Candy Addiction: Fact or Fiction?

Autumn is in full swing here in the great Pacific Northwest.  And no matter where you live, along with the cooler weather and brilliant colors come seasonal shifts in eating.  Soups and stews replace barbeque and salads, and it’s wonderful to enjoy fresh seasonal produce like juicy pears and crisp apples, plus all kinds of gorgeous winter squash.  And of course fall also means store shelves are stocked with an abundance of candy for Halloween, not to mention the sweet seasonal food and beverage offerings from your favorite coffee shop.  Indeed, between the candy, pumpkin spice lattes, and pumpkin bread, sugary “comfort” foods abound this time of year.  Does it seem like consuming sugary foods and beverages causes you to crave more and more?  Sweet taste plays a role in the desire for more, but a recent study suggests the yum factor isn’t the only thing at play.

In the study, published in the June 2013 issue of the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, researchers used a randomized, blinded, crossover design (the gold standard in research design) and they compared the effects of consuming two almost-identical milkshakes on brain activity, blood sugar, and hunger.  The calorie content, nutritional balance and taste were the same for the two shakes. The one difference: the type of carbohydrate in the milkshakes.  One shake contained high-glycemic index (GI) carbs and the other shake contained low-GI carbs.  Very simply, high-GI carbs cause a rapid rise in blood sugar, and low GI carbs have a slower rising effect on blood sugar.  Four hours after consuming the milkshakes (around the time one would be ready to eat their next meal), the subjects who consumed the high-GI milkshake had lower blood sugars and reported being hungrier.

These findings aren’t particularly surprising.  But an interesting twist was the result of the brain scans, which showed more activity (blood flow) in the reward/craving/food intake areas of the brain in the high-GI milkshake consumers compared to those who consumed the low-GI milkshake, suggesting that fast-acting carbs could have an addictive component.  More research is warranted on the highly debated idea of sugar addiction, but the findings of this study help drive home a powerful nutritional point that has implications for each of us: the type of carbohydrate eaten in a meal matters when it comes to managing the “blood sugar roller coaster”.

The “blood sugar roller coaster” refers to a pattern of spikes and crashes in blood sugar due to eating a lot of high GI carbs, or fast carbs.  These are the carbs that can cause a rapid rise in blood sugar, and they aren’t just limited to the obvious sugary candy, sodas, and juices.  Highly processed flour products, such as white breads, bagels, scones, pancakes, donuts, cookies, cakes, crackers, many breakfast cereals, and snack chips cause a rapid rise in blood sugar too.  These foods have no fat or protein to slow down their digestion, so they quickly break down into sugar, causing a spike in blood sugar levels.  As the body clears the excess sugar as quickly as possible, a subsequent rapid decline in blood sugar levels causes cravings for more fast carbs in order to get the blood sugar back up quickly.  And the cycle continues on and on.  Eliminating the peaks and valleys of blood sugar is not only important for preventing onset of type 2 diabetes, it also helps improves mood (particularly important to those with mood disorders, such as bipolar disorder), boosts energy level, and helps with weight control.

So how do you get off the blood sugar roller coaster?

  • Eat real food as much as possible.  This includes fruits and vegetables, nuts and seeds, lean meats and fish, legumes, and whole grains.
  • Reduce or eliminate fast carbs, particularly sodas and other sweet beverages, and candy.
  • Eat small, frequent meals and snacks throughout the day.  By eliminating large time gaps between meals, you provide your body with the fuel it needs without spiking blood sugar.
  • Make sure your meals and snacks are nutritionally balanced, with a fiber-rich carb such as whole grains or fruit/vegetable, some protein, and healthy fat.  For example, instead of just eating a piece of fruit for a snack, dip it in almond butter for added protein and fat.  A Zing bar is also a very easy and delicious way to get a balanced snack on the go.
  • Recall the 80-20 rule for eating, and indulge wisely!  Eat to nourish your body a majority of the time so that your body can handle occasional indulgences.  If that delicious slice of pumpkin spice bread is calling your name at breakfast time, enjoy it along with a hard-boiled egg (protein) and a serving of berries (fiber).


Lennerz BS, Alsop DC, Holsen LM, Stern E, Rojas R, Ebbeling CB, Goldstein JM, Ludwig DS.  Effects of dietary glycemic index on brain regions related to reward and craving in men.  Am J Clin Nutr 2013 ajcn.064113; First published online June 26, 2013. doi:10.3945/ajcn.113.064113

Photo credit: Calliope

Erin Hugus, MS, CN has a Master’s degree in Nutrition from Bastyr University. Erin is an expert in Diabetes care and is passionate about empowering people with realistic strategies for optimal health. She takes great pleasure in her time spent in the kitchen and loves cooking nourishing meals for her family.


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