Embark on an enlightening exploration into the world of sugar and carb cravings, where every bite reveals a tale of dopamine rushes, bliss points, and our bodies’ dance with food addiction.
This article delves into the complex relationship between our taste buds and the modern, processed foods that tempt them relentlessly.
Through a blend of data-driven insight and relatable narrative, we unravel the allure of the sweet and starchy, shedding light on how our dietary choices influence not just our waistlines but our overall well-being.
Dive deep into the enigmatic world of food addiction, learn about the deceptive charm of ultra-processed foods, and take a significant step towards regaining control over your appetite. Your journey towards a more informed and mindful relationship with food begins here.
Is Sugar/Carb Addiction Really a Thing?
Many people talk about being ‘addicted to sugar’. However, our data shows that a little bit of sugar goes a long way — the relationship between sugar and how much we eat isn’t linear.
As shown in the chart below, we see a bliss point—or a peak intake of calories—where we eat the most when around 20% of total energy comes from sugar. Meanwhile, foods like fruit, which provide most of their energy from sugar, are hard to overeat.
Others talk about being ‘addicted to carbs’. But again, we see a ‘bliss point’ when around 40% of total energy comes from non-fibre carbs. Most people find foods that are primarily carbs, like rice and potato, harder to overeat without added fat.
Have you noticed when people say, ‘I’m addicted to carbs or sugar,’ the foods they describe they feel addicted to—like chocolate, cookies, chips, and cake—are actually a combination of carbs and fat?
The fact of the matter is that it’s not just sugar. Instead, when we add fat to our carbs, we get seductive, hyper-palatable kryptonite foods that we struggle to stop eating.
I think it’s helpful to define your enemy precisely. Once you understand the problem, you can design a more effective solution. So, we’ll use this article to dive into what makes certain foods feel ‘addictive’.
As you’ll see, it’s not just one ‘bad thing’ you should avoid, like sugar, starch, fat, saturated fat, polyunsaturated fat, or monounsaturated fat. Instead, it’s the combination of these things in modern processed foods that drives us into a hyperphagic binge.
With a better understanding of how certain foods are designed to spike your dopamine and make you feel addicted to them, you can navigate your food environment better and regain control of your appetite.
Dopamine is the neurotransmitter of happiness and focus. Most of the time, dopamine motivates us to do things that benefit us. But in excess, we can become addicted and lose control, which can be harmful.
Sugar rapidly raises blood glucose and dopamine levels, boosting mood and energy. It’s this immediate hit that causes many people to feel addicted to foods that contain sugar.
In one of my favourite studies, Supra-Additive Effects of Combing Fat and Carbohydrate on Food Reward (Small et al., 2018), researchers found that sugar increases dopamine levels by 135 to 140%.
But importantly, they also found dietary fat increased dopamine even more than sugar by up to 160%. However, the dopamine response to fat occurs over a more extended period.
When consumed separately, we get a modest, beneficial dopamine hit from fat or carbs. But when we combine them, the dopamine effects compound, and we experience a supra-additive dopamine response. Subsequently, these fat-and-carb combo foods can make some people feel ‘addicted’ to them.
The table below shows dopamine response relative to different substances we can consume. Things considered more ‘addictive’ elicit a higher dopamine response.
Is Fat Addiction a Thing?
As the chart below shows, we consume more energy when our food has a higher fat %. However, most people don’t feel addicted to eating butter or drinking olive oil like they do with chips and chocolate!
But when we look a little deeper into our satiety response to different types of fats, we see that each one has its own unique bliss point. Thus, foods providing energy from one kind of fat are harder to overeat.
Saturated Fatty Acids
Saturated fats are found predominantly in animal foods. However, coconut oil, nuts, seeds, and avocados contain ample amounts.
Polyunsaturated Fatty Acids (PUFAs)
Polyunsaturated fats (PUFAs) can be found in whole and processed foods. In animal foods like seafood, they’re usually in the form of omega-3 fatty acids. However, they’re also a major component of the processed seed oils that saturate junk foods.
Polyunsaturated fats contain endocannabinoids—the same components that make marijuana enticing—which raise dopamine and increase its addictive nature.
Monounsaturated Fats (MUFAs)
Like PUFAs, we find monounsaturated fats in unprocessed and processed foods. Industrial seed oils are a cheap energy source that food manufacturers can flavour and colour to create entertaining and addictive foods.
Over the past century, the availability of polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats has increased by around 300 calories per person per day! Most of these extra calories come from processed seed oils like safflower, canola, rapeseed, peanut, cottonseed, soya, and other vegetable oils, which are common ingredients in cheap ultra-processed foods.
While unprocessed foods provide most of their energy from one source, ultra-processed foods combine saturated, monounsaturated, and polyunsaturated fats with starch, glucose, and fructose—all types of carbohydrates—in ways that never occur in nature.
When we see fats and carbs mixed in nature—like breast milk or nuts—they’re for growth or weight gain; these foods are designed to hit all our bliss points simultaneously, so we want to eat more. Milk helps babies grow, and autumn nuts help animals store winter fat. But modern processed foods are designed to hit all your bliss points 24/7/365.
For more details, check out our recent article, Cracking Kryptonite Foods: Unravelling Your Multiple Bliss Points.
Which Foods Contain the Most Sugar?
Now that we understand the problem let’s look at how different foods containing variable amounts of sugar and other nutrients align with satiety and nutrient density.
In the charts below, I’ve plotted 450 popular foods in terms of variable parameters vs our Satiety Score. The colouring is based on our Diet Quality Score. Foods towards the top shown in green provide more essential nutrients you need to thrive and are also harder to overeat (i.e., highly satiating).
If you want to dive into these charts to learn more about these foods, you can view the interactive version in Tableau here (on your computer).
This first chart shows the relationship between sugar and our Satiety Score, showing:
- Fruit—which is mainly sugar and almost no fat—has a reasonably high Satiety Index Score.
- Ultra-processed foods we often label as ‘bad carbs’ provide a moderate amount of sugar (15-50%) and have a low Satiety Index Score.
- Foods in the top left of the chart can be highly satiating as they contain a substantial amount of protein, fibre, and minimal sugar.
- But in the bottom left of the chart, we see foods that predominantly consist of fat and minimal sugar have very low Satiety Scores.
Overall, this Sugar vs Satiety chart has a lot of scatter. If we draw a trend line through the data, foods with a higher % of their energy from sugar actually align with greater satiety. Thus, simply avoiding sugar won’t help you improve your satiety or nutrient density much.
Generally, foods that are mostly fat tend to contain fewer nutrients and thus have a lower Satiety Score. So, avoiding sugar and giving a free pass to fat may not be the best option if you want to feel full on fewer calories and lose weight!
The next chart shows that foods with more saturated fat are less satiating and easier to overconsume. However, we see that foods providing most of their energy from saturated fat alone—like coconut oil or butter—are a little harder to binge on.
We see a similar trend with foods like walnuts, hemp, and poppy seeds that provide most of their energy from polyunsaturated fat.
Like saturated and polyunsaturated fats, foods supplying most of their energy from monounsaturated fat are often more difficult to overeat. You’re probably less likely to binge on straight olive oil!
If you look closely at the inflection point of the line—or where the base of the curve sits—we see foods with the lowest satiety scores. Foods that contain some per cent of one fat fill their remaining calories with starch, sugar, or other types of fat. Thus, we can again see that combining these macronutrients usually makes foods easy to overeat.
Protein and Fibre
The good news is that foods with a higher percentage of total energy from protein (i.e., protein %) and more fibre tend to provide the greatest satiety. When prioritising protein and fibre, we eliminate ultra-processed foods designed to hit all our bliss points.
Foods naturally containing more fibre also tend to supply more nutrients per calorie.
How Much Sugar or Carbs Can YOUR Body Tolerate?
Have you noticed that some people can tolerate a LOT of sugar or carbs, while a little sends them into a hyperphagic binge rollercoaster they can’t get off of?
Recent research indicates that some people may have a different dopamine response to carbohydrates and fast food due to their unique genetic makeup. The same genes can also affect addiction, concentration, and even mood. This may explain why some people are not interested in lollies or fast food.
While genes can undoubtedly play a role, the most probable explanation is likely reactive hypoglycaemia and the blood sugar-insulin rollercoaster that often ensues when some people consume refined carbohydrates.
These people are accustomed to eating fat-and-carb combo foods, which shoot someone’s blood sugars up largely and keep them high. After a few hours, their sugars come crashing down, throwing them into hypoglycaemia. They must then eat to relieve their symptoms, which starts the cycle over again. For more on reactive hypoglycaemia, see Reactive Hypoglycaemia: Symptoms, Causes & Dietary Solutions.
An elite athlete can pound more than 100 g glucose gels an hour to fuel their endurance efforts. Because their body fat is low, they have plenty of muscle and are active and insulin sensitive; any glucose they eat is readily taken up or used to fuel their activity immediately. As shown in the figure below, all the fuel tanks in their body are already depleted and have plenty of room to take in extra energy.
However, the rest of us mere mortals who aren’t as lean, muscular, or active tend to have all our fuel tanks full already. So, any extra glucose quickly backs up into our system and overflows into our bloodstream. Subsequently, we see elevated glucose levels.
To reiterate, it’s not just glucose or fat; instead, the combination of both stored in excess in our bodies causes problems. For more on your body’s fuel tanks, see Oxidative Priority: The Key to Unlocking Your Body Fat Stores.
If you’re insulin resistant, your glucose will rise more when you eat carbs or sugar. Insulin then responds and increases to keep all your stored energy in storage while you use the excess energy buzzing around your bloodstream.
A rapid insulin response causes a rapid fall in glucose, making us hungry again. So, we search for more carbs or sugar to boost our glucose, so the cycle continues. Thus, we feel ‘addicted’ to fast-acting carbs or sugar.
The best way to understand how much sugar or carbs you can tolerate is to test your glucose before and after eating different foods. If you see a rise of more than 30 mg/dL (1.6 mmol/L) in an hour or two after eating, you know you’ve overfilled your glucose fuel tank and should consume less of that food or meal.
The frequency distribution chart below shows the rise in glucose we see in our Data-Driven Fasting Challenge participants, with an average increase of 16 mg/dL (0.9 mmol/L) after eating.
Most people in our programs tend to see a rise of less than 30 mg/dL, so they needn’t worry much about reducing carbs or sugar. However, reducing your carbs or sugar would be wise if your blood glucose regularly rises by more than 30 mg/dL (1.6 mmol/L).
To the far left of the chart above, you can see that some people see their glucose fall after they eat a high-protein meal. Because protein evokes an insulin response but lacks a substantial glycemic load (if any), it can help to lower your blood glucose. This is one reason we recommend focusing on protein, particularly at your first meal, so you don’t start out on the blood glucose-insulin rollercoaster!
Again, it’s important to highlight that fat is not a free food simply because it doesn’t raise glucose or insulin much. Dietary fat will tend to keep your blood glucose and insulin elevated longer, meaning you’re more likely to store fat rather than use the fuels your body has stored.
In our Data-Driven Fasting Challenges, participants quickly realise that high-fat meals increase the time it takes for their sugars to return to their personalised blood glucose trigger and them to eat again.
For more detail on how we use glucose to guide what and when to eat in our Data-Driven Fasting Challenges, check out How to Use Your Glucose as a Fuel Gauge (A Pictorial Guide).
How Can I Stop My Sugar Addiction?
To free yourself from feeling addicted to certain foods, you can use a defensive or proactive approach or, ideally, a combination of both.
People often have a unique handful of kryptonite foods that challenge their self-control when they’re around them. But while these foods might taste really different, they always have the same carb-and-fat combo formula to simultaneously hit all our bliss points.
So you can be on the lookout for some of the worst offenders, we’ve created printable lists in our Optimising Nutrition community here. When you go shopping, read the ingredients list and look for any foods that combine refined flour, sugar, and oil.
Foods with artificial flavours, colourings, or even added synthetic vitamins also indicate foods you should return to the shelf that you found them on.
As a general rule, hang around foods found in the produce area or in the outer aisles of the supermarket (i.e., the refrigerated section). These foods tend to contain fewer additives and junk, so their shelf life is much shorter. Those in the middle have a longer shelf life and more stuff you can’t pronounce.
Because kryptonite foods are designed to spike your dopamine, we suggest avoiding exposure if you know you are powerless in their presence. This means keeping them out of your pantries and desk drawers and even taking a different route if you find yourself always stopping into the same shop to buy them!
Unfortunately, most people aren’t successful in breaking their addiction if they rely on willpower alone to avoid their kryptonite. Because dopamine is a strong motivating force, it sucks us back into the vortex, especially when we need a quick pick-me-up or some comfort to fill a void.
Understanding why kryptonite foods are so seductive is helpful, but we must also play a proactive game of attack rather than defence and avoidance alone. We can’t run forever!
While dopamine motivates and makes us feel good, serotonin is the neurotransmitter of happiness and contentment. If serotonin is low, we’re more likely to seek out kryptonite foods, alcohol, drugs, social media, or porn for easy dopamine hits.
Because higher serotonin levels are correlated with suppressed appetite, drugs enhancing the actions of tryptophan—the amino acid precursor to serotonin—are used in obesity treatments (Serlie et al., 2021). So getting adequate protein—especially from foods containing the amino acid tryptophan—along with the other nutrients our body needs to function is a critical component of the addiction puzzle.
To boost your serotonin to feel content, happy, and satiated, prioritise higher-satiety, nutrient-dense foods containing plenty of protein, which includes the amino acid tryptophan. This allows your body to synthesise more serotonin, making you feel content and happy, with less need for instant dopamine hits. Serotonin also goes on become make melatonin—the neurotransmitter of sleep. Betting better sleep will also help to reduce the pull of your kryptonite foods.
In time, as you fill your plate with more good foods, your body will regain its innate cravings for what is ‘good’ for you and those ‘bad foods’ will lose their power over you.
To help Optimisers identify higher-satiety foods that make them feel content, we’ve created a list of high-satiety foods you can download in our Optimising Nutrition community here.
If you want to take your nutrition to the next level, ensure you get all the nutrients your body and brain need to thrive. You can download our nutrient-dense food lists in our Optimising Nutrition community here.
Although it’s beyond the scope of this article, we’d be remiss if we didn’t mention that food addiction is often about more than just food.
Because kryptonite foods spike our dopamine so effectively, we can use them to soothe our emotions or reduce stress temporarily. Many of us live in a world where we feel out of control. However, we can control our food by overeating, undereating, or eating ‘clean’. Subsequently, someone can develop a disordered eating pattern, like anorexia, bulimia, orthorexia, or binge eating disorder.
Because of food’s powerful influence on neurotransmitters, we can use it to compensate for loneliness, soothe a broken heart, ease stress, or subdue depression when the rest of the world has us in fight-or-flight.
Aside from eating for an emotional reason, unsatiable cravings can hint at chronic undereating or that it’s time to give your diet tour a break. If you’ve been eating too few calories for too long, your body could retaliate with cravings to get you the energy—carbs and fat—your body desperately needs.
When your adrenals—the tiny glands atop your kidneys that make your stress and sex hormones—take a hit from too much stress, your blood sugar can lack control, and you may lose electrolytes quickly. In an attempt to nourish themselves, your adrenals might send you in search of more salt, sugar, or energy.
The stress affecting your adrenals is not always psychological (i.e., mental and emotional), though. While it’s often a big part, your adrenals are also affected by too much exercise, not enough calories, not sleeping, an imbalanced circadian rhythm (i.e., lack of sun exposure), drinking too much caffeine or other stimulants, drinking too much alcohol, or skipping meals too frequently.
Lastly, your relentless sugar and carb cravings could be from a gut imbalance. If you’re someone who ‘does all the health things’, like eating a nutrient-dense diet with enough—but not too much—energy, strength training, sun exposure, and good sleep hygiene, you may consider investigating bacterial overgrowth. Imbalances in gut bacteria and fungi could rev your appetite for sugar and carbs. If you’ve ever seen a bacteria culture dish (i.e., a petri dish), it’ll make sense why—the substrate is usually sugar!
Regardless of the root cause of your cravings, it’s hard to run away from our kryptonite foods—especially if they’re our source of comfort from emotional or physical problems. However, nourishing your body with nutrients—the raw ingredients it requires to do all of its jobs—will give you more strength to resist the pull of these potential influences. Don’t be afraid to investigate emotional and mental stressors, poor gut health, excessive dieting, an adrenal imbalance, or all of the above!
- While we often feel addicted to sugar or carbs, the combination of sugar with different types of fats elicits the biggest dopamine response and aligns with overeating.
- In people who are insulin-resistant, refined carbs and sugar can cause a steep rise in glucose followed by a crash. This crash—known as reactive hypoglycaemia—triggers more intense hunger, prompting us to eat again and repeat the cycle. We refer to this ongoing pattern as the blood sugar rollercoaster.
- In addition to moderating your exposure to kryptonite foods that put your dopaminergic system into hyperdrive, you should also be proactive and prioritise higher-satiety foods. These nutrient-dense foods satisfy your body’s demands for the raw ingredients that keep it running while increasing serotonin, the neurotransmitter of satiety and contentment.
- How to Stop ‘Food Addiction’ by Understanding Your Brain Chemistry
- Cracking Kryptonite Foods: Unraveling Your Multiple Bliss Points
- Monounsaturated Fat: Is It So ‘Good’ After All?
- How to Use Your Glucose as a Fuel Gauge (A Pictorial Guide)
- Data-Driven Fasting: How to Use Your Blood Glucose as a Fuel Gauge