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?
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?
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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.