Why Do We Love Sugar? 

Understanding how the brain reacts to sugar can help us resist it

Why Do We Love Sugar? 
(Tyshchenko Photography/Shutterstock)
Sugar takes your brain on an addictive joyride that can make it hard to resist. This excerpt from Julie Daniluk’s new book, “Becoming Sugar-Free: How to Break Up With Inflammatory Sugars and Embrace a Naturally Sweet Life,” explains exactly what happens when you get eat that chocolate lava cake.

Why Do We Love Sugar? 

Did you know that children do not develop a taste for salt until four months of age, but our taste for sweets happens the minute we are born? It turns out that sugar is a type of temporary analgesic; a 2005 study showed that children can keep their hands in cold water for longer if they have a sweet in their mouth.

Sugar is so seductive that scientists have recently revealed through brain scans that when we eat sugar, our brain lights up in a way similar to when we ingest strong drugs such as cocaine. Many mind-altering substances, including OxyContin, ecstasy, heroin, alcohol, and marijuana, over-activate the dopamine reward system. Dopamine, our major reward hormone, tells us things like, “Great job, do it again, you’re successful, you’re awesome.” It’s released when we do things we enjoy, such as getting together with friends, winning an award, being successful at work, and so on. It’s also released when we consume sugar.

To make matters worse, dopamine receptors may become insensitive to the presence of dopamine when triggered continuously. If you constantly spike your dopamine, you’ll need to do more and more of an extreme action to get to the same “reward” that a less extreme action elicited before. In other words, your brain becomes resistant to the dopamine hit, creating more and more extreme behavior. Because dopamine is the major hormone involved in addiction, you can see how it can be running in the background of your sugar addiction whether you’re aware of it or not.

You will receive some of the dopamine response every time you eat a sweet treat, but you will need to increase the amount of sugar you eat to feel the same rush over time. Sugar elicits the greatest dopamine response of any food on the planet, which is fascinating when compared to the response of other notably pleasurable foods that do not stand a chance at holding our attention. I wish that broccoli would generate the same reward response, but compared to the response elicited by refined sugar, your reward center simply gets bored with healthy food. Sugar is addictive because we never get tired of being rewarded, and as the reward lessens with each hit, we chase it more and more.

Let’s revisit that bite of the chocolate lava cake. It’s so joyful that your reward center is screaming, “Yes, that’s a great idea! Do that again!” We often enjoy treats like this when we’re doing other joyful things. For example, if it’s our birthday, we are usually socializing with friends and ingesting other pleasurable substances like alcohol or caffeine that give us a huge dopamine rush.

There’s an old saying in neuroscience: “Neurons that fire together, wire together.” This means that the more often you run a neural circuit in your brain, the stronger that circuit relationship becomes. If you continue to chase dopamine with sugar and combine that behavior with other pleasures, this stacking of multiple rewards that feels good in the moment may create long-term health effects. This chapter looks at ways in which you can create new behaviors that will stack the health cards in your favor. When you learn healthy ways to stimulate dopamine, you won’t need refined sugar or flour anymore.

Excerpted from “Becoming Sugar-Free: How to Break Up With Inflammatory Sugars and Embrace a Naturally Sweet Life” by Julie Daniluk. © 2021 Julie Daniluk Consulting Inc. Photography © 2021 Alan Smith, with Julie Daniluk, Bethany Bierema, and Nat Caron. Published by Penguin Canada, a division of Penguin Random House Canada Limited. Reproduced by arrangement with the publisher. All rights reserved.

Nutritionist and TV personality Julie Daniluk is an award-winning and bestselling author of three books including “Meals That Heal Inflammation” and “Hot Detox.” Her fourth book, “Becoming Sugar-Free,” was released in September 2021 by Penguin/Random House. Julie is in her 11th season as the nutrition expert for “The Marilyn Denis Show.” For more information, see JulieDaniluk.com, Facebook, and Instagram @juliedaniluk.
This article was first published in Radiant Life Magazine.