Have you ever found yourself unable to stop eating a bag of chips or put away the tub of ice cream, even after a fulfilling meal? The not-so-sweet alliance of sugar and fat in certain foods seems to have an uncanny power over our taste buds and cravings. The science behind this phenomenon reveals that sugar and fat form a potent duo, stimulating our brain's reward centre and triggering an insatiable desire for more. Here’s how it works, plus why healthy fats can actually help combat sugar cravings.
The Neuroscience of Cravings
When we consume foods high in sugar and fat, our brain's reward centre releases neurotransmitters like dopamine, creating a pleasurable sensation. This positive reinforcement strengthens the association between the taste of these foods and feeling good, leading to cravings for more. Now sugar and fat, when combined, enhance the palatability of foods, making them more appealing and enjoyable. This heightened palatability can lead to overeating and a preference for calorie-dense, nutrient-poor foods.
The Role of Sugar
Sugar provides a rapid source of energy, and our evolutionary biology wired us to seek out high-calorie foods for survival.
However, modern diets often contain an abundance of added sugars, leading to an overload of the stuff – you’ll find it in your supermarket staples like bread, yoghurt and cereal – and we’re now downing a whopping 17 teaspoons of added sugar every day. That’s more than double the 6-teaspoon amount for women, and soars past the 9-teaspoon limit for men. Yikes. Is it any wonder so many of us are hooked on the stuff? You don’t have to be a confectionery addict to be overloading on sugar – it’s all around us. These sugary foods cause a rapid increase in blood sugar levels, leading to a quick surge of energy followed by a crash. You might be familiar with the 3 o’clock slump that afflicts many of us after a sugary brekkie or lunch! This rollercoaster effect can trigger cravings for more sugar to maintain energy levels, and so the cycle continues.
The Role of Fat
So where do fats come in with this unsavoury twosome? Well, typically, fats contribute to a feeling of fullness and satisfaction after eating – but when combined with sugar, they can override the natural satiety cues, leading to overconsumption. SO we’ve got double trouble here, not only are you getting overwhelmed by sugar, but you’re overdoing it on fat too which can leave you feeling sluggish and bloated. Fats, when combined with sugar, also enhances mouthfeel and the overall eating experience, reinforcing the desire to consume these foods. But the sugar-fat combination often leads to calorie-dense foods that promote overeating and contribute to weight gain and obesity, along with disrupting insulin sensitivity and contributing to metabolic conditions like insulin resistance and type 2 diabetes. The brain's response to the sugar-fat combination shares similarities with addictive behaviours, making it challenging to resist cravings and break the cycle of overconsumption.
Now we’re not out to demonise fats – in fact, here at I Quit Sugar, we LOVE fat. But it’s not just any fat, it’s the healthy kinds of fats that are vital to our health. Unhealthy fats like trans fats, found in deep-fried foods and commercial baked goods, are not the sort you want to load up on as they’re inflammatory and leave your gut in disarray. But healthy fats are another ballgame entirely – they’re your secret weapon in the fight for a balanced gut microbiome. Your brain is made up of nearly 60% fat, which means it needs a steady supply of healthy fats to function properly – omega-3 fatty acids, in particular, have been shown to have a range of cognitive benefits, including improving memory and concentration and reducing the risk of depression and anxiety. One of the main benefits of healthy fats is that they can help you feel more satiated after a meal. This is because fats take longer to digest than carbohydrates or protein, which means they can help slow down the digestion process and keep you feeling fuller for longer. This can be especially beneficial for those trying to lose weight or maintain a healthy weight. Fats also help regulate appetite hormones, helping you stay satisfied and reducing those sugar cravings. Many important vitamins, such as vitamins A, D, E, and K, are fat-soluble, which means they need to be consumed with fat in order to be properly absorbed by the body. By getting a good dose healthy fats to your diet, you can help ensure that you're getting the most nutritional value out of the foods you eat. So, low-fat isn’t all it’s cracked up to be! As you can see, fat is vital for our health! But it’s all abut the kinds of fats you choose – instead of a deep-fried doughnut or sugary cheesecake, you’re better off going for a minimally-processed, low or no sugar source of healthy fats:
- Nuts – especially walnuts
- Hemp seed oil
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