours after they’d consumed a low GI and a high GI version of the same milkshake. The four-hour wait enables the initial blood sugar spikes to fade, and the scans were conducted after this interval. It’s also worth noting that since it was the same individuals being compared against themselves after meals with differing GIs; it can’t be explained through individual variations between those who ate the different meals. The results showed that the “resting” blood sugar levels were lower after participants consumed the high GI meal, and they also reported higher levels of hunger than after the low GI meal.

Most crucially, the results showed that after the high GI meal, the participants had drastically increased activity in the nucleus accumbens region of the brain, which is heavily involved in addiction. Head researcher Dr. David Ludwig pointed out that the results don’t mean that everybody who consumes processed carbohydrates will become addicted, but just that those with the susceptibility for addiction and a problem with food would do better to avoid them.

What Does It Mean?

The most important consequence of the study is that it provides further evidence that food addiction actually is a very real phenomenon with a neurological basis. This means that anybody who is struggling with their weight and can’t manage to cut down their intake should seriously consider getting psychological support. It also means, however, that if you are struggling with food addiction, the specific type of food you’re eating could be part of the problem. If you’re consuming high-GI foods regularly and you’re susceptible to addiction, you might be making things more difficult for yourself.

Although neurological research might seem terribly abstract and hard to relate to anything in day-to-day life, this study also presents a useful, actionable step to reduce your likelihood of food addiction. If you primarily consume low GI foods like unprocessed grains, fruit and vegetables, you’ll notably decrease the addictive reaction of your brain and will be less likely to feel hungry between meals. It’s important to remember, though, that this isn’t a “magic bullet,” it’s just a potentially useful tool for anybody struggling with food addiction.

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