I am the first to admit that I have a sweet tooth. I do not understand people who say that something is “too sweet.” That concept completely eludes me (with the exception of anything with artificial sweeteners or high fructose corn syrup, which I carefully avoid). So I read with interest about a recent study by Henderson, Nalloor, Vazdarjanova, & Parent (2015) in the journal Hippocampus. These researchers found that consuming sweets (sucrose or saccharin) led to increased synaptic plasticity in the dorsal hippocampus of rats. (Note that I’m pretty sure that rats are the only species that finds saccharin tasty–yuck!) The saccharin is interesting, though, because although sweet, it has zero nutritive value. So the effect appears to be from sweetness itself, not the consumption of a dense calorie source.

Remembering what we just ate appears to be important to the timing and size of our next meal. When the dorsal hippocampus is temporarily inactivated, the rats eat earlier and more. People with amnesia will eat a second meal right after finishing a first (reports suggest this was a problem for Henry Molaison, the famous amnesic patient H.M.). Even distractions, like watching television, can apparently disrupt memory formation, leading to eating more food than usual at the next meal.

Although the focus of the research is on the effects of the findings on obesity, I’m left wondering what other memories besides “I really did just eat that whole dessert” might be enhanced by a sweetened meal. Are any ongoing memories associated with eating something sweet enhanced?  If I eat a lifesaver while studying new neuroscience papers, would I remember them better? Would that be some good news about sugar?

We surely have plenty of bad news about the stuff. The average American consumes about 20 tsp per day in spite of recommendations by the American Heart Association to limit intake to 6 tsp for women and 9 tsp for men. The World Health Organization (WHO) recommends that no more than 10% (and preferably less than 5%) of daily calories should come from added sugars or natural sugars in foods like fruit juice. A single 12-oz regular soda doubles most people’s “healthy” daily sugar allowance.

There is also compelling research suggesting that the brain processes sugar similarly to addictive drugs (Volkow & Li, 2004). After also reading that one of my other major food groups, cheese, is similarly addictive, I’m starting to see some disturbing patterns in my behavior!

I’m not ready to give up sweets entirely, but obviously moderation is in order here, as it is in most things, I’ve noticed. What I’ve tried to do is to make my sweets “count” by having something truly wonderful in a small quantity. I’d rather have a single, small piece of marvelous candy than a large, waxy commercial candy bar.


25 Comments

EricaFinfer · November 15, 2015 at 4:34 pm

I believe that one of the reasons why Americans eat so much sugar is because they do not realize that it is in so many inconspicuous products. Fruit drinks and sodas are a huge contributor to daily calories, but so are things like white bread, potato products, and syrups/dressings. If sugar was to have a beneficial affect on the memory ability, I would think that it would not be coming from these sources, rather from natural ones. Fruits, vegetables, and whole grains all have sugar and would be a good source.

Sarah Morningred · November 15, 2015 at 11:41 pm

I can relate — I definitely have a sweet tooth. Since I started college, I have been trying to eat healthier, but unfortunately, I realized that many processed foods that advertise having less sugar actually contain more fat to enhance the flavor. (Low-fat foods often up the sugar content for the same reasons). Campus dining definitely doesn’t do us many favors as far as healthy choices. Our society makes healthy-eating a struggle.

sarahdemarois · November 16, 2015 at 1:18 pm

One of my roommate’s moms is a nutritionist and we often ask her for dieting advice to help maintain our healthy lifestyles. This study really resonated with me because one of her tips is to always prepare your meal and snack and then to literally sit down to eat and enjoy it! She warns that with our busy lifestyles it’s easy to fall subject to grazing through the fridge or pantry and consuming excess amounts of calories, and forgetting about it shortly after. When you consciously sit down and are aware of the food you are putting into your body, you will be more likely to register that your body is full and you have provided yourself with the nutrients that it needs and will be less prone to overeating!

AJMatuchniak · November 16, 2015 at 5:51 pm

I think the last point you make regarding how you choose to consume sweets is how we in America should begin to consume sweets. People in America tend to eat more sweets than they should when they do consume sweets often because they have attempted to go off sweets, but then find themselves justifying the multitude of “cheat days.” This is not to say that people shouldn’t consume sweets, but we should learn to adapt more of a model of consuming sweets like yours because then we are able to eat sweets without feeling like we have to go into this cycle of completely cutting out sweets and then overeating sweets.

mordanza · November 16, 2015 at 6:04 pm

This now makes me rethink how MY eating patterns are, especially when it comes to sweets. There seems to always be sweets around my house, whether its cookies, brownies, ice cream. And I could see that these results are transferable to my daily life because as I look back, I can see that I do eat more cookies if I’m distracted watching TV with my friends after a meal compared to having cookies after eating dinner alone. But I never really consciously thought about that difference of intake until now. Really interesting study.

camillemansour95 · November 16, 2015 at 8:27 pm

I am a sugar addict. I eat other foods for basic health and to survive, but I only ever truly crave sweet things. I found this study interesting because I would like to know why my brain and my body have decided that sweet things are the only necessary foods to eat. In most cases, sweet things do not provide any nutritional value. I also like the idea of sweet things improving memory. Sometimes I use candy to help me study. Finish a chapter, or more realistically, a paragraph, and eat an M&M. I would be interested in research on this topic because in my experience, the candy at least improves my attention and alertness. It also makes studying a more positive experience for me, and therefore more likely to repeat the behavior.

Laura Freberg · November 16, 2015 at 9:04 pm

Hi, Everyone!

I’m really enjoying the comments on this thread. I’m glad I’m not the only one around here with a sweet tooth! I find it really interesting to see how the sweetening of commercial foods has changed. When I was a child, cereal wasn’t pre-sweetened. Instead, if your mom let you, you could sprinkle some sugar on your Cheerios. Times have changed!

vinimandyam · November 17, 2015 at 9:39 pm

I am also someone who is guilty of having a sweet-tooth. My roommate just came home with 12 cookies for me and I’ve already ate 4 four of them. Seeing the recommendations made by the World Health Organization were really eye opening, I know many people who drink a soda a day without even thinking twice. I think sugary foods have become such a social and cultural norm that we build consuming too much sugar too easily into our daily lives. Getting frozen yogurt as a social activity, meeting up with someone for a super sugary frappuccino or getting candy at the movies are all normal things that significantly add up our sugar intake. This study is making me re-think what I choose to put in my mouth when I’m distracted by hanging out with friends or going out to the movies.

joylomax · November 19, 2015 at 9:34 am

I don’t think we realize how much sugar we actually eat. Don’t get me wrong, I love a good burger and once you’ve had one of those burger meals you’re counting your calories faster that you could believe. i don’t think there is anything wrong with eating sugar, like you are saying, but I do think it is essential to put it on our back burner as we eat throughout our day to remain healthy. Throughout my life i’ve gone through several eatings up and down, and someone wise once told me that you should get addicted to what makes you feel healthy. That can sometimes include sugar in your diet, but fall in love with the healthy diet and you won’t want to eat as much as you have been in the past. I thought that was wise and would love to live by that motto. Interesting study, thanks for sharing.

emmanishimura96 · November 20, 2015 at 2:16 pm

I can definitely relate to you in that I have a giant sweet tooth. However, my mother mentioned to me at some point over the summer that I never really ate that much sugar, so I believe that the amount of sugar and sweets that I have been eating has greatly increased since I came to college and can easily see that sugar is addictive to the brain. Now I always crave something sweet after eating something salty. On another note, I am very interested in the fact that memory affects how much we eat. I wonder if the study that followed this was based on the American population or a more wide survey of people around the world? I know that in particular Americans are known for eating based on external factors while people from other countries tend to listen to their bodies. Therefore if this study was only conducted in America, I bet the results would end up different if the study was extended to a worldwide population.

Sophie Marsh · November 22, 2015 at 12:33 pm

This post reminded me of a study I read about a few years ago (linked below) showed that Oreo cookies were as addictive to lab rats as cocaine. When the rats ate Oreos there were more neurons in the brain’s pleasure center than when they consumed cocaine. I wonder whether large corporations who are making these companies are consciously aware of the neurological implications of their recipes. Are they manipulating the recipes for the highest level of reward to create this addictive nature? Another funny part of this study is that, like humans, the rats broke open the cookies and ate the creamy center first. These kinds of studies really makes you question the great implications of our society’s sugar addiction.

Sophie Marsh · November 22, 2015 at 12:34 pm

Whoops, forgot the link: http://newsfeed.time.com/2013/10/16/oreos-may-be-as-addictive-as-cocaine/

jennylu18 · November 22, 2015 at 11:09 pm

I would love to know that eating sweets helps with memory. I have heard that eating chocolate while studying helps retain information but I don’t know if that is specific to the ingredients in chocolate or caused by the effects of sweetness. There is also the question if different effects are produced by the actual caloric content of certain foods versus the taste of sweetness. Either way, this topic seems very beneficial to research in the academic setting.

kathryngreenup · November 24, 2015 at 10:19 pm

Whenever I’m reading a textbook or article, I always crave homemade kettle corn. Most of the time, I give in and eat a whole bowl as I read. This gives me even more encouragement to keep snacking because I might remember a thing or to more than I would have on an empty (well, not empty just without kettle corn) stomach.

I intern at an adult day center for people with dementia and many of them forget that they have eaten just minutes after their lunch plate is taken from them. Maybe we should start giving them some sweets with lunch rather than waiting two hours until snack time for a sweet treat. Hmm.

mmontna · December 1, 2015 at 5:35 pm

Recently, I have had a ton of health problems that led me to see a nutritionist to help offset the symptoms. After working with her and analyzing my diet, which I previously considered healthy, I realized how much sugar and processed foods I was eating everyday. I actually went through a sugar detox where I was allowed 2 pieces of fruit a day and besides that everything I ate was completely fresh unprocessed foods; this included pretty much only meat and veggies. For the first 3 days I craved sugar and carbs, but slowly those symptoms went away and now 3 months down the road if I take even a single bite of something with processed sugars it tastes unbearably sweet. I don’t even crave sugar anymore (besides the occasional desire for dark chocolate). It is interesting to think how my tastebuds have changed when it comes to processing sugar. It is also interesting to think how my brain got rid of my sugar addiction; it makes me think of what chemical changes were going on in my brain to overcome those addictive desires.

Ariana Altman · December 1, 2015 at 7:54 pm

I find this post extremely interesting and scary at the same time. I was unaware that we consume an average of 20 tsp. a day! That’s crazy to me. A few years ago I cut down on my candy intake and soda/artificially sweetened drinks because of a documentary we watched in my high school english class. It was mainly focused on eating fast foods, but the entire thing just disturbed me so much I reflected on my own life and decided something needed to change. On the note of possibly tying sugar to memories, I thought about some good memories that I have and tried to deduce whether or not there were sweets present. The answer was about half and half. I think that a further expansion for sweets and their relationship to memory though is that the there are a lot of aspects that go into why someone may remember something well. Usually when sweets are present in any given situation, it is a happy moment. Dopamine levels are high and the person is probably joyful making it a memory that is not easily forgotten, being the extremes of emotions when related to an event are the ones most vividly remembered. But I’m definitely curious to see what other research will be done to look further into this. Maybe I’ll turn back to my sugary ways if there is a positive correlation with studying while consuming such food.

jessicametzinger · January 23, 2016 at 1:27 pm

I can definitely relate to this, as I have a pretty big sweet tooth myself. It’s interesting that eating sweets may help us remember a little bit more, because sometimes I reward myself for studying by eating a piece of chocolate or a Starburst when I’ve finished an assignment or a chapter of a textbook. It really is scary though how much sugar we eat every day. We grow up with added sugar in so much of our food that we don’t even notice or think about how much sugar we have every day. It’s so normalized to drink a soda with a meal out or have dessert after dinner that it almost doesn’t seem so unhealthy, when it really is!

hannahphelps · January 27, 2016 at 2:23 pm

As mentioned in nearly every comment above, I, too, have such a sweet tooth. i have always been extremely interested in health, being vegetarian since I was 8 and becoming a vegan last year to help ensure healthful eating in my diet. However, there are still so many sweets and desserts I can consume – even with the label of being “vegan”. This has brought up something interesting. One surprisingly vegan thing is an oreo. Oreos are definitely NOT healthy, contain much sugar and probably more chemicals than I would like to examine on the box’s nutrition label; however, they contain no diary. When I grab one to snack on, this has always surprised my non-vegan friends. It brings up something important to me in that most people assume veganism is an all healthy diet, but there are still products you can eat under vegan constraints that are extremely unhealthy. If “Vegan” was labelled on an oreo box, would more people believe they are healthy? Basically the problem with obesity, sugar consumption, and the like is that Americans do not even know what is going into their processed foods. This is something I have put much thought into, and I think they are many ways we can work towards solving this detrimental issue.

alexandrabush · May 31, 2016 at 1:31 pm

I am completely with you on not understanding people who believe that something is “too sweet” because I am a sweet tooth. While studying, I usually eat a bag of candy. This helps me stay seated and focused because I use the candy as reward for studying. Since candy helps memory of what or when you ate, maybe it helps with facts needed for a test. I wouldn’t know if it does help because I have always studied this way and it was never to try to help my memory.

mariecote · October 7, 2016 at 7:11 pm

I definitely have a sweet tooth as well! I can’t go a day without eating something sweet, which means I reluctantly admit straying from the phrase “everything in moderation.” Given this, I am drawn to any information that might see sweets in a more positive light, such as it’s possible connection to memory. I’ve heard of the role chocolate plays in the release of serotonin, also contributing to its potentially addictive tendencies. I read a previous post about someone who stopped eating processed sugar, and eventually lost the craving for sweets that they once had had. I’m sure if we all put our mind to it (no pun intended) we could change how our brain responds to sugar and also diminish cravings for sugar. For now, perhaps I’ll try to work on eating sweets in moderation…. Maybe after midterms week…

brittanymertzel · October 28, 2016 at 12:21 pm

I figured this would be a great article for me to read this week, because Halloween is coming up in a few days! I can safely say that I am like you, I love sweets! I would have never thought that the synaptic plasticity would have a change from the sweetness of candy. That is so interesting that when the dorsal hippocampus is inactivated, it urges you to eat more. That makes more sense now, because I know when I have one piece of candy, I am always wanting more and am never filled up (I can just picture myself in a movie theater eating one piece of candy after another)! That has to be some factor in why Americans consume so much sugar, because it is so addictive. More people need to be informed of this fact, and need to hear the stat about a 12oz soda! Wow. I will take this article into consideration on Halloween and in the future…

Charlene Niku · November 16, 2016 at 2:28 pm

I completely agree that moderation is key. Like for most people, giving up sugar is just out of the question. However, limiting the intake of sugar is imperative. I also have a sweet tooth and am starting to get more and more concerned with the amount of sugar I consume daily. I know I need a change in my diet and reading this article has just reaffirmed that. I think part of the reason I consume so much sugar is because it is so accessible and found in so many products – even those that we wouldn’t think would contain any sugar. I don’t think most people, especially in America, are aware of the suggested amount of sugar that should be consumed, or of the consequences that result from having too much. It sure is interesting that there is a connection between sugar and memory, but I think that people need to be more conscious of what they consume. Whether it’s learning how to read food labels, or keeping better track of everything one eats, everyone should make the effort to be more careful with eating habits. Obesity is definitely a problem, especially in America, and based off of a video I watched for my Health Psychology course last year, there are more negative effects of sugar consumption than the temporary positive happiness/satisfaction one feels from taking a bite or sip out of something sweet.

cathyvu · November 23, 2016 at 9:10 pm

I don’t have much of a sweet tooth; I guess that can be perceived as a good thing! I am really curious if memories can be associated with eating sweets. I recall from previous psychology classes that if you consume a particular food or drink while studying, it would help to have that same item during the actual exam. It’s interesting to know that sweets can be viewed in a positive light despite all of its criticisms now because of the increasing consumption in the diet of Americans.

rachelcarlson · March 12, 2017 at 8:48 pm

I have suffered from non-specific auto immune disease for years. I have a family history of type II diabetes and my mother and sister are pre diabetic. I suffered from depression, inexplicable weight gain, inflammatory arthritis, and general lack of energy. After visiting many traditional, western-medicine rheumatologists and hematologists, I finally decided to try something new. I visited a nutritionist/chiropractor who prescribed to me an entirely different regimen: quit the sugar. Even sugar from fruit and grains was banned from my new treatment plan. Within months, I had become a new person. My mind felt clearer and my energy soared. My joints regained their previous flexibility, and I suddenly dropped nearly 20 pounds nearly overnight. I am convinced that sugar is not only addicting, but also a root cause of many people’s health issues.

Top Psychology Sites · December 7, 2015 at 8:34 am

[…] Eating Sweets and Remembering – The post tries to draw a relationship between sweet consumption and our brain functioning. It is revealed in few scientific studies that our memory actually becomes sharp if we eat sweets. […]

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