We joke about it, we rationalize weight gain because of it and it always gives us an excuse to have a second piece of cake for dessert: It’s a sugar addiction.
Most people wouldn’t consider a sugar addiction as serious as a cigarette or an alcohol addiction. After all, how dangerous can a chocolate chip cookie really be?
But for those individuals with an inclination for sweets, there is bad news: According to numerous researchers and scientific studies, a sugar addiction can be just as strong as a drug or alcohol dependency.
If this information alone does not make you put down your Snickers bar, then keep reading.
the sugar craving
We’ve all experienced it -- the quiet voice in our head that convinces us to hit the local 7-11 at midnight for a chocolate bar or another helping of pie after dinner. Let’s face it: Sugar makes us happy and most people who claim to be addicted to sweets will tell you this. Sounds funny, right?
Actually, it’s truer than you think.
Recent studies prove that humans are programmed from an early age to crave sugar. And once the body has experienced sugar’s sweet rewards, it does not take much time for it to be officially addicted.
The sugar addiction begins at birth. Human breast milk is very sweet, so even infants begin to recognize the pleasurable feeling they get from sweet foods.
But what causes the craving?
After eating a sugary treat, the brain releases natural chemicals called opioids, which give the body a feeling of intense pleasure. The brain then recognizes this feeling and begins to crave more of it.
Researchers have identified that there are certain areas in the brain (specifically, the hippocampus, the insula and the caudate) that are activated when one craves sugar.
There is also scientific evidence that shows that these same areas of the brain are activated when drug addicts crave drugs; which proves how “real” a sugar addiction can be.
The Sugar Rush
So, what exactly happens in your body when you consume sugar?
After sugar enters the bloodstream, blood sugar levels rise, causing the pancreas to release insulin (insulin is needed to convert sugar into energy).
When a large amount of sugar is consumed, more insulin is released. The insulin converts the sugar into an instant energy source -- which explains the jolt or “high” you get from a donut or a piece of cake. After high levels of insulin are released, blood sugar levels begin to decrease rapidly, resulting in the “crash” you feel shortly after eating a sugary treat.
In addition to converting sugar into energy, insulin also stimulates the storage of fat. Therefore, the more sugar you eat, the more insulin you produce, and consequently, the more likely it is that you will gain weight.
Along with obesity and tooth decay, sugar has also been linked to more serious health conditions, including increased mood swings, a depressed immune system and diabetes.
Drugs and Sugar
As mentioned above, sugar activates the brain’s pleasure center, which releases opioids that fuel a craving for more sugar. Recent studies on cravings and addiction show that heroin and morphine produce the same chemicals in the brain.
Still think a sugar addiction is not serious?
The same studies show that sugar also activates areas in the brain that reinforce behaviors. This means that -- similarly to a heroin addiction -- your body learns to want and need more of the substance that makes it feel good.
To prove this point, scientists provided humans with a compound to block opioid receptors in the brain. Shortly after receiving these compounds, people were less interested in sugary or sweet foods.
The Science Behind the Addiction
Studies from Princeton and the University of Minnesota involving rats reinforce how addictive sugar can be. When sugar was given to the rats, they exhibited addiction-like qualities, including intense cravings, withdrawal and bingeing symptoms. When the rats were weaned off sugar and then presented with the option to consume it again, nearly all of them exhibited typical relapse symptoms.
In addition to animal research, brain scans performed on human subjects showed that the sight of ice cream in normal patients generated the same feelings of pleasure in the brain as images of crack pipes did for crack addicts.
Sugar in Disguise
The average American consumes around 160 pounds of sugar each year. This is no surprise when you consider that sugar is in everything from ketchup to salad dressing and canned soup to deli meat.
Food marketers are great at incorporating sugar into many products under a variety of aliases. Common names for sugar can include sucrose, fructose, dextrose, and high-fructose corn syrup -- none of which actually sound like the word “sugar,” but essentially mean the same thing.
Throughout your lifetime, it is probable that you have been eating more sugar than you were aware of; so ultimately, your body is probably already addicted.
Many of the foods that you probably consume every day are packed with sugar, including fruit juice, iced coffee and tea drinks, yogurt, wheat bread, and most breakfast cereals (even Bran Flakes and Special K have sugar in them).
Even if you have one can of regular (non-diet) soda, you are consuming nearly 10 teaspoons of sugar, which is, approximately, the maximum recommended daily allowance.
Sugar does not give your body anything but a quick boost of energy -- it is completely devoid of the vitamins, minerals, fiber, and antioxidants that you find in natural foods. Oh, and it makes you fat.
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Kick the Craving
Although I realize that it is probably impossible to eliminate sugar from your diet entirely, I can help you limit your intake. Here are some tips:
• Banish packaged products -- including those made with white flour -- and stick to food in its original form. Instead of canned fruit or juice, eat a piece of whole fruit.
• Drink plenty of water throughout the day; you may be mistaking dehydration for hunger.
• Eat protein at every meal; it is digested more slowly than simple carbohydrates and will leave you feeling fuller for a longer period of time. You will therefore be more likely to resist the urge to eat dessert every night after dinner.
• Give up your favorite sweet food for three weeks. It is likely that after three weeks, your tastes will have changed and your craving for sweets will not be as strong.
• Resist impulse snacking. If you crave a donut, take 15 minutes to think about it or go for a walk instead. Chances are, that after this delay period, your craving will have subsided.