This article is about sugar addiction, the medical research behind sugar addiction, how we should be defining “sugar”, and how sugar acts in the body. In a second article, I will discuss the historical sugar consumption in the US, how the level of consumption in the US compares to other countries, how to recognize hidden sugars, the ways you can break a sugar addiction, and a plan for moving forward. Before we start, I’ll share my personal view into what sugar addiction looks like. Maybe you’ve had something similar happen to you.
I took notice that something wasn’t quite right when I was consistently hungry at 10pm each evening. There was this gnawing desire, a craving for something to eat. What finally clued me in that something was wrong was when I realized that I wasn’t really hungry, but I still wanted something to eat. The pantry was nearly empty, but there were leftovers from the evening’s meal in the refrigerator. But I didn’t want the food in the frig. I wanted chips, or cookies, or bread! If I were hungry, I would have willingly accepted the finely cooked chicken, but my craving was saying “NO, ONLY EAT BREAD”. And that is when I woke up to a realization that maybe I had a problem.
Fortunately, I had a visit already scheduled with my doctor, and I asked him “Is sugar addiction really a ‘thing’?” And that is when he showed me this pic.
The picture startled me, and I knew I needed to do more research on the topic of sugar addiction.
What do Medical Researchers say?
When the first research papers came out and drew conclusions that sugar could be an addictive substance, the research was widely ignored as sugar is a substance that has been with us for a millennium or more. In a part 2 to this paper, I’ll show how it is the amount of sugar that we ingest each day for being the culprit of triggering sugar addictions today. Nevertheless, more research continues to be published and a growing body of evidence is now showing a direct connection between sugar consumption and addiction. Here are some noted researchers and what they have found.
Eric Stice, Ph.D., a neuroscientist at the Oregon Research Institute, used fMRI scans to find that sugar triggers the same brain regions that are triggered when a person uses drugs like cocaine. Dr. Stice also found that heavy users of sugar develop tolerance, i.e. needing more and more to feel the same effect, which is a symptom of addiction.
Nora Volkow, M.D., a psychiatrist at the National Institute on Drug Abuse, completed similar research using imaging techniques of the brain and found similarities between the brains of people who are obese and people who abuse drugs and alcohol.
Nicole Avena, Ph.D., a psychologist at Princeton University, was even able to induce sugar dependency in rats.
And yet, there are still critics to this research. An article in the European Journal of Nutrition (EJN) reviewed some of the science and concluded that sugar addiction is not real. The EJN states that binging on so-called junk foods only occurs in the context of food deprivation and that obesity can be controlled by eating in moderation—even allowing for the consumption of junk food every now and then.
Before drawing a conclusion on the veracity of sugar addiction claims, let’s observe what is happening in the body when someone consumes food.
Sugar in the Body
The processing of carbohydrates into glucose is how the body creates energy for itself to use. Dopamine, the chemical in the brain that is released to make us feel good, is released we digest food and begin to turn food into glucose. The dopamine makes us feel good, and the more sugar we consume, the more dopamine is released. The spike in glucose gives us energy, making us also feel good
Simple carbs (starches) and table sugar (sucrose) quickly turn into glucose once consumed, and thus quickly triggers a flood of dopamine. The instant flood of glucose is too much for the body to manage, thus there is a secondary trigger, one that causes a spike in insulin. The insulin kicks the liver into gear to capture the excess glucose and turn it into fat which is stored around the belly. This fat is the evolutionary way of storing energy for those days when ancient man didn’t have a consistent food source. Now when the insulin spikes, the source of energy is pulled from the body, put into fat storage, and “crash”. This crash feels as if we ran out of energy, and essentially, we did, and so we begin to feel terrible. The body says, “I know how to feel good! Give me some more sugar, the dopamine will kick in, and we’ll feel great!” And this is how the cycle of addiction starts. Throw in the fact that the fat that is being stored in the body is not being burned off, you’ve created additional health issues like heart disease, high blood pressure, and the onset of diabetes.
This is a good time to put some definitions around “What is Sugar?”
When we say “sugar”, what should be concerned about? What is “sugar”:
- Sucrose- Table sugar
- Highly processed sugars—high fructose corn syrup, dextrose, maltodextrin
- White flour used to make breads, cookie, cakes, and other baked goods
- Starches found in some vegetables and fruits: Potatoes, yams, sweet potatoes, corn, bananas, plantains
- Starches found in processed grains: white rice, rolled oats, farina,
- Natural Sugars: Honey and Agave Syrup
Should we be concerned about fruit (fructose)? Fructose is tied up in fiber when it is consumed as fresh whole fruit, and thus takes longer to release into the body. This prevents the spikes in glucose and the impending crash. YOU MUST AVOID fruit juices (the fructose is no longer bunched in the fiber) and canned fruit that canned in light of heavy syrup (sucrose).
What is the definition of an addiction?
To define what is an addiction, we have the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) is a guidebook widely used by mental health professionals to diagnose many mental health conditions. This is the fifth edition of the book. The food does not specifically call out “sugar addiction”, but it does recognize “Binge Eating Disorder”, which is essentially what we are discussing regarding sugar addiction. The symptoms of binge eating disorder are:
- Eating much more rapidly than normal.
- Eating until feeling uncomfortably full.
- Eating large amounts of food when not feeling physically hungry.
- Eating alone because of feeling embarrassed by how much one is eating.
- Feeling disgusted with oneself, depressed, or very guilty afterward.
Based upon what we’ve read here, I think it is evidently clear that Yes, sugar can be addictive and sugar addiction is a very real issue.
In part 2, I will discuss the historical sugar consumption in the US, how the level of consumption in the US compares to other countries, how to recognize hidden sugars, the ways you can break a sugar addiction, and a plan for moving forward. Stay tuned.
Health, blood sugar, sugar, addiction, sugar addition, glucose, sucrose