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Are Carbs More Addictive Than Cocaine?

May 05, 2015 5 min read

Fair question. And the answer is clearer than you think. Fast burning carbohydrates, like cocaine, give you a rush. And just like coke, carbs can create cravings in your brain and intrusive thoughts when you are going without. But unlike cocaine, this stuff does more than rewire your neurological system. It will short-circuit your body. Your metabolism stockpiles energy so that you can use it for fuel later on but a carb rich diet will reprogram your metabolism and store this energy as fat. When you get hungry again, you will crave more of the same, creating a cycle that is tough to break. Think of this stuff as more than a drug—it's like a metabolic parasite, taking over your body and feeding itself.   According to USDA dietary recommendations, carbs are not only healthy but are supposed to make up the majority of the food we eat—45 to 65 percent of all calories. Carbs make up the essence of bread, cereal, corn, potatoes, cookies, pasta, fruit, juice, candy, beer, and sweetened drinks—basically anything that isn't protein or fat. These governmental guidelines were laid out in the 1970s, before the explosion of obesity in the population. It is based on the principle that fat makes you fat. But now, it is evident that what lies at the center of obesity is carbohydrates. "You could live your whole life and never eat a single carbohydrate—other than what you get from mother's milk and the tiny amount that comes naturally in meat—and probably be just fine," says Gary Taubes, the award-winning author of Good Calories, Bad Calories, which is helping to reshape the conversation about what makes the American diet so fattening. If all you know about food comes from the USDA guidelines you are likely to believe that we are all born requiring carbohydrates (which of course is cheap and amenable to commercial mass production. Coincidence?). "Sugars and starches provide energy to the body in the form of glucose, which is the only source of energy for red blood cells and is the preferred energy source for the brain," says the latest edition of the guidelines. Not so says Taubes. Without carbs, your body burns fatty acids for energy. "The brain does indeed need carbohydrates for fuel," Taubes says, "but the body is perfectly happy to make those out of protein, leafy green vegetables, and the animal fat you're burning." As a pair of Harvard doctors (one an endocrinologist and one an epidemiologist) wrote in the Journal of the American Medical Association last summer, carbohydrates are "a nutrient for which humans have no absolute requirement."

The Diets That Work

All of the popular diets—from Atkins to Dean Ornish (Bill Clinton's weight-loss plan) to the diet-of-the-moment, Paleo—are successful because the most important change they advise is the same: stop eating refined carbohydrates. This only reminds us of what had been the conventional wisdom in medicine for hundreds of years before the USDA stepped in: that sugar, flour, potatoes, and rice are what make a person fat, not meat and milk. Our problem as a society is not just with carbohydrates but their addictive properties. They overwhelm our defenses against overeating, activate brain pathways for pleasure, and make us simultaneously fat and malnourished. Guess what? In 2007, researchers at the University of Bordeaux, France, reported that when rats were allowed to choose between a calorie-free sweetener and intravenous cocaine, 94 percent preferred the sugar substitute. The researchers concluded that "intense sweetness can surpass cocaine reward. . . . The supranormal stimulation of these receptors by sugar-rich diets, such as those now widely available in modern societies, would generate a supranormal reward signal in the brain, with the potential to override self-control mechanisms and thus to lead to addiction." Nicole Avena, an expert in behavioral neuroscience at the University of Florida in Gainesville, has spent many hours analyzing the behavior of rats enticed into sucking up sugar. She says that feeding on sugar can, like snorting coke, lead to bingeing, withdrawal, and craving. It does this by lighting up the same circuitry within the brain triggered by cocaine and amphetamines, the dopamine center.   Carbohydrate addiction has the potential to be extremely destructive because it hijacks your metabolism. Eating a low carb diet helps you stay satiated between meals because your body burns fat stores for fuel. While eating carbs, especially refined white carbs like flour and sugar, cause the body to release insulin. The body secretes insulin in response to high blood sugar which a can be a serious, and potentially lethal, health risk over time. Insulin tells our sells to extract sugar from the blood and store it as fat. Over time, our cells become insulin resistant and so our body starts to produce more and more to compensate. What is created is a very vicious cycle. The body craves more of what the hormone feeds on and triggers our hunger mechanism, which works subconsciously, to direct us toward the nutrient causing all the problems in the first place—carbohydrates. Once you're in the grips of this cycle, can you quit? It is possible but Taubes says it won't be easy. "Anecdotal evidence suggests that the craving for carbs will go away after a while," he says, "although whether a while is a few weeks or a few years is hard to say." And just like an addict, you'll never be totally cured and the potential for a relapse is always present.

How You Get Hooked (Over Time)

1. When you take in carbs, like Gatorade or whole-wheat bread, you secrete the hormone insulin. Even thinking about carbs causes this to happen. 2. Refined carbs spike blood sugar, and this is a big problem. The first result is that your body immediately stops burning its existing fat stores. 3. Too much blood sugar is a dangerous situation, and in response, insulin, a hormone, rips it from your blood and tells the body to store the energy as fat. 4. Normally your liver controls blood sugar, but because you eat so many carbs you have a constant supply of insulin circulating. This turns out to be bad—very bad. This causes you to become resistant to insulin. 5. Insulin resistance means your body pumps out more insulin to make up for the deficit. Now you're getting fat, but what's worse is that your body desires even more carbs as fodder for the excess insulin. 6. You get fatter and fatter and your body craves more carbs to feed your increasing girth. This destructive cycle is why Americans are so overweight (the process doesn't happen overnight). I'd say it is time to quit carbs cold turkey. Who's with me? We can help each other through the withdrawals! Do you think carbohydrates are the most addictive substance on Earth? Tell us why or why not.

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