You hear it all the time. People saying they can't lose weight or kick their counter-productive dietary habits because they are "addicted to sugar." But is sugar addiction a real thing or is it just the excuse du jour? It is important to sort this out given the growing body of evidence to suggest that sugar, refined white sugar and its companions like high fructose corn syrup in particular, are damaging to our health.
Added sugars tax vital organs like the liver, increase the risk of type-2 diabetes, promote obesity, and increase the risk of heart disease. Added sugars have also been linked to depression, dementia, and certain cancers. In short, they are bad news. In fact, a study
published in the Journal of the American Medical Association: Internal Medicine
found that American adults of all ages whose daily calorie intake was 17%-21% added sugar were over a third more likely to die of heart disease than those adults who kept their consumption to under 8% a day.
It is clear, sugars are unhealthy. But are they addictive?
If you've ever tried to kick the stuff, than you know the withdrawal symptoms are real. In the first 2 or 3 days, the cravings can be intense and distracting. And that's the easy part. Quitting sugar can also make you feel irritable, sluggish, depressed, foggy, and a little flu-ish! There is obviously something going on.
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In recent years, studies using brain imaging have found that the brain's response to sugar is similar to its response to cocaine and heroin!The parts of the brain that become active are also the parts of the brain stimulated by sex and exercise. All of these things trigger the release of dopamine which makes you feel blissed out and impacts your decision making ability. You, essentially, are stimulating your reward centers.
In 2007, a study from Princeton University gave rats access to a sugar solution for 12 hours, every day, for a month. Psychologist Nicole Avena, PhD, co-author of the study, found that the fluctuations in dopamine were similar to the fluctuations found in opiate addicts. When the rats binged on the sugar solution, their dopamine rose and came crashing down when they were in the deprivation period. The rats were also found to "act like addicts" with an inability to control consumption when given access and displayed depression, anxiety and tremors when in withdrawal.
While we may be tempted to draw conclusions from this study, lab rats aren't exactly humans. Is there evidence of this behavior in humans?
First, as Caroline Davis, PhD and psychologist at York University in Toronto suggests, we are hard wired to like sweet foods. It is useful for our survival! Sugar is converted to glucose quickly which makes it an easily accessible energy source. And back when we were hunter gatherers, sweet flavors were a sign that food was safe to eat. "Things that were toxic tasted bitter," Davis says. "Nowadays we don't worry about that. We have the FDA."
As mentioned before, brain imaging shows heightened activity in the reward centers, particularly in obese individuals or those with a leptin resistance but the findings are inconsistent among the general population. This begs the question: is it only certain individuals who are prone to this addictive behavior or do we all have the same level of risk?
A study from PLOS One
found that the foods people find most difficult to control themselves around are sugar loaded and refined like chocolate, ice cream, French fries, pizza and cookies. The authors of the study concluded that the foods that present the biggest problems for people are the ones that have been processed and refined in a way that changes how they absorbed. We don't desire natural sugars, like those found in fruit, the same way was crave those that have been refined and processed. And unlike other junk foods, sugary foods are easy to binge eat. "You can't really binge on greasy hamburgers because you get full from them quickly, but we don't see that happening with sugary, high-carb foods," Avena says. "It could take a half hour to feel full, and by then you've eaten a half-box of Oreos."
The reality is that more research needs to be done. We may not know for certain if sugar is addictive but we do know that it promotes addictive behaviors in the way of binge eating. So what does all of this mean for you in your day to day life? Thinking about your sugar intake from an addiction standpoint might actually be useful in helping you kick it. It isn't just willpower. You aren't a failure, you aren't weak. You've created a chemical cycle in your brain that makes giving up sugar not only physically but psychologically difficult. Understanding this could make you more patient with yourself. Sometimes, cleaning up your eating habits takes time. If you need help, we're here for you! The BodyRock Meal Plan
is more than a recipe book and menu planner! It is both of those things AND a nutrition guide that can help you navigate some of these difficulties.
Not everything needs to be done at once. It is okay to reduce your consumption gradually, cold turkey isn't for everyone! The World Health Organization suggests that adults eat no more than 6 teaspoons or 100 calories of sugar a day. The Centers for Disease Control estimates that American women, between the ages of 20 and 39, are consuming 275 calories of sugar a day! That's a lot of room to cut down! Start by cutting out (or cutting down on) sodas, store bought fruit juices, and processed and packaged snacks. If you really can't live without a little hint of sweet, when the craving strikes reach for a more natural option. A piece of fruit will do so much more for your body than a candy bar from the vending machine! You may stumble a bit at first but you can do it! It is also a good idea to remove all sugar, and sugar loaded products, from your kitchen. You can't eat what isn't there!
Have you kicked the sugar habit? How did you do it? Share your tips with us!