Are You Addicted to Refined Carbohydrates?

whey proteinIt has become apparent even to the casual observer that consumption of white crystalline sugar is detrimental to the health. While the emphasis of research and health practitioners has been focusses solely and erroneously on fat, sugar has slipped through the net unnoticed until recently. However, sugar is a major public health concern and no amount of back peddling by food manufacturers and health authorities can reverse the growing opinion that sugar is a primary driver of obesity and major direct cause of Western lifestyle disease. Just as insidious in their nature, refined starches may also play a significant role in the initiation of Western lifestyle disease, although their effect may be somewhat less serious when compared to the refined sugars. Diets containing both refined sugars and refined starches however are common in Western nations, and refined sugars have become ubiquitous in their nature, being used to enhance the taste of otherwise bland and monotonous tasting processed foods.

Nutritionists have been warning about the dangers of refined sugars for decades. Most of these warning have gone unnoticed and only those with a particular interest in their health became aware of such warning. Although mainstream sources now agree that sugar may be linked to obesity, nutritionist have shown that the insidious nature of refined sugars runs much deeper than this. Sugars detrimentally affect the gut microbiota of the colon by allowing propagation of yeast, and this in term has downstream nutritional effects including detrimental effects on the immune system. Increasingly refined sugars are also being linked to brain abnormalities, and in particular animal experiments show that refined sugar show characteristics normally seen in addictive drugs. For example, it has been shown in rat experiments that opioid and dopamine receptors exhibit changes similar to those seen from consumption of addictive drugs of abuse when rats are fed refined crystalline glucose as their main source of energy.

What is more, these rats exhibit behaviour that could be described as binging. Eating large amounts of glucose in single sittings. This is exactly what would be expected if the rats were satisfying an addiction to the glucose. The implication is that the metabolic changes that occur through overconsumption of refined glucose, provide changes in rat physiology that affects the brain and lead to addiction. Addiction of refined sugars and starches is not proven in humans. In fact, addiction is not proven in animal either. Science is not about proofs. However, it is clear to the observer that in some cases addictive behaviour is displayed. Interestingly, bulimic subjects can exhibit physiological changes in the brain that may explain their desire to over consume foods, just as with rats. This may relate to satisfying underlying requirements for particular endogenously produced chemicals and hormones, and one mechanism by which that might occur is through overconsumption of refined carbohydrate.


Colantuoni, C., Schwenker, J., McCarthy, J., Rada, P., Ladenheim, B., Cadet, J., Schwartz, G. J., Moran, T. H. and Hoebel, B. G. 2001. Excessive sugar intake alters binding to dopamine and mu-opioid receptors in the brain. Neuroreport. 12(16): 3549-3552

About Robert Barrington

Robert Barrington is a writer, nutritionist, lecturer and philosopher.
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