Do you remember that time you were trying to maintain a really healthy, sugar-free lifestyle and absolutely could not resist the small slice of cake or the mini donut? You knew you shouldn’t, but you did it anyway. Calming your guilty conscience by rationalizing the small size of the sugary delight or by telling yourself “just this one time”. We’ve all been there, but why is that? Why do we so desperately crave sugar at times that we tell ourselves anything just for a taste? Sometimes this drive feels almost out of our control. That’s because it is, and we have our hunter-gatherer roots to bitterly credit for that
In our days as hunter gatherers, food gathering was an all-day endeavor, hunting was a necessity, and food security was an unfathomable luxury. Due to this, our bodies and brains were trained to most appreciate sweet foods as they were least likely to be poisonous. They were also high in energy, and the more ripe, more sweet fruits were highest in energy. The energy that was not used, would be stored as fat in preparation for the times when food availability was low. This resulted in the formation of the dopaminergic reward system in our brains to encourage the consumption of high-sugar foods for basic survival. However, when you take this same body and flood it with sugar as we do today, the body is overloaded and constantly storing the large amounts of excess energy as excess fat. Daniel L. Lieberman, a writer for The New York Times newspaper, calls this a result of our retention of our “Stone Age bodies that crave sugar but [life] in a Space Age world in which sugar is cheap and plentiful.”
In 2007, there was a study conducted by the National Institute of Health (NIH) on sugar and its effects on the brain. In this study, rats were given both cocaine water and saccharin water, a no-energy form of sugar that is more comparable to the no-energy effects of cocaine than regular table sugar would be. It was found that the rats would always prefer the saccharin water over the cocaine water even in studies which they were previously addicted to cocaine. In the same study, it was found that even in situations which the rats were presented with near maximal cocaine, they developed a preference for saccharin quicker. The PET scan above shows how the effects of sugar mimic the effects of cocaine on the brain. A common trend is seen in the behavior towards both of these compounds in the positive-feedback mechanism induced by them. The more you consume of either, the more you crave and as a result, you consume even more, and then crave even more.
In a time when sugar surrounds us, is easily accessible and incredibly affordable, it is up to each and every single one of us to control these primitive cravings. Sugar can be more dangerous for us because of its accessibility and broad societal acceptance in comparison to other compounds that mirror its effects. When you place your mind over matter and ask yourself why, you will be able to retrain your brain for a newer, healthier, less sugar-craving you.
Lenoir, M., Serre, F., Cantin, L., & Ahmed, S. H. (2007). Intense sweetness surpasses cocaine reward. PloS one, 2(8), e698. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0000698
McKay, T. (2019, May 7). What Happens to Your Brain on Sugar, Explained by Science. Retrieved from https://www.mic.com/articles/88015/what-happens-to-your-brain-on-sugar-explained-by-science
Liberman, D. E. (2012, June 5). Evolution’s Sweet Tooth. The New York Times. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2012/06/06/opinion/evolutions-sweet-tooth.html