“I’m addicted to sugar.”
We’ve all heard or thought this before. Considering the American palate for highly processed, overly sweetened foods and the ubiquitous nature of sugar in advertising, we see evidence of a concerning shift. Sugar’s role in the American diet has moved beyond a character actor and into a starring role. Further, as discussed in the previous post, Sugar. How Much Is Too Much?, we consume far more sugar than is recommended for our health. But the question remains—are we addicted?
More please: How sugar affects the brain
While an ICD-10 code for “sugar addiction,” has yet to be established, an increasing body of research tells us that sugar has addictive effects on the brain.1,2 Like sex and drugs, consuming sugar stimulates the release of dopamine, a neurotransmitter that gives us a sense of euphoria and controls the reward and pleasure centers in the brain. But what may have evolved as a survival mechanism has gone rogue.
The caveman sweet tooth
From an anthropological perspective, we are hard-wired for sweetness. The pleasing taste of sweet foods was a conditioned reward, one which could increase early man’s survival odds. In times of food scarcity, a preference for more nutritionally dense foods might have provided the energy required to continue the hunt, outrun a predator, or simply avoid starvation.
Flash forward a few hundred thousand years, and sugar is exponentially more abundant. Consistent intake of concentrated sugar can lead to changes in the brain’s dopamine receptors. Similar to increased drug or alcohol tolerance, over time, more sugar is needed for the same “high.”
Cookies and cocaine
So, the more you eat, the more you want. But, as for being “addictive” per se, animal studies have shown sugar consumption to have drug-like effects. These include sugar-related bingeing, craving, tolerance, and withdrawal. In fact, according to a Connecticut College study, Oreo cookies cause more neural activation in the brains of rats than cocaine.3
For many individuals, the only way to stop over consuming sugar is to stop the cravings. But the only way to end the cravings is to stop feeding them with sugar. So, in addition to cutting out the obvious forms of sugar—candy, baked goods, etc.—it is important to be aware of the less obvious forms of sugar in your diet. Over the course of a day, small quantities can add up, keep your cravings alive, and thwart your efforts to take control of sugar. So become a sugar sleuth. Here are five tips to get you started.
5 Tips for Identifying Added Sugars1. Beware of marketing geared toward dieters
2. Read ingredient labels, especially the first three ingredients
3. Beware of alternate forms and names for sugar
The journey to a healthy relationship with sugar starts with awareness. Watch for the next post in this series, which will feature strategies for taking control of sugar.