Many people feel like they are ‘addicted’ to sugar. New research is providing clues as to how this may happen and what can be done about it. In this three part series, we will look at the reasons why some people can’t seem to help themselves when it comes to sugar/sweets and exactly what you can do to break the sugar addiction cycle.
There has been a lot of research and disagreement in the health/medical world lately about sugar and whether or not a person could be truly “addicted” to it. Sure, we all like to eat sweets, and sometimes we find ourselves craving and overindulging in sweet treats. But there are people who have an insatiable sweet tooth; people who “can’t live without chocolate” or it ends up affecting how they feel, their mood and their actions. Could these people actually be addicted to sugar? New research indicates that they could.
First, some background. Medically speaking, an addictive substance is something which induces a pleasant state or relieves distress, leads to adaptive changes in the brain that triggers tolerance, physical dependence and uncontrollable cravings and causes dependence to such an extent that abstaining is difficult (1). Using these criteria, it doesn’t sound so far-fetched that sugar addiction could exist. People are usually happy after they eat cake or some other treat. Some people will eat sweet things to relieve distress; think stress eating or eating chocolate to ease PMS symptoms. And, there are people out there who have such intense cravings for sweets that willpower is literally not enough to abstain – they have to have something sweet every day or they have a very, very bad day. So what are these ‘adaptive changes in the brain that trigger tolerance, physical dependence and uncontrollable cravings’? The answer lies with brain chemicals called neurotransmitters.
“I gotta have that!”
Before we get into the science of neurotransmitters and brain responses, we need to talk about some biology and evolution. Back when humans were hunter-gatherers, food was not always in abundance. You could go through a food-drought at any time, so our bodies were designed to build energy stores out of excess calories whenever possible. That way, when there was an unexpected period of time without enough food, we could survive off of what our bodies had stored as fat. Sweet, sugary foods are often high-calorie foods. So when we are presented with something sweet our body says, “That tastes good. Eat a lot of that so I can build up energy stores for the food-drought.” We are biologically wired to enjoy and seek out sweet, high calorie foods because from an evolutionary standpoint, they provided us the best chance to survive a food-drought. We can’t help it.
However, in today’s world we very seldom (never!) experience a food-drought, as there is an abundance of food (and processed goods that slightly resemble food) wherever we go. This causes our own instincts to lead us astray and be drawn to sweet, high calorie foods when we, from a biological standpoint, don’t need them
Now, on to brain chemistry. When we eat sweets, our brain levels of dopamine increase. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter in the brain that controls the brain’s reward and pleasure centers. In essence, when our dopamine levels are high we feel happy. Dopamine also tells you to get into action to achieve a goal that will bring a reward or pleasure (such as eating a cookie). It motivates us to do things that bring us pleasure and it is a very powerful neurotransmitter. This means that the signals it sends can be very hard to overcome with willpower.
It gets worse. Research shows that we don’t even have to eat these high-calorie foods to rev up our motivation to have them; all you have to do is see a high-calorie food and your dopamine levels will rise. This means that just looking at a picture of an ice cream sundae will get you thinking about how much you want to eat it and wondering where you can get one – right now. For others, simply thinking about a food can elicit a rise in dopamine and increase their desire for immediate gratification. For many people, this urge is enough to make them feel like they have to act on it, so they run out and get the food or some other high-calorie alternative.
Marketers know this; why do you think that every TV, billboard or magazine ad has beautiful pictures of tantalizing high calorie foods? They know that just by seeing those ads, you’ll want that food, and want it now. This is also the reason so many fast food ads run at night and during sporting events – people see them and order.
This is just part of the story however; the next post will detail how eating sugar and highly sweetened foods can actually change how your brain processes information, making you crave and eat more, setting up a cycle that is hard to break.
- “Can sugar be addictive?” foodnavigator.com. William Reed Business Media, 16 Jan. 2006.
- Leutwyler Ozelli, Kristin. “This is your brain on food.” Scientific American Sep. 2007: 84-85.
- Daniells, Stephen. “Food addiction: Fat may rewire brain like hard drugs.” foodnavigator.com. William Reed Business Media, 29 Mar. 2010.
- Gardner, Amanda. “Compulsive Eaters May Have ‘Food Addiction,’ Study Finds.” healthday.com. Health Day, 4 Apr. 2011.
- Gray, Nathan. “Food addiction has similar brain response to drug addiction: Study.” foodnavigator.com. William Reed Business Media, 5 Apr. 2011.
- Hyman, Mark MD. “Stopping Addiction to Sugar: Willpower or Genetics?”
- Scott-Thomas, Caroline. “Animal study suggests existence of sugar addiction, says scientist.” foodnavigator.com. William Reed Business Media, 11 Dec. 2008.
- Scott-Thomas, Caroline. “Sugar addiction ‘unlikely in humans,’ says scientist.” foodnavigator.com. William Reed Business Media, 9 Jan. 2009.