This Food IS Addicting (and you thought it was all in your head)

I’ve often felt I am addicted to bagels. Living in New York City, it’s impossible to escape the scent of those freshly baked, plump circles of heaven.

I try to avoid them completely. If I take even one bite, I am compelled to eat the entire bagel. And then another. And then afterwards, maybe a bag of potato chips or even a chocolate chip cookie or two. (Okay, three or four!)

Is it a psychological thing? I’ve always thought so. But science, it turns out, has recently discovered that my compulsion may actually have a physiological basis.

A new study found that consuming highly processed carbohydrates like heavenly bagels can cause excess hunger, and trigger an addictive drug-like effect, similar to cocaine and heroin. No wonder I can’t eat just one bite!1


Brain Workings 101

This stuff is all pretty complex, and even with a medical degree it’s sometimes tough for me to understand. But I’m going to do my best to break it down for you.

Our brains consist of a multifaceted network of neurotransmitters (brain chemicals), nerve cells and pathways that control every function in our bodies.

One of those neurotransmitters is called dopamine, and one of its many functions is to allow pleasure and reward signals to pass from one nerve cell to the other.

When people take addictive drugs, the brain floods with dopamine – that’s why people get hooked. The feeling is euphoric and the brain cries out for that feeling again and again.

So back to the study… Researchers at Boston Children’s Hospital wanted to find out how food intake is regulated by these dopamine-reward pathways.

So they gathered 12 overweight men, and fed them two different milkshakes at two different times. Both shakes tasted identical, and both contained the same number of calories.

But there was one difference…

One shake had a high-glycemic index, which means it quickly spikes the body’s blood sugar, then sends it crashing down quickly later. The other had a low-glycemic index, which means the sugar breaks down slowly.

The blood sugar in the men who drank the high GI milkshake surged, then dropped four hours later. The surprising thing was that when their blood sugar crashed, not only did they feel ravenous, but MRIs of their brains showed intense activity in the reward centers in the brain – the same sections that control addiction.

Foods as Drugs?

Foods that are made from highly processed carbohydrates can be compared to drugs on how the brain perceives it.

As I explained earlier, cocaine, heroin, nicotine… these drugs all rewire the brain so that it craves the experience over and over…

So much so that the quest for that feeling trumps health, family, finances, and everything else that’s important.

What this study shows, is that certain foods can produce the same kind of addictive experience. Because when we eat them, the primary reward center in the brain’s circuitry – the same area that’s affected by dopamine – lights up.

The high GI carbohydrates like bagels, bread, pasta and cookies not only make us hungrier, they actually make you feel like you MUST have that type of food again.

And then, after the initial high, the brain says it wants more, in order to produce another rush, just as addictive drugs do.

So, what should we eat?

I know the study tested high-GI vs. low-GI foods. But your best bet is to focus on low-GL foods.

No, that’s not a typo… I meant to write GL. The glycemic load (GL) is a more practical measuring stick for how the amount of a food you typically eat affects your blood sugar. A food’s GL value combines the GI value (a measure of the TYPE of carb — fast spiker or slow absorber) with the AMOUNT of carbs found in the portion you consume.

You’ll find more about the difference, and a full list of foods on a blog post I wrote earlier.

Walking around the city, I’m not sure how I’m going to get away from the tempting smell of bagels. Although, now that I know about their dark side it will be a tad easier to walk on by. Maybe I’ll use nose plugs, though I’d probably get some funny looks. If you have any ideas for me, I’d love to hear!

Steve Sisskind, M.D.

Hi, I'm Dr. Steve Sisskind, Chief Medical Officer & Founder at RealDose Nutrition.

As a young physician, I struggled because my patients came to me with serious health issues, but I didn't have the right tools to help them. Medical school taught me how to put "band aids" on their symptoms with drugs and surgery, but not how to address the root causes of their problems.

Years later I discovered a better approach... based on the fundamental idea that the power of nutrition can transform your health and vitality. But there's a lot of confusion... What foods should I eat? Which supplements should I take? What does the science say?

I have dedicated my life to answering these questions... And I share this knowledge with you every day here at RealDose Nutrition.

I invite you to connect with me by joining my free private community. I've helped thousands of people and I know I can help you too!

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Reference:

1. Lennerz BS, Alsop DC, Holsen LM, et al. Effects of dietary glycemic index on brain regions related to reward and craving in men. Am J Clin Nutr. 2013 Jun 26. [Epub ahead of print] PMID: 23803881.

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26 comments

  1. Vive les croissants !

  2. Hi Doc,
    I do not remember when I did not eat bagels. They are so much better fresh from the bakery then from the supermarket. When hot and fresh, they are good solo. One of the pleasures of life. I just am “mindful” of what I consume. The ying and yang of life.

    But I do find that if I put whole fat plain regular schmear / cream cheese on it, i can stop at one when there is no more, I am completely full up and not looking for more to eat. The rest of the time, I just remember what I consumed for the day, and control my diet.

    Okay, that does take self-discipline. But who but me, back in the day when I was 10 years old, the Dermatologist prescribed the acne diet worked–and not treating the cause (PSOS), I followed it to the letter. It does keep you thin–too thin for a growing 10 year old so I had the growth spurt and stopped at 5’0″. So being “not tall”, you can see why I am so disciplined to continue forever on diet, portion size and exercise. Like I said, it is just a matter of self-discipline and wanting to look great in clothes satisfies me more than indulging in food. I do eat everything–including a rich desserts–but I know when to stop when I see myself gaining so weight. But I eat mostly fresh or steamed vegetables and whole fruits, oatmeal and flaxseed I grind myself, chicken and fish and stay away for the most part from fast-food, junk foods, and processed foods. I do not purchase smoothies or juice my fruit–I get all the fiber naturally. Not so big into wine, and really can live without beer or hard alcohol and never miss it. Now that ruins your body proportions and destroys your tooth enamel. Not so mashuga– just a llittle discipline. It works.

    • Dr. Steve Sisskind

      Hi Carol,

      Thank you for writing in and for sharing your experience! I hope your detailed account reaches countless others and helps them find the strength to stick to their healthy regimen. We look forward to hearing more of your progress, Carol! Make it a healthy day!

  3. Hi Dr Steve!

    Would it work to take the coconut oil as a ‘supplement’ ie, a daily tablespoon of oil neat ‘down the hatch’??

    Cheers

    • Dr. Steve Sisskind

      Hi Krystin,

      Thank you for writing in and for posting your question! It’s absolutely fine (and preferred) to use Coconut Oil. It’s extremely healthy. Yes, it has saturated fats, but they are “good fats”. There are different types of saturated fats, certain types are “bad” and others good. The saturated fats in coconut oil and avocado can be very beneficial to your health. A tablespoon of coconut oil “down the hatch” is fine and you can use them in other ways too. Coconut oil can be used in place of any type of oil or butter. Just substitute an equal amount of coconut oil for the item called for. To ingest coconut oil as a daily supplement, try mixing it into smoothies. It can also be used instead of regular vegetable oil to make a homemade mayonnaise. Spread coconut oil on toast, like butter, and sprinkle with cinnamon sugar. Hope this helps! Make it a healthy day!

  4. Hi Dr Steve!

    Carbs! Carbs! Such a problem these days, why?? When ‘addiction time’ rolls around some of your bloggers may enjoy a refreshing drink: fill a glass with sparkling water, some ice, preferred fruit (eg, blueberries, sliced strawberries, mashed watermelon, diced green apple, squeezed lemon/orange, endless possibilities..), mint leaves. To
    relax and sip on such a drink (and eat the fruit!) could be a way to include some carbs, more importantly though, increase the daily fluid intake.
    Also, the drink is pretty to look at!! A small bowl
    of natural almonds are a great addition!! All
    healthy too. I hope this helps someone.

  5. My partner and I have taken to making our own bread, plus bagels if desired (bread machine is super tool)
    We know what goes into the bread, pretzels and bagels we bake. We have a large bevy of friends and
    family we share our baked goods with. Have not had cravings for the above as the work going into makes
    us stingy with how many we eat or give away.
    My trick for cravings, and I use this for exercising also; “don’t think about it, just do it or get interested
    in something else, and bingo all is well again.
    Thank you for your articles, keeps me informed

    • Dr. Steve Sisskind

      Hi Theresa,

      Thank you for writing in and for sharing your experience! I love fresh baked bread in the morning. Make it a healthy day!

  6. Hi Dr Steve, I use to be a macrobiotic food eater. It was hard, people would laugh at me. Macrobiotic has brown rice, beans, seaweed, and tofu mostly. No sugar no diary, but only , bancha tea. No fruit, no tomatoes, no potatoes,no processed packages. A lot of carbs. Only herbs instead of vitamins. I ate for 20 years, I met people who were healed of their problems. I try to eat more normal now, to fit in. I do eat bagels, burritos, pitza, malts also. But, I do have allergies, congested, swollen ankles, itchy eyes. I wonder what you think of trying o fit in then going for a cleans the next couple of days. I have been putting boiled water, 1/2 lemon, 1 teaspoon of garlic powder, turmeric, cinnamon, and drinking one or two 8 ounce bottles of it. Sometimes I put a tablespoon of honey. Also, about bagels, the glutton free kind, do they usually put artificial stuff in to make it palatable and sugar? Thanks for you advise. Esther

    • Dr. Steve Sisskind

      Hi Esther,

      Thank you for writing in and for sharing your concerns with us! There should be no problem with the meal plan you outlined, I read this a few times and it is sound eating plan for your age and build. However, if your concern is to fit in and are quite uncomfortable with the food choices, I say eat what you feel is right. Your allergies could be caused by a number of factors but eating food which you are not comfortable with, or your body is not used to, could trigger a reaction. A cleanse every now and then is good to have to rid your body of waste and toxins but only do so at your own convenience or comfort level. As for gluten free bagels, it really depends on the kind of flour they use as well as the “secret” ingredients in the dough. However, small bakeries have been known to make their bread fresh every day, hence no need to add artificial flavor or preservatives. I suggest you get your bread from local bakeries near your home. Hope this helps! Make it a healthy day, Esther!

  7. I have recently started eating gluten free pretzels and I cannot stop. I am an addiction counselor and could not believe the similarities between drug addiction and my pretzel “addiction”. People say “what’s wrong with pretzels”? I have been to the doctor with swollen legs and feet due to the high sodium content. I feel like I’m putting myself at risk when I eat them but, I do it anyway. Time for me to get my own counselor.

    • Dr. Steve Sisskind

      Hi Doreen,

      Thank you for sharing your experience with us! A friend of mine once chided that one of the best ways to get over an addiction is to find a new one. Why not change your cravings for pretzels with a healthier snack such as cut up vegetables or a piece of fruit? Or, try diverting your attention by doing something as soon as you find yourself idle? I hope this helps! Make it a healthy day!

  8. Hi, Dr. Steve, I’m a 42 year old white male, and have a typical 40 year old body, everything goes to the gut! I drink 2 20oz Dr. Peppers a day at least, and I also eat out a lot! The drinks are an addiction to me, I jokingly tell people that I’m a coke addict. It’s my cigarette or alcohol! How do I break myself from eating and drinking so much sugar and staying off of it? Staying off is the problem!!

    • Dr. Steve Sisskind

      Hi Robin,

      Thank you for writing in and for sharing your concerns with us! I can clearly see where your challenges are and do understand how difficult it is to control a sweet tooth, or two. It is important to stick to whole foods and avoid processed ones as much as possible. I do encourage you to avoid sodas as much as you can as they tend to hinder your weight loss progress, drastically.

      I understand that sodas give a unique sense of satisfaction, but ask that you try with infused water in its place. I usually keep a pitcher or two of lemon infused water in my fridge, to help keep me motivated to get my 2 liters in for the day. I also suggest that you start with small healthy changes and make them a permanent part of your day. Changes such as opting for a handful of nuts and berries instead of junk food is a great start. A plate of salad instead of that baked potato, or choosing sweet potato in its place.

      Small changes are easier to adapt and making them gradually (1 per day or week) will not make you feel deprived. It also motivates you to make then a habit and before you know it, you have a healthy eating plan on hand. Hope this helps! Make it a healthy day!

  9. I have hypoglycemia. I am thereafter very careful NOT to eat high GI foods. However, I am virtually never ‘happy’ thus thinking I never get the dopamine high you write about.

    • Dr. Steve Sisskind

      Hi Mark,

      Thank you for writing in and for sharing your thoughts with us! It would be very easy for me to recommend a few tips here and there to help, however, as you are hypoglycemic I do ask that you speak with your personal doctor or a dietitian to help with your dietary needs. Special attention and care is needed at this time to ensure that your body responds well to the food you eat as well as digest it properly. Again, I thank you for writing and make it a healthy day!

  10. Hi Dr Steve, Yes, this is a great article. The thing is my husband has such fond memories of having lox and bagels every week with his family. So, when I married him, I have also been eating bagels. Then when we go to Canters, a deli in California, we go there. I try not to eat the onion bagel. But, um, I do eat it on Sundays. Is there a glutton free bagel? Would that be a better way to help me? He laughs at the glutton idea. But, you know best. Thanks for being there for us. Esther

    • Dr. Steve Sisskind

      Hi Esther,

      Thank you for writing in! It is always great to hear from you! I am quite confident that gluten free bagels are widely available and can be bought from most corner bakeries. However, I am not so certain about the glutton bagels. On a more serious note, a bagel once or twice a week should be fine and I do suggest that you include that in your cheat meal. I am glad that you have found my articles and posts quite helpful and do always welcome your thoughts, Esther! Make it a healthy day!

  11. So true. Thank you for validating what I have found works for me–low carb eating plan is the only way that I do not have intense cravings. That’s not to say I don’t crave a bagel with cream cheese and lox. But, I know that if I cave, I will not be able to stop. The Nay Sayers always tout self control or at lease portion control, but I know my body and I know myself, I’m addicted to carbs. Thanks again.

    • Dr. Steve Sisskind

      Hi Sandra,

      Thank you for writing in and for sharing your thoughts with us! I find that one of the biggest ways to fight an addiction is to accept that you have one. That said, having an addiction to carbs is not a bad thing, per se. But, what you do about it is what determines your success. I applaud you for going low carb instead of fighting the urge completely. I hope this reaches our other readers and helps them conquer their love for sweets and carbohydrates. Have a healthy day!

  12. This is exactly what Dr. Atkins said 35 YEARS ago; and the AMA called him a quack. I lost 100lbs. and kept it off tor thirty years! Nutritionists and physicians still don’t understand “metabolism”!

  13. I have always wondered why the fall/winter months were so difficult, but the bagel article sums it up. Once I have 1 or 2 pieces of Halloween candy I am compelled to eat more carbs so by the time January arrives I am 10 lbs heavier and despressed about how it happened again. (I spend Jan to Sept taking it bac j off again). This year i will choose protein snacks when ever I need a holiday treat. Thanks…Mary E.

    • Dr. Steve Sisskind

      Hi Mary,

      Thank you for writing in and for sharing your thoughts with us! I am glad that you are taking active steps in fighting your propensity to crave sweets. Yes, protein bars may be the healthier option but I do suggest that you first take a close look at the label to know of its ingredients and portion size. Vegetables sticks or a handful or nuts and berries are often my go to snacks if the cravings are much too strong to resist. Hope this helps! Have a healthy day!

  14. Hi Dr Steve,

    I have been battling a carb addiction most of my adult life.

  15. That was a great article & it makes SO MUCH sense!! In fighting the battle of the bulge, I find the more carbs I eat, the more I want to eat. It truly produces a comforting feeling which is the dopamine you are talking about. Thank you for helping me to be more aware of what I chose to feed my body.

    • Dr. Steve Sisskind

      Hi Debra,

      Thank you for writing in and for sharing your thoughts! I am glad you liked the article and please feel free to share them with your friends and loved ones too! That said, it is important to understand your body’s reaction to sugar in order to fight the urge or cravings effectively. I hope you enjoy our other articles. Have a healthy day!

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