Our Better Health

Diet, Health, Fitness, Lifestyle & Wellness


Eyes are the windows to chocolate addiction: study

Andrea Janus, CTVNews.ca  Thursday, June 27, 2013

Chocoholics trying to hide their habit may want to keep dark glasses at hand, suggests a new study, which found the brain’s pleasure response to food can actually be seen in the eyes.

In a small study of nine patients, U.S. researchers measured dopamine levels in the eyes of their subjects after they had tasted chocolate.

Dopamine is the chemical associated with the brain’s reward, pleasure and addiction centre. Dopamine is also released in the eye in response to light exposure.

The researchers used electroretinography (ERG), a tool used by ophthalmologists to look for retinal damage, to measure increases of dopamine in the retina. They found a surge in dopamine activity when the eye was exposed to a flash of light just as the subject ate a piece of brownie. A similar spike was noticed when subjects were given the drug methylphenidate to trigger a dopamine response.

These spikes were far greater than when subjects were exposed to light while only drinking water.


“What makes this so exciting is that the eye’s dopamine system was considered separate from the rest of the brain’s dopamine system,” lead researcher Dr. Jennifer Nasser, associate professor of Nutrition Sciences at Drexel, said in a statement.

“So most people – and indeed many retinography experts told me this – would say that tasting a food that stimulates the brain’s dopamine system wouldn’t have an effect on the eye’s dopamine system.”

The findings are published in the journal Obesity.

Nasser cautions that the study is small, and the findings must be replicated in larger studies. However, if replicated, the research may lead to the use of ERG to study food addiction, which could lead to new ideas for obesity prevention. If a doctor or nutritionist can identify foods that cause a huge dopamine spike in a patient, then they can help devise a diet that avoids those triggers.

“My research takes a pharmacology approach to the brain’s response to food,” Nasser said.

“Food is both a nutrient delivery system and a pleasure delivery system, and a ‘side effect’ is excess calories. I want to maximize the pleasure and nutritional value of food but minimize the side effects. We need more user-friendly tools to do that.”

source: CTV

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What Milk Shakes Teach Us About Food Addiction

By Alexandra Sifferlin  June 27, 2013

Have you ever craved a piece of chocolate? Or felt the lure of a hot slice of pizza? And been convinced that the force responsible wasn’t your stomach hoping to quell hunger but your brain, desperately seeking to satisfy something more like an addiction? A new study provides the strongest evidence yet that certain foods trigger addictive behavior just as drugs can.

Nicotine is addictive. So are drugs like cocaine and heroin. All can rewire the brain to crave the progressively elusive “high” or satisfaction that these agents produce. The desire is so strong that it overtakes all reason and need to satisfy it becomes an all-consuming mission, at the expense of your physical, emotional and social health.

Some would argue that certain foods hold the same power over people, monkeying with the brain’s normal appetite system and resetting the satisfaction threshold so it’s always just out of reach, meaning you can never eat enough. Others point to the fact that food is essential for survival so it can’t be addictive since satisfying hunger is part of, and isn’t supposed to interfere with, physical and mental health. “The concept of food addiction is very provocative and rightly so,”says Dr. David Ludwig, the director of the New Balance Foundation Obesity Center at Boston Children’s Hospital. “Unlike drugs of abuse, food is necessary for survival.”

But with obesity rates still at worrisome levels, Ludwig and his colleagues decided to take an objective look at what effect food has on the brain, to see if certain foods do indeed trigger cravings as some abused substances do. Specifically, they focused on the dietary glycemic index, a measure of a food’s ability to raise blood sugar levels, on brain regions associated with cravings in a group of obese men.

“Prior research has shown the tasty high calorie foods can trigger the pleasure center of the brain. That supports the idea of food addiction, but the significance of those studies has been challenged because they typically compare grossly different foods like cheesecake versus boiled vegetables,” says Ludwig. “Yes, certain foods are tasty and enjoyable, but is that so different from a audiophile listening to beautiful music?”

Ludwig took MRI scans of the brains of 12 obese men after they consumed two milk shakes. Both had the same amount of calories, protein, fat and carbohydrates and tasted equally sweet. However, one milk shake had a much higher glycemic index from the carbohydrates compared to the other.

After the men consumed the milk shake with the higher glycemic index, their blood sugar levels surged as expected, then crashed a few hours later, leaving them feeling hungry. But with the brain scans, Ludwig was able to show that these  shakes activated the nucleus accumbens, which is also triggered by addictive drugs and behaviors like gambling. Previous work also hinted at a connection between food and dependence; a 2012 study found that obese people lose their sensitivity to leptin, a hormone that is released by fat cells in the body and regulates feelings of hunger and fullness. Leptin may also play a role in substance addictions by modifying the body’s reward responses to things like alcohol or cocaine.

“These results suggest that highly processed carbohydrates trigger food cravings for many hours after consumption independent of calories or tastiness, and that limiting these foods could help people avoid over-eating,” says Ludwig. When the glycemic index drops, the nucleus accumbens may signal for more, in order to produce another surge, similar to the way that addictive drugs prompt cravings, he says.

But does that mean that food is addictive? One key difference between food and drug addictions involves the body’s ability to signal that it is “full,” or had enough. With drugs, there is less of a biological threshold. But the common brain patterns activated by food and addictive drugs suggests that each may inform the other. As TIME’s Maia Szalavitz reported:

Basically, regulation of food intake is more complex than drug use. That may help explain why there have been so many failures of anti-obesity drugs. But the similarities between hunger for food and for drugs suggest that if we do develop a drug that fights obesity, it may also help treat other addictions — and vice versa.

While the is-food-addictive debate shows no signs of ending, the label itself may not be that important. What matters most is finding ways to adapt our brains and behavior to the modern environment, one that contains intensely attractive food and drugs — along with highly politicized arguments about how to regulate them.

Understanding how some elements of eating may be driven by the same processes behind addictive behaviors could help to explain over-eating, for one. “By definition overweight and obese people habitually over-eat. They are eating more calories than they need,” explains Ludwig. “That raises this fundamental question, why do overweight people continue to overeat when they know intellectually that reducing calorie intake would be healthier and they’ve tried, often many times, to do so? Is it simply lack of willpower or could there be aspects of food that are driving overeating at a biological level?”

If there are biological factors at work, there may be ways to intervene to make dieting, and weight loss, easier. Eating fewer foods with high glycemic loads like white bread, for example, may keep surges of blood sugar to a minimum, which in turn could modulate the activity of the brain’s reward system and lessen cravings. Ludwig says that more research is needed to better understand the complex way that the brain sees food; even if food isn’t addictive in exactly the same way that drugs of abuse are, exposing the connections between eating and satisfaction could lead to more effective ways of managing, or even avoiding, the lure of our favorite foods.

The study is published in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition.

source: Time

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Food cravings engineered by industry

How Big Food keeps us eating through a combination of science and marketing

By Kelly Crowe, CBC News    Posted: Mar 6, 2013 

Standing in her kitchen in downtown Toronto chopping vegetables for dinner, Pat Guillet is aware she has entered the battleground.

“Whenever you go grocery shopping, or into your kitchen, you’re in a war zone. You have to really be prepared before you go in,” she said. She decides, in advance, exactly what she’s going to eat, and she forces herself to stick to the plan. Because she knows she is just one sweet mouthful away from a descent back into hell. Pat Guillet is a food addict.

“I ate to the point it hurt to move. And I would just lie in my bed and wish I was dead,” she said. She has finally wrestled her addiction under control and now she counsels other food addicts to avoid processed food. “Yeah, just the sight of the packages will trigger cravings,” she said.

Craving. It doesn’t just happen to food addicts. Most people have experienced the impulse to seek out and consume a favourite packaged snack food. On one billboard, recently put up in Toronto, the intention to make you reach for another one is prominently declared, in large letters that tower over the city street. It’s a picture of a box of crackers, and the promise “You’ll be back for more.”

They know you will be back, because they’ve done the research necessary to make it happen.

“These companies rely on deep science and pure science to understand how we’re attracted to food and how they can make their foods attractive to us,” Michael Moss said.

The New York Times investigative reporter spent four years prying open the secrets of the food industry’s scientists.

“This was like a detective story for me, getting inside the companies with thousands of pages of inside documents and getting their scientists and executives to reveal to me the secrets of how they go at this,” he said. What he found became the title of his new book, Salt, Sugar Fat: How the food giants hooked us.

“I was totally surprised,” he said. “I spent time with the top scientists at the largest companies in this country and it’s amazing how much math and science and regression analysis and energy they put into finding the very perfect amount of salt, sugar and fat in their products that will send us over the moon, and will send their products flying off the shelves and have us buy more, eat more and …make more money for them.”

It’s not surprising to Bruce Bradley. He’s a former food industry executive who spent 15 years working at General Mills, Pillsbury and Nabisco, and ran some common food brands including Honey Nut Cheerios and Hamburger Helper. But one day he discovered he couldn’t do it anymore.

“There were certainly times that I felt uncomfortable or troubled by what I was doing,” he said. “I think that’s ultimately one of the reasons why I left the industry. As you start to get glimpses of products and you understand better how consumers are using them, and then you see trends like obesity and health issues that are increasing, mainly driven by the food we eat, it was hard for me not to just take a more thorough assessment of what I was doing.”

Now he writes a blog, critical of the food industry.

“I decided to step out and ultimately speak out in hopes of bringing more awareness to the issue,” he said. “What we eat and drink from a lot of these big food and beverages companies isn’t that good for us and we should reconsider it,” he said. “These products are designed to keep you coming back to eat more and more and more. They’re trying to increase their share of your stomach.”

Pat Guillet said it’s hard to overcome the addictive appeal of processed foods like ice cream.

A Google search of the patents held by the food industry provides a glimpse of the complex technical engineering that goes into building a simple cracker. Scan the scientific journals, or read the food industry publications and a picture emerges of an army of chemists, physicists and even neuroscientists, all working to make sure you want a second cookie.

And to understand the research, you need to speak the language. There’s ‘mouth feel,’ ‘maximum bite force,’ and the important concept of ‘sensory specific satiety,’ the rate at which a food product loses its appeal as it is being eaten.

“That’s an expression that says when food has one overriding flavour, if it’s attractive, it will be really attractive to us initially, but then we’ll get tired of it really fast,” Moss said. “And so these companies make a concerted effort to make their foods not bland, but really well blended.”

That’s so people don’t get too full too fast, and stop eating too soon. “If the taste builds too much, consumption will stop … and snacks need to be eaten non-stop until the packet is finished,” Thorton Mustard wrote, back in 2002. He was a food industry consultant who revealed, early on, some of the secrets of the food industry, in a book called The Taste Signature Revealed. He wrote that fullness or satiety, is “quite a serious enemy for a product.”

Mustard claimed he could help food companies design foods that were guaranteed to be “more-ish,” which he defined as a quality that made a consumer want to eat more. It helped, he advised, if the food was easy to chew.

“If people had to chew the food to extract the flavour enjoyment, it would take longer to eat, be better digested, and the feeling of being full reached far sooner. People would need to consume less,” he wrote.

Thornton Mustard has retired and couldn’t be reached for comment, but Chris Lukehurst is continuing his work through The Marketing Clinic, the consulting company that Mustard founded.

“So people read that book, and we’ve been contacted by people saying, can you really do this? Because we’ve got a problem and we think you can solve it,” Lukehurst said.

On the art of “more-ishness,” Lukehurst explained it this way. “Some products, like most savoury snack products, want to be continually more-ish, so at the end of each product, they want you to reach out for the next product and put it in again, and they often achieve that by having an intense taste at the front of the mouth, and that dies off quickly, and so by the time you’ve finished each mouthful, you’re looking to re-taste what you’ve lost.”

Chocolates tend to be round to create a pleasant, melting sensation in the mouth.
(Martial Trezzini/Keystone/Associated Press)

The crunch is also crucial, Lukehurst said. “It’s partly the noise, the noise amplifies, through the jaw bones connected to your ears, and you can hear the crunch quite loudly when you bite. But it’s also the physical requirement to chew on something and crunch it. It just distracts you and pours your mind onto what you’re eating.”

The importance of “crunch” was confirmed in a study funded by Unilever where the scientists tested whether people’s perception of a chip was altered by the sound it made when they bit into it. The researchers concluded that “the potato chips were perceived as being both crisper and fresher when … the overall sound level was increased,” indicating another possible way to control the perception of the product, although, the authors wrote, “consumers are often unaware of the influence of such auditory cues.”

It also helps if the food dissolves quickly in the mouth, tricking the brain into believing that no calories have been ingested. It’s called “vanishing caloric density.”

“What happens is that your brain gets fooled into thinking the calories have vanished and you’re much more apt to keep eating before the brain sends you a signal …you’ve had enough,” author Michael Moss said.

The ultimate goal is the bliss point. “The company’s researchers have learned to study their products, fiddle with the formulas until they hit that very perfect spot of just enough and not too much sugar to create what they call the bliss point,” he said.

Melt-in-the-mouth appeal
Food scientists have even studied the architecture of the mouth. In a paper published in the Journal of Biomechanics, scientists from the Nestlé Research Center examined the “detection mechanisms in the oral cavity,” to study how well the mouth could detect the thickness of a plastic disc placed on the tongue. The researchers created a model that would predict the load exerted on the disc when it was deformed by the tongue.

Three years later, Nestlé announced a new chocolate with a shape based on the geometry of the mouth, that hits “certain areas of the oral surface, improving the melt-in-mouth quality while simultaneously reserving enough space in the mouth for the aroma to enrich the sensorial experience,” the press release announced.

It’s a clue to understanding why chocolates tend to be round. It seems consumers don’t enjoy a piece of chocolate as much if it has sharp edges. “Absolutely, we’re looking for chocolate to be comforting, to be a really pleasant, lovely experience in the mouth,” Chris Lukehurst said. “Melt is a very soft, soft experience, and if it’s got sharp corners, you’re really spoiling that and setting the consumer on edge slightly, before they get the melt. Much better if it’s nicely rounded and they’re already comforted and enjoying it first.”

And whatever happens on the tongue triggers a response in the brain. That’s why neuroscience is the next frontier for the food industry. Francis McGlone was a pioneer when he left academia to work for Unilever, one of the world’s largest food companies, back in 1994.

“I think I was the leading edge of something which I think is going to become far more prominent,” McGlone said. After more than a decade of industry research, he’s back in academia, but he remembers his time in the food industry fondly. “As a basic neuroscientist, I was able to look at the mechanisms that drove preference for various types of food,” he said.

What are those drivers of food preference, in McGlone’s opinion? His answer sounded familiar. “I am afraid we find high fat, high sugar, high salt foods very appealing,” he said.

“Salt, sugar and fat are the three pillars of the processed food industry,” Michael Moss said. “And while the industry hates the world ‘addiction’ more than any other word, the fact of the matter is, their research has shown them that when they hit the very perfect amounts of each of those ingredients … they will have us buy more, eat more.”

When Moss began working on his investigation into the science of food processing, he was sceptical of concept of food addiction. “Until I spent some time with the top scientists in the U.S. who say that yes, for some people, the most highly loaded salty, sugary, fatty foods are every bit as addictive as some narcotics,” he said.

Francis McGlone made a similar point in a television program for the BBC, when he put a British chef into a functional magnetic resonance imaging machine, (an fMRI), fed him chili, and took images of his brain, which showed how the burn from the chili peppers triggered the release of endorphins. “The consequence of that low level of pain is that it floods the brain with its own natural opiates, so you can see another way of kicking up a pleasure system,” McGlone said.

But many ingredients in processed food have nothing to do with taste. They’re there to reproduce a certain texture, to control the moisture level, to keep the various ingredients from separating and spoiling during the months that they will sit on the shelves.

Food companies seek the perfect spot of just enough sugar to create what they call the bliss point, says author Michael Moss. (Naum Kazhdan via Pulitzer Prize Board/Associated Press/New York Times)

“Absolutely, that’s essential to the processed food industry, that their food be able to remain in a warehouse, in shipping, and then in the grocery story for weeks or months at a time,” Moss said.

To mask the bitterness or sourness that the formulations can cause, the food industry uses flavour enhancers, invisible ingredients that trick the brain into tasting something that isn’t there, and not tasting something that is there.

“Ingredients like that are kind of bundled under what may seem like relatively innocuous labels like ‘natural flavours’ or even ‘artificial flavours,’ when truly they are much more surprising when consumers really understand what it is,” Bruce Bradley, the former food industry executive, said. “There’s tremendous amounts of money spent behind creating tastes and smells that feel real but in reality are completely artificial.”

‘These products are designed to keep you coming back to eat more and more and more. They’re trying to increase their share of your stomach.’— Bruce Bradley

Because without flavour enhancement, no one would eat it. “It would taste horrible, you’d want to spit it out,” Bradley said.

Michael Moss was treated to a special taste test, while researching his book. “Kellogg invited me into their R&D department, and prepared for me special versions of their iconic products, without any salt in them at all. And I have to tell you, it was a God-awful experience tasting those things. Normally, I can eat Cheez-Its [crackers] all day long, but the Cheez-Its without the salt? I couldn’t even swallow them. They stuck to the roof of my mouth. The real impressive moment was when I turned to the cereal, which, without salt, tasted like metal. One of the miracle things that salt adds to processed foods, it will cover up some of the off notes that are inherent to the food processing systems that they rely on.”

Bruce Bradley says all of that processing takes food to a different place. “We’re not talking about food actually being real anymore. It’s synthetic, completely contrived and created, and there’s so many problems about that because our bodies are tricked and when our bodies are tricked repeatedly dramatic things can happen, like weight gain” or endocrine disruption, diabetes and hypertension, he said.

What about the scientists who created these products? Moss says some of them are having second thoughts about their popular creations. “A number of the people I talked to invented these icons really in a more innocent era, when our dependence on processed foods was much less than it is now. And over time, they’ve come to regret how their inventions have come to be so heavily depended on by us. So yes, any number of these scientists are now looking for ways to help their companies improve the health profile of their products.”

Appreciating the power of salt, fat and sugar in snack foods could help people from overdoing it.

Bruce Bradley says he believes food companies are trying to make some changes. ” think there’s an element of it that’s sincere. I’ve certainly worked on several products where there was a sincere effort to reduce the amount of sodium or sugar in that product,” he said.

But he says there is only so much tinkering that can happen with the three basic building blocks of processed food. “To make these highly processed foods taste great, they require salt and sugar and fat, and so while there may be some very good intentions … it’s just not in the cards to get a product that tastes really great.”

Chris Lukehurst believes the food industry is making a mistake trying to formulate lower salt, sugar and fat versions of their popular brands while still hoping to match the original taste. Instead he says the food engineers should tinker with the crunch, the mouth feel and other sensory aspects to make consumers like the new versions better, for different reasons.

“What we would argue is don’t try to make it taste the same, make it work better for the consumer. So when they’re tasting this product, they may well notice a taste difference, but the emotional delivery they’re getting out of it is at least better than it was before,” he said. “Let’s find what emotions are lacking when you take the fat out. How can we make those emotions up in different ways?”

Today’s grocery shelves are filled with the promise of healthier snack foods. Cookies now sport a bright green label, claiming to be a “sensible solution.” Chips boast about “the goodness of whole grains,” and crackers proudly declare that they’ve been “baked,” not fried.

Pressure on food industry
Bruce Bradley believes the food industry has simply identified a new market opportunity. “These companies are extremely profit-focused, as are all publicly held companies out there. It is a quarter to quarter profit drill,” he said. “If the food industry can find a way to market it and make money off of it, I’m sure they will. But if, in the long term, it is decreasing the amount of food that they can sell, I don’t see that as being an avenue that they will go down.”

“There’s huge and growing pressure on the food companies now, from consumers who are concerned about what they’re putting in their mouths,” Michael Moss said. “There’s equal pressure coming from Wall Street, which is concerned about sales, and there’s starting to be increasing attention paid by government regulators. I think you have all three of those converging on the food giants right now, and of course, what will happen remains to be seen.”

Meanwhile, Moss has his own food cravings to fight. “I’m a huge fan of potato chips and I can overdo it like the next person,” he said. “But what’s really helped me is getting inside the companies and understanding how they formulate and perfect their product. I can see where they’re coming at me and appreciate the power of the salt, the fat and the sugar in potato chips. And I think that helps me control my indulgence.”

For Pat Guillet, back in her kitchen, determinedly chopping celery, there is little hope for relief. “If I had one spoonful of ice cream, I would want the whole tub,” she said. “And there were times I ate the whole tub. And I would sit there and say ‘I’ve gotta stop, I’ve gotta stop,’ really feeling completely unable to act on what my brain is telling me.”

That’s why she is bracing for a lifelong battle with the sugar demons that lurk in the processed food aisle. “These foods are so addictive, so appealing, they give you a high and you feel better,” she said. “And the thing many food addicts say is, long after the food causes us joy, long after it causes us misery, we still couldn’t stop. It becomes hard-wired and it’s very hard to overcome.”

This is the first of two special features by health reporter Kelly Crowe on how industry designs food so that we crave them.

With files from CBC’s Brigitte Noel

source: CBC.ca

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How To Quit Sugar In 30 Days

By Kate Harris

Quitting sugar… why would I do this?! I had been experiencing insomnia, anxiety and mood swings, and was having trouble losing weight. Once I kicked the sugar habit, those issues went away. 

But I was surprised to find other things changed for me, too: my skin looked radiant, even without makeup! More than that was a renewed sense of being alive. (Weird, I know, but it’s true.) 

After my experience of going through the first 30 days more than once, I’ve developed a list of my essential tips to get through the first 30 days of sugar-free eating!

1. Drink water. 

This is a no-brainer. Don’t drink any of your usual sodas, and don’t drink their diet substitutes. This may seem impossible but stick to this one. If you feel like a pick-me-up drink, have some cold water or hot water with a lemon slice, or a cup of tea or a black coffee or take a walk and then have a water. Just do anything you can to avoid those drinks and before you know it, you just won’t want them anymore – seriously

2. Drink more water. 

Yep, keep drinking water. You may be dehydrated and have headaches for the first few days of coming off of sugar. So keep yourself well hydrated.

3. Have a healthy breakfast.   

Start your day on the right food with a nourishing meal! Some ideas: oatmeal, quinoa, or a hearty green smoothie. Before you eat anything, have a glass of water with a squeeze of lemon. Remember: a healthy breakfast does not involve sugar, so no breakfast cereals, toaster tarts or fruit juice.

4. Go for full-fat dairy. 

Don’t be scared by full fat milk! It’s lactose and our bodies can handle that. Skip the low-fat, skinny milks. If you’re worried, try skipping dairy altogether in your drinks. Green tea and short black coffee are great alternatives.

5. Focus on WHY you’re better off without sugar. 

Be positive about your decision. It’s a choice you’ve made for your health and your body, so make sure you feel good about it. It may be tough, but remind yourself of the benefits of quitting sugar and embrace the decision to make a healthy change. If that fails, take a brisk short walk outside and get your endorphins to work their magic instead! Just don’t walk to the shops and buy chocolate!

6. Avoid processed foods. 

Hold out for real foods at all times. Avoid foods that are pre-packaged or anything from a fast food restaurant. Your meals should be primarily whole foods, mostly vegetables (not from cans, they often have added sugars), with proteins or meat. If you want a snack, grab some carrot sticks and add hummus, have a boiled egg, a handful of mixed nuts, or a spoonful of coconut oil. 

7. Find sugar-free recipes. 

There are so many sugar free recipes available on the internet! Look around for diabetic recipes, candida diet recipes and also paleo recipes. You don’t have to sacrifice taste if you remove sugar from your cooking!

8. Get support. 

If you’ve had a bad day and need to talk it out, let someone know. Find someone either in your life or even online via the many blogs and forums and get the support you need. If you want to complain that the whole is basically made of sugar and you want to cry, let us know! We know it can be hard and we want you to succeed. We are not out to see you fail, so voice how you are feeling and before you know it, you will be feeling better!

9. Avoid fake sugars. 

If you can handle it, avoid the artificial sugars. Obviously you’re already avoiding sugar free foods, which are always processed but if you can handle your coffee without added sugar give it a go. Start with doing it by halves if you are not used to coffee without sugar- half the amount you would normally add.

10. Eat enough food. 

Make sure your body is fueled properly. If you’re hungry, you’ll just crave sweet foods and fall off the wagon. Don’t skimp on the good things. Eat a big salad with grilled chicken and then an hour later have a boiled egg. Keep on track, the cravings will subside.


How To Get Over Your Sugar Addiction

Overcoming a sweet tooth might be easier than you think.

Published on September 10, 2012 by Sherry Pagoto, Ph.D. in Shrink

Are you a lifelong sweet tooth (AKA sugar addict)? Can’t finish a meal without something sweet to top it off? Stomach have a “reserve tank” purely for sweets? Me too. I could be completely full after a meal yet have plenty of room for an 800 calorie dessert. My palate isn’t discriminating either, it loves real sugar and fake sugar, you name it, anything sweet will do. The gravity of my addiction came last year when I ordered my coffee at Dunkin Donuts with five Splenda. The lady behind me yelled loud enough for the entire line to hear, “Five!? Who puts in that much?!” The sad part is if I was using real sugar, it would have been more like…umm… 8 or 9. (Half the audience is shaking their heads right now—the other half totally gets me.)

The good news is that I’m in recovery. Like any addiction, sugar addiction can be overcome. Unlike a drug addiction, you don’t have to give sugar up entirely. The amount of sugar we crave has been conditioned by the food industry, our early family experiences, and our food choices.  In terms of the food industry, larger quantities of sugar have been added to products over the years. Even if your diet has not changed in 20 years, you are undoubtedly eating more sugar, which means you probably prefer things sweeter without even realizing it. The food companies know this, they figure if they can get you “hooked” on their product by adding tons of sugar (more than the competitor) you will be a loyal customer. Tony the Tiger, my friends, is hardly different from a drug lord. Your early family experiences matter too. Think of the foods available to you as a child. Like a lot of families, we regularly ate dessert after dinner, which may be why I crave it so much now. Your current eating habits are heavily influenced by those experiences… and of course, good old Tony.

Just as our palates have been conditioned to crave sugar, they can be conditioned to crave it less.  The process is pretty straightforward. If you repeatedly eat a food, your affinity toward it will increase even if you didn’t like that food in the first place. This is how we have gotten into trouble with sugar—we have created too much of an appetite for it. To like a food less, we have to work this process in reverse. The key is to train your palette to prefer less sweet. Notice I said “sweet” and not “sugar.” Noncaloric sweeteners are sweet too, sometimes even sweeter than sugar. Using noncaloric sweeteners instead of sugar will not reduce your sugar addiction, it will only feed it.

Here are a few ways you can begin to condition your palette to prefer less sweet.

1. The Coffee Experiment.  If, like me, you put loads of sugar in your coffee (or tea) everyday, you can use this as an opportunity to begin to train your palate to prefer less.  How many packets or teaspoons of sugar/sweetener do you use?  Subtract one.  The coffee won’t taste quite as sweet but continue to drink it this way for two to three weeks, or until you get used to it. Once you are used to this level of sweetness, cut back by one more, and just keep repeating the process until you are down to only one packet (or none). The key here is to cut back a little at a time, only cutting out more when you are used to the current level of sweetness. I am happy to report that I’m down to two packets. Taking a sip from coffee with five packets now seems way too sweet for me. It took me a while but I got there.  Some people prefer to go cold turkey. If you can do this, great, but for many people it will be unpleasant which will drive them back to their previous habit. 

2. Dilute your Sodas. By always drinking beverages that taste sweet, we end up finding water and other unsweetened beverages less satisfying. If you drink five sodas per day (diet or real sugar) replace one with water or nonsweetened seltzer (no artificial sweetner). In two weeks, replace another soda with water or nonsweet seltzer. Keep doing this until you have completely shifted. If you drink non-carbonated beverages like juice, Crystal Light, or lemonade, I suggest diluting by adding more water than you typically would. Gradually increase the water to drink mix ratio to wean yourself off of the sweet.

3. Snack Swap. The same concept applies for sweet snacks. Figure out how many grams of sugar are in your typical snack (yogurt, granola bar, etc). Find similar options that have fewer grams of sugar. For example, a Kashi granola bar has less sugar than Quaker. Again, beware of artificial sweeteners in lower sugar versions (e.g., yogurt). These may actually taste even sweeter than real sugar versions even though they have fewer grams of sugar. This will increase your desire for sweet not reduce it. You might also begin to include some snacks that are not sweet at all (almonds, cheese, and hummus) so that you get used unsweetened snacks.

4. Happy Hour. Cocktails contain a high amount of sugar, in order to take the edge off the strong taste of hard liquor. Avoid cocktail mixes (e.g., sour mix, margarita mix, etc) and instead use fresh fruit (squeezed or muddled) to mix in with no added sugar. You will get the natural fruit flavor but with less intense sweetness. By being less sweet, you will drink more slowly and probably drink less.

5. Don’t Have Your Cake And Eat it Too…Much. Reduce the number of days that you have something sweet after a meal so that you stop craving sweet directly after eating.  For example, if you are used to a sweet after dinner five days a week, then reduce to four, then three, and over time just do it on special occasions. Choose low sugar desserts too. Fresh fruit with a dollop of whipped cream is a good choice. Also, it is important to undo the habit of ordering desserts in a restaurant every time you go. Do this only on occasion. Restaurant desserts are packed with sugar and calories.

6.  Who Put Sugar in my Bread? There is a scene in the movie The Breakfast Club where Ally Sheedy takes the lunchmeat out of her sandwich and then empties pixie sticks onto the bread after sprinkling it with Cap N Crunch cereal. Even a sugar addict like me feels like this is going too far. However, bread companies have attached themselves to this idea because they empty pixie sticks worth of sugar into their bread dough. Many breads are made with an astonishing amount of high fructose corn syrup or other forms of sugar. In the nutrition information, look at the grams of sugar across various brands of bread and select one that is low. In general, check the sugar content of other foods that aren’t really supposed to be sweet. Choose brands that do not add sugar or artificial sweeteners.

As you can see, the deconditioning process is the same regardless of the food category. The idea is to slowly and methodically reduce the amount of sugar or sweetener in the foods that you eat. As you reduce, you will notice your palette changing to prefer less sweet. If you worry that you will end up doomed to a bland diet, don’t. Remember, you are doing this slowly which means that you will gradually come to prefer less sugar. Tony may have helped created your sweet tooth, but you can be the one to undo it.

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Making Better Health a Priority

Everything we do, we do for a reason. The same goes for everything we don’t do. Our motives rely on our experiences, our knowledge and our ambitions. If someone has lead a life where they have had little exposure to pain, poor health or financial restraint, perhaps they may not be too worried about health problems down the road.

Both my parents passed away of cancer. I remember visiting them both in their dying days … first my mom, then a few years later my father. All of us have been touched by cancer at one time or another.

I have spent some time battling some lesser problematic health concerns as well. I have had a few crohn’s disease related surgeries and have spent hours in severe pain.

I have had close calls with asthma, allergies and car accidents. I have battled addictions, depression and obesity. All of us have our battle scars and struggles with different health issues. So why have I made better health more of a priority in the past few years?

Perhaps it was reaching a saturation point. Throughout the years I’d seen the articles about genetically modified foods, increasing allergies and the increased rates of obesity in the news.

Maybe something clicked within me, telling me it was time to take care of myself. There are no shortage of large corporations selling things to us with little or no regard for our long term health and well being. They are more than willing to keep selling us all the junk we’re used to buying … it’s money in their pockets. Maybe something finally clicked in me telling me that the only way things might change for the better is if I made them … if I took responsibility for my health.

Trust is a funny thing with North American lifestyles and health. Products are often innocent until proven guilty, but the onus should really be on the product to prove it’s safety before being sold to consumers. Yet, we continue doing what we’ve always been doing – buying and eating our genetically modified, sugar laden foods; polluting and wasting as if it didn’t matter at all.

Years from now we will look back on this and shake our heads. We will remember the large companies taking advantage of a trusting public, all in the name of profit. We will see the foolishness of trusting our governments to protect us. We will see that advertising and greed had brainwashed and poisoned us.

I try to take care of my health for myself and for those I love. I want to do everything I can to increase my chances of living longer and healthier. I want the best for the people who care for me, and would like to be there for them when they need me down the road.

Sometimes I wonder why others don’t seem to care as much about health issues. Is it because they don’t believe that organics are healthier? Perhaps it’s a matter of information overload, where people have just shut down due to being overwhelmed by the many sources of articles, ads and other media about health.

Maybe it’s low self esteem … not feeling that they are worthy of such dedication. Maybe it’s just easier to keep doing what they’ve been doing.

Could it be that they haven’t seen the reports of how non organic foods are less nutritious than organic varieties? 

If we keep doing what we’ve been doing, we’ll keep getting what we’re getting.

In a world of greed, pesticides, herbicides, asthma, global warming, carcinogens and a host of other problems, I believe it’s time to try and do something.  The world could get worse if we let it, or we can take charge and make an effort to turn things around.

What could be more important than your health? 

What kind of future do you want
and what are you doing to make it happen?

~ Pete Szekely 

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Can Food Really Be Addictive?

Yes, Says National Drug Expert

Compare the proportion of obese people in America to those who are addicted to drugs and then try to argue that food isn’t as addictive as crack cocaine, says Dr. Nora Volkow, the director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse.

By MAIA SZALAVITZ April 5, 2012

Can food really be as addictive as drugs? In an impassioned lecture at Rockefeller University on Wednesday, Dr. Nora Volkow, director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse, made the case that the answer is yes and that understanding the commonalities between food and drug addictions could offer insights into all types of compulsive behavior.

Volkow began by acknowledging that the idea is controversial. “This is a concept that is rejected by many people,” she said. “It has polarized the [addictions] field.”

Many experts dismiss food as an addictive substance because it doesn’t lead to most people behaving like addicts — compulsively seeking food despite negative consequences. So, the reasoning goes, food can’t be as addictive as a drug like crack cocaine.

What that fails to recognize, however, is that crack cocaine itself isn’t as addictive as is commonly believed. “If you look at people who take drugs, the majority are not addicted,” Volkow said. Indeed, even for drugs like crack and heroin, fewer than 20% of users become addicted.

In contrast, if you look at the proportion of people who are currently obese — some 34% of adults over 20 — it’s a significantly larger group. Add in those who are overweight, and fully two-thirds of Americans clearly have significant difficulties controlling their food intake. So, measured by the proportion of those who behave in health-risking ways with each substance, food could actually be considered several times more “addictive” than crack.

Volkow went on to describe the common dysfunctions in the areas of the brain involved in pleasure and self-control that are seen in both food and drug addictions. These systems rely on the neurotransmitter dopamine; in both drug addictions and obesity, reductions in the number of dopamine D2 receptors are common.

In brain areas associated with self-control, the loss of D2 receptors is linked with a weaker ability to resist temptation. In regions that process pleasure, a reduction in receptors is associated with diminished enjoyment of food or drugs. “You can create animals that do not produce dopamine,” said Volkow. “They die of starvation. They don’t eat. It’s as dramatic as that.”

Drugs were once thought to be uniquely addictive because of their outsized effect on the brain: they can raise dopamine levels far higher than natural experiences like sex and food, at least in the lab. This was believed to create chemical imbalances that the brain isn’t equipped to regulate.

However, many argue that the modern food environment, a universe of plenty that has been engineered to deliver as much sugar and fat as cheaply as possible — certainly a stark contrast to the feast-or-famine circumstances in which humans evolved — may have actually created a similar imbalance.

To illustrate the point, Volkow summarized the research on the hormone leptin, a key player in humans’ feelings of hunger and satiety. Leptin, which is released by fat cells, helps regulate appetite by telling the brain, “We’re full, stop eating.” Normally, when leptin levels are high, food becomes less attractive. Our old friends, the D2 receptors, seem to be involved here: leptin reduces their activity. Obese people, however, lose their sensitivity to leptin, meaning that the hormone is no longer able to signal effectively, “That’s enough.”

There’s some evidence that leptin also plays a role in substance addictions. “In animal models, we know that leptin modifies the rewarding effects of alcohol and possibly cocaine,” Volkow told me. “In obesity, there is leptin tolerance but we do not know if there are changes in leptin sensitivity associated with drug addiction [in humans].”

One key difference between food and drug addictions is that when it comes to eating, both the body and the brain can send signals about whether the stomach is full and no more food is needed, or whether blood sugar is low and hunger should kick in. But with drugs, while such signaling hormones as leptin may have some influence, there are no similar bodily signals of being “full.”

Basically, regulation of food intake is more complex than drug use. That may help explain why there have been so many failures of anti-obesity drugs. But the similarities between hunger for food and for drugs suggest that if we do develop a drug that fights obesity, it may also help treat other addictions — and vice versa.

While the is-food-addictive debate shows no signs of ending, the label itself may not be that important. What matters most is finding ways to adapt our brains and behavior to the modern environment, one that contains intensely attractive food and drugs — along with highly politicized arguments about how to regulate them.

Volkow’s lecture was sponsored by the PATH Foundation, a nonprofit brain research organization in New York City, and was attended by Congressman Jerrold Nadler (D-NY) as well as by the former Democratic New York governor David Patterson. (His predecessor, Republican George Pataki, was also scheduled to attend, but couldn’t make it at the last minute.)

In his introduction of Volkow on Wednesday, PATH Foundation head Dr. Eric Braverman noted that the need for action is urgent. The best predictors of quality of life and longevity, he said, involve the amount of fat stored in people’s bodies — and more is not better.

Maia Szalavitz is a health writer at TIME.com