Vitality

Here’s Why Carbs Are So Addicting

Made from carbon, hydroxide and oxygen, carbohydrates (or carbs in short) are one of the main macronutrients our bodies need, essential for the production and storage of energy that we will use in the future. In fact, it is arguably the most important energy source for our cells, tissues and organs.

Carbs do not just serve as a source of energy; they also double as precursors to both ribonucleic acid (RNA) and deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA), transport molecular data and also aid cell signaling processes. 

Are Carbs Addictive?

Of course, when we think of carbs, it comes to mind food with refined carbs such as cakes, cookies, pasta and rice. However, healthy food such as fruits, vegetables, legumes and whole-grain bread also count as carbs.

Many of us find it hard to resist junk food, especially those packed with carbs that are high in refined salt, sugar and fat, while wondering if this can be solved with either willpower or changes in behavior or psyche, with people questioning whether carbs could be addictive in the same way that other substances or behaviors can be.

One study revealed that meals high in carbohydrates stimulate regions in the brain associated with cravings and rewards, and found that obese men displayed higher brain activity and greater reported hunger after eating a high-GI meal compared to one that is low-GI. GI stands for glycemic index, which measures the impact of a meal's carb content on blood sugar levels, suggesting that our urge for refined carbs could have much more to do with brain chemistry than initially believed, although additional research has continued to support these findings.

Why Carbs Are Addictive

Some research went so far as to suggest that fructose, a refined carb found in fruits, vegetables and honey, has addictive properties similar to those found in alcohol. Like alcohol, fructose was found in the study to promote insulin resistance, abnormal blood fat levels and also liver inflammation, increasing the risk of chronic diseases. 

In addition, it stimulates the brain's hedonic pathway, which triggers appetite, influencing food intake through a system of pleasure and reward, as opposed to being a way of coping with hunger and actual energy needs. If done repeatedly, it resets the level of fat mass that your body wants to preserve, contributing to an increase in body weight. 

Carbs, especially High-GI carbs that promote rapid insulin and blood sugar level changes, also appear to alter levels of dopamine, a neurotransmitter found in the brain that sends messages between cells while influencing the way pleasure, reward and even motivation are felt.

A study of women aged 18 to 45 found that even when blinded from which drink is which, those who are prone to emotional eating episodes were more likely to choose a carb-rich drink over a protein-rich one after being induced into a sad mood. Though only one of many theories, high-carb food's link to mood may be a reason why carbohydrates can sometimes be addictive.

Carbs Unlike whole grains, refined varieties undergo a lot of modifications when they are processed and lose their fiber content. Jose Tebar/Unsplash

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