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Why Is Sugar So Addictive?

Updated: Oct 3, 2023

We reward children with it over the holidays or for a job well done in school. And we reward ourselves with it after a particularly stressful day or to celebrate a birthday or a special success. We add it to our coffee and bake it in our favorite treats. Are we addicted to it?

There is an increasing body of research that tells us that sugar can be as addictive as some street drugs and have similar effects on the brain.


Eating sugar releases opioids and dopamine in our bodies. This is the link between sugar and addictive behavior. Dopamine is most notably involved in helping us feel pleasure as part of the brain's reward system. It is a neurotransmitter that is associated with addictive behavior. When certain behavior causes an excessive release of dopamine, you feel a pleasurable "high" that your are inclined to reexperience and so repeat the experience. As you repeat the behavior more and more, your brain adjusts to release less dopamine. The only way to experience the same "high" as before is to increase the behavior in increasing amounts and frequency. This is known as substance misuse.


Sugar activates the opiate receptors in our brain and affects the reward center, which leads to compulsive behavior, despite the negative consequences like weight gain, headaches, hormone imbalances, and more. Research on rats from Connecticut College has shown that Oreo cookies activate more neurons in the pleasure center of the rats’ brains than cocaine does (and just like humans, the rats would eat the filling first). And a 2008 Princeton study found that rats may become dependent on sugar, and that this dependency could be related to several aspects of addiction: cravings, binging, and withdrawal.


Natural sugar is naturally occurring in food, such as sugar that's in fruit, dairy, or starchy veggies. These foods have other components in them that slow down how quickly sugar is digested. This prevents rapid blood sugar spikes and drops that can lead to weight gain, insulin resistance, and diabetes.


Processed sugar or refined sugar is sugar that's extracted from foods like sugar cane or sugar beets & chemically produced and added to other foods. It is in foods that taste sweet, like candy, cookies, ice cream, and soda, as well as in foods like certain types of crackers, sauces, and soup. Eating these foods regularly leads to weight gain, heart disease, and other chronic conditions.


Sugar comes in many forms: white sugar, brown sugar, molasses, honey, maple syrup and corn sweeteners. It may be listed on the ingredient listing on food labels as:

glucose

fructose

dextrose

maltose

sucrose

If sugar is listed as the first or second ingredient on a food label, the food is likely high in sugar.


American adults consume an average of 17 teaspoons of added sugar every day, more than 2-3 times the recommended amount for men and women respectively. This adds up to around 60 pounds of added sugar consumed annually – that's six, 10-pound bowling balls!



Symptoms of Sugar Overload:

Headaches.

Irritability.

Fatigue and difficulty concentrating.

Feeling jittery or anxious.

Feeling shaky or dizzy.

Hunger.

Bloating (which can result in stomach and chest pain in severe cases)


Tips for cutting back:

1. Toss the table sugar (white and brown), syrup, honey, and molasses. Cut back on the amount of sugar added to things you eat or drink.

2. Swap out the soda. Water is best.

3. Eat fresh or frozen strawberries, blueberries, blackberries, or raspberries.

4. Compare food labels and choose products with the lowest amounts of added sugar. Dairy and fruit products will contain some natural sugars. Added sugars can be identified in the ingredients list.

5. Replace it completely. Enhance foods with spices instead of sugar. Try ginger, allspice, cinnamon, or nutmeg. And a 2008 Princeton study found that rats may become dependent on sugar, and that this dependency could be related to several aspects of addiction: cravings, binging, and withdrawal.




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