A recent study published in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition has suggested that carbohydrate-rich foods, which are highly processed, trigger the addiction regions of the brain and this could be the reason for carbohydrates addiction and food cravings.
Carbohydrates addiction is the term used to define a craving of carbohydrate-rich food like white bread, potato chips, cakes, cereals and sweetened beverages. Excessive carbohydrate consumption increases the insulin level in the blood, which reduces the blood-sugar level. Previous research suggests that a decrease in blood-sugar level stimulate hunger hence there is an intense desire to consume more food. This cycle leads to excessive calorie intake, which results in overweight and obesity.
A team of researchers from Boston Children’s Hospital led by David Ludwig, MD, PhD director, New Balance Foundation Obesity Prevention Center conducted experiments in an attempt to understand how brain regions respond to carbohydrate-rich food and trigger hunger. The researchers examined the association between dopamine-containing pleasure centers of the brain and food intake.
The study involved twelve overweight and obese men who drank two milkshakes that had the same calories and tasted similar. However, one contained carbohydrates with high glycemic index, while the other had carbohydrates with low glycemic index
Glycemic index (GI) is a measure that determines how a carbohydrates-rich food affects the blood-glucose level within a span of 2 – 3 hours after having food. Food with high GI shoots up the blood-sugar level, while food with low GI increases the blood-sugar level gradually and takes longer time to get digested and absorbed.
Researchers monitored and analyzed the brain activity using functional magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) four hours after consuming the drink. This time frame is crucial as it determines the eating behavior for the next meal.
Scientists observed a sharp increase in blood-sugar level immediately after drinking milkshake with high GI and a sharp decline in sugar level after four hours. This drastic change induces excessive hunger. Intense activation of the nucleus accumbens, a critical brain region involved in addictive behaviors was also observed corresponding with hunger stimulation.
According to Ludwig, these findings suggest that limiting high glycemic index carbohydrates food could help contain food cravings and manage carbohydrate addiction. However, the authors also highlight the need for further studies to develop efficient interventional treatments.
In another study, researchers from University of Erlangen-Nuremberg suggested that carbohydrates snacks like potato crisps, which are often addictive, contain certain molecules that trigger the reward and addiction regions of the brain. They had indicated that identifying those trigger molecules could help develop new drugs to treat over eating disorders.
Avoiding carbohydrates rich food that triggers the addiction regions in the brain seems to be a solution in controlling food cravings. However, low-carbohydrate diets may lack essential nutrients, and this may affect the nutritional balance and cause side effects like constipation.
Nearly 30% of adults in US are obese, and it is found that 50% of the obese and 30% of those overweight are addicted to some specific food. Food addiction seems to be one of the underlying factors for obesity.
It is recommended that a balanced diet contain food with low trans, and saturated fat and cholesterol help maintains body weight and health. Some studies have indicated that breakfast along with two other meals a day can help control hunger and excessive eating.
Written by: Janet Grace Ortigas