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This Is Your Brain On Sugar

As I walked past the display case at Starbucks recently, I was nearly brought to my knees by a sugar craving so strong it blindsided me. I could eat all the goodies in here, I thought. I did not do so, of course, but later, I wondered: what was going on that made my brain crave sugar that strongly?

I spoke with Michelle Ross about this. Michelle is a dietitian at The Copeman Clinic in Calgary, Alberta and also has her own private practice at Blueberries Nutrition. Michelle’s the dietitian who helped my husband and I develop a new eating plan, a byproduct of which was weight loss and renewed energy.

Michelle says that our brains have created a positive feedback loop around sugar. Do you remember how, if you did well on a test, or excelled at sports, your parents would reward you by taking you out for ice cream or other sweet treats? This created that positive feedback loop and we learned to associate sugar with rewards for hard work, and happy times. In fact sugar makes you feel happy – sugar has been shown to activate the sensory areas of the brain responsible for emotional pleasure. How often as adults do we treat ourselves to screamers (ice cream/pop concoctions) for example, after a hard day of working in the yard, doing DIY projects, or cleaning up the garage?

Another piece of this craving, Michelle says, and perhaps somewhat conversely to the sugar/pleasure/reward loop in our brain, is the association some make that sweet treats are “bad” and something to avoid. (This may have been the cause of my craving – since the new eating regime began over a year and a half ago, I rarely have dessert). A way to help with the craving from this perspective, Michelle stated, is to mindfully eat a sweet treat about once per week. Mindful eating consists of: “Enjoy sweets and treats in your diet but eat in a mindful fashion; set a timer for 10 minutes and savor every bite.” Michelle advises to check in with yourself as you’re eating the treat; noting how it tastes, enjoyment factor, do I need another bite, and so forth. One may find one doesn’t need as much; satisfaction may occur after 2-3 bites. (My experiment in this occurred yesterday; a small lemon tart which was too small to eat in 10 minutes but I did slow it down considerably, taking about 5 minutes to eat it. I observed how each bite tasted, noting the tartness of the lemon and the rather stale taste of the tart shell and, by the end of it, I was actually kind of tired of it and had certainly had enough).

So, there you have it, why our brains crave sugar. You may now reward yourself for reading this post by having a treat….mindfully.

This Is Your BrainonSugar

Michelle Ross

Monday 2nd of May 2016

Kathy this is great. Thanks for putting it together!

Kathy Dueck

Monday 2nd of May 2016

Thanks Michelle & you're welcome.