Why is it that you hold grains so dear to your heart? Are you addicted? Or, is there an evolutionary construct that’s getting in the way?
The next time your baby is crying, try placing some sugar on her lips. It’s likely that this small act will ease the tears and bring about smiles and coos. This is the power sweets have on the brain. Sweets light up the same areas of your brain as addictive drugs and alcohol. Sweets release dopamine – a feel-good hormone if there ever was one.
While gluten does not taste sweet. when digested, it is broken down into simple sugars; much the same as modern-day chocolate bars. Thus creating an effect on our brain similar to eating sugar.
Could this be why going gluten-free can feel like such a challenge?
Today, we’ll explore the effect gluten has on your physiology and why many of you may actually be addicted to it.
Why do we love gluten and sweets?
Let’s rewind human existence to the world before Sour Patch Kids, Fuzzy Peaches, Oh Henry’s, and Mars bars. In this pre-industrialized era, the sweet flavor came exclusively from carbohydrates. This flavor meant calories. Lots of them. And in this era, calories ensured survival. If you don’t know where or when your next meal is coming from, consuming as many calories as possible is an absolute must.
Sweet foods, like fruits, are calories dense. Meaning that the sweet flavor tends to be packed with calories. In fact, many studies argue that carbohydrates (and therefore sugar) were essential for the development of the modern-day human brain. It is thought that as our brains developed greater processing power, they required more fuel. And the easiest way to add fuel was through the use of calorie-dense, sweet carbohydrates. (1)
why do tobacco and e-cigarettes have sugar added to them?
To play on our evolutionary weakness for sweets. If you add sugar or sweet flavors to an already addictive substance like nicotine, you’ve just created a product that is sure to have many long-term customers. This is the power the sweet flavor wields over us. Hundreds of thousands of years of evolutionary pressure push us to consume sweets. The adaptation that once ensured our survival is now working against us. It is this same craving for calories that is pushing us towards epidemic levels of diabetes and obesity.
What once ensured human survival may now be what kills us.
Just how dangerous are gluten and modern-day diets?
For anyone familiar with my work, you’ll know my nutritional bias is towards a whole-food, paleo-ish diet. This nutrition plan is both sustainable and low in inflammatory foods. It contrasts the modern, industrialized diet sharply.
An extreme study done in 2015 illustrates just how damaging a modern-day diet can be. In this study, participants were asked to consume a 6000 calorie/day (2.5x an ideal caloric intake) diet consisting of only refined and processed foods. Think, pizza, chips, hamburgers, and gluten in a variety of forms. Participants were not allowed to do any exercise for the duration of the study. Instead, they were instructed to watch television. (2)
What were the effects of this diet?
- 3.5kg (7.7lbs) of weight gain in one week
- Insulin resistance (pre-diabetes)
- Increase in adipose (fat) tissue
- Increase in inflammatory markers
Perhaps most terrifying, the participants developed insulin resistance (pre-diabetes) in only 2 days!
This is, of course, an extreme example. It’s not likely that you are consuming 6000+ calories per day. However, if you’re not following a whole food meal plan, you’re probably intaking a similar ratio of proteins: fats: carbohydrates. I would bet that the majority of carbohydrates you are taking in are of the refined variety.
While you may not develop diabetes in a matter of days, over time, the continued consumption of refined carbohydrates, like gluten, will propel you in that direction. It doesn’t take a doctor or scientist to know that this is not the direction you want to be headed with your health.
Even if your cholesterol, body mass index (BMI), blood pressure, and cholesterol start to move towards dangerous ranges, your brain may very well keep instructing you to eat the damaging foods. This is the evolutionary mismatch facing modern-day humans.
Human brains are wired to try to consume the most calories with the least amount of effort. This is what ensured the survival of our ancestors. But it’s what is (slowly) killing us today.
The pleasure trap of gluten and refined food products
Why do people prefer foods with high-calorie density to healthier, low-calorie density foods?
The answer comes back to our evolution. In the paleolithic era, calories were few and far between. If you didn’t get in enough calories, you died. Your brain comes wired to prefer foods with lots of calories. Lots of calories mean more energy and thus a greater chance of survival and reproduction.
The problem is that industrialized nations have no food shortages. Humans have not adapted well to this situation. You still crave foods with the highest calories.
There are about 52 calories found in 100 grams of an apple. There are about 265 calories in 100 grams of whole wheat bread. Your brain is wired to choose bread over apples. Every time. There are more calories per bite in bread than there are in apples.
Your brain gets flooded with dopamine (a feel-good neurotransmitter) when you consume foods high in calories. That’s why you feel so good during a nice meal. You’ll get a bigger hit of dopamine if you choose the higher calorie foods like bread/gluten than if you chose lower calorie foods like kale or apples.
Think back to your last grocery store visit. Specifically, all the delectable delights found down the aisles. Sugar covered chocolate, chocolate covered sugar, sugar covered fat, fat-covered sugar. Amazing! Calories upon calories. All these foods will give you a larger dopamine response than the foods found around the perimeter like fruits, vegetables, or meats.
This is the modern day pleasure trap. Evolutionary pressure propels you to consume the very foods that make you sick. In this aspect, gluten is incredibly addictive. But there are other pathways that make gluten even more addicting.
Your brain on gluten
If you don’t think gluten is sweet, try placing a piece of a saltine cracker in your mouth. Leave it there for a few moments. No chewing. You’ll notice that as your saliva begins to break down the carbohydrate, sugars are released. You’ll likely experience this as a sweet flavor on your tongue. When carbohydrates are digested, they get broken down into sugars.
This process starts in your mouth. Salivary amylase is the digestive enzyme found in your saliva. It’s used specifically to begin breaking carbohydrates down into sugars.
Gluten and all bread products are carbohydrates. While they may not always taste sweet, there are taste receptors found not just on your tongue, but in your gut. (3) The receptors in your gut will process gluten and other carbohydrates as sweet in flavor because once digested, carbohydrates become sugars.
Sugar (or, sweets), in all their forms, can alleviate pain. Gluten included. One study showed that simply smelling a sweet flavor can produce analgesia or pain-reducing effects. (4) Participants smelling the sweet flavor of caramel were able to tolerate pain twice as long as participants smelling a nice cologne or no odor at all.
Another study found that adults that held sugar in their mouths were better able to tolerate pain, had less emotional agitation, and (most remarkably) had less activation in the area of the brain that perceives pain when compared to participants given a tasteless substance. (5) It would appear that the sweet taste triggers your body’s production of opiates to help reduce pain.
These studies were done on physical pain. Research shows that emotional pain is processed in the same region of the brain as physical pain. (6) Therefore, one can infer that gluten and all other forms of sweets can be used to combat both emotional and physical pain. This has incredibly far-reaching implications.
Imagine you had a stressful day at the office. When you come home to dinner, what’s likely to make you feel better – a large bowl of your favorite pasta (and a BIG slice of cake)? Or, your favorite steak (with kale salad)? Research would suggest that since sugars have both a pain-reducing and feel-good effect on the brain, you’ll be much more inclined to cook the pasta and have a large dessert afterward. This decision will (in the short term) make you feel good.
You’re addicted to the rush of opiates entering your brain after eating gluten. The brilliant adaption that ensured your ancestor’s survival is making you fat and sick.
How to beat a gluten addiction
Much like any addiction, you need to first become aware that you have a dependency on a substance. For many, you’ve probably never viewed gluten through the lens of an addictive substance. This shift in perception may be enough to help you break the cycle.
For people living in industrialized societies, 40-60% of your daily calories are coming from carbohydrates (sugars). The majority of these carbohydrates will be from refined sources like gluten. This high level of sugar intake is sure to keep you addicted.
I recommend beating your gluten addiction slowly. 30-day challenges don’t end up changing behavior over the long-term. If you quit gluten and other processed carbohydrates cold-turkey, you’ll likely encounter uncomfortable feelings. The physical and emotional pain that gluten was helping numb will now be front and center.
To avoid overwhelm, start out slowly. Set a goal to be gluten-free 90 days from now. Check out this post on how we recommend starting a gluten-free diet.
Another, more aggressive, option to kick your carbohydrate addiction is fasting. When you fast, you put your body into ketosis. While in ketosis, your body burns fat for fuel instead of sugar. This simple metabolic shift will dramatically reduce your cravings for sugar, gluten, and other refined carbohydrates.
To make your fast more comfortable, you don’t have to give up all food either. Instead, try a carbohydrate fast. Removing carbohydrates for a couple of days will also move you into a ketogenic state. Doing this is like hitting the “reset button” on your metabolism. It’s the perfect way to break your gluten addiction!
Now, I want to hear from you!
Are you addicted to gluten? What tricks help you overcome the cravings?
Also published on Medium.