Think of the perfect drug; something cheap and easily attainable. Something which infuses us with energy and leaves us intensely satisfied. A drug which we do not need to snort, inject or inhale, but something which we simply consume in the form of food or beverage. This drug can be taken while pregnant, and is even targeted to the youngest of children. What if I told you this drug lights up the same pleasure centers in our brain as cocaine, but is completely legal everywhere? Well, this drug does exists, and is sold to the general population in the form of SUGAR.
Yes, sugar (and other fattening foods) can become an addiction. Food lights up the same “pleasure centers” of the brain as many drugs, and unhealthy foods can become psychologically addictive.
The American Psychological Association defines addiction as having three stages: binging, withdrawal and craving. The Princeton Neuroscience Institute has been studying sugar addiction in rats for years. In their studies, the rats met almost all elements of addiction. Rats were first given high doses of sugar, which they then became heavily dependent on. This new dependency was associated with many behavioral changes, including increased sugar binges. When the sugar was taken away from them, the rats faced severe anxiety, which was demonstrated by shaking and not completing simple tasks. They also faced withdrawal symptoms and worked very hard to obtain sugar again. When they finally were able to get sugar, the rats binged harder than ever before each time it was reintroduced to them. This intense binge showed neurochemical changes, such as a significant increase in dopamine, and mimicked the effects produced by heroin, cocaine, morphine and nicotine. In fact, when looking at rat brain scans, sugar lit up the same part of the brain in the same way as cocaine and heroin! Also surprising, when put to choose between sugar and cocaine, 94% of rats chose sugar over cocaine.
Just like the Princeton lab rats, we too are addicted to sugar. It gives us a high, and when we crash we get easily irritated and crave even more sugar. Sugar also generates reward signals in our brains, over riding our self-control, which is why we can never have just ONE chip, or ONE doughnut or ONE cookie.
If you think about it, we have been exposed to sugar from the very beginning of our lives. As babies, we consume lactose, or milk sugar, which then became a symbol of love and nurturing. Then, as we grew up, sugar was used as our primary reward system, whether our parents awarded us with ice cream for straight A’s, or we got to pick out a piece of candy from the treasure chest at school. Our brains learned that sugar is meant to make us feel good. Why do you think young children stop screaming and crying when their parents give them candy?
Not only that, sugar today is seen as the staple of any celebration. Think about it, have you ever been to any birthday/graduation/anniversary party where there was not any cake? Have you ever seen a baby shower without the little blue or pink cookies and cupcakes? Even school picnics and parties all supply the basic brownies, cakes and candies.
Okay, so now we are aware of how we are consciously consuming sugar; what about how food companies are subconsciously feeding us sugar? Sugar is a core ingredient used by manufacturers to make bad ingredients (chemicals and processed flour) taste good. This sugar is spread out throughout the product using different names, and in the end, that product ends up being full of sugar. And because our national consumption of four and processed foods has increased, our sugar consumption has also increased.
Just as a reminder, our daily limit of sugar a day for 6 teaspoons (25 grams) for women and 9 teaspoons (38 grams) for men. The daily amount of sugar the average American is consuming is 90-22 teaspoons a day (82-92 grams)…
So how do you know if you’re addicted to sugar? This list gives some clues that you may have a sugar addiction:
- You eat even when you are not hungry, mostly to satisfy cravings
- Your mind is constantly filled with worry that you are eating too much sugar.
- You constantly feel sluggish or tired, especially from overeating.
- You tend to emotionally eat; you reach for foods filled with sugar, carbs or fat when upset or stressed
- Your eating habits negatively affect your social/work life.
Maybe you have a sugar addiction. Do not feel bad. Society, along with many food manufacturing companies, have pushed you and millions of other people to this point. Here is what we can do to manage the sugar problem:
- Eat regularly and do not skip meals. It is recommended to eat 3 meals a day with 2 snacks, or 4-5 small meals throughout the day. Skipping meals leads to a drop in blood sugar, which causes us to reach for sugary foods in a hungry state of mind.
- Eat your breakfast! Speaking of 3 meals a day, breakfast surely is an important one as well. So many people complain that they “cannot eat early in the morning” or that they simply do not like to eat breakfast. However, skipping your first meal of the day leads to your sugar dropping early in the day, which leads to your first meal being most likely being unhealthy. Breakfast does not have to be a hassle or contain a lot of food. Try boiling two eggs or making a breakfast smoothie for a nutritious and low-calorie meal.
- Chose whole foods. Whole foods are those which are close to their natural form, thus containing little to no sugar and artificial chemicals. Fruits and vegetables are a good idea of healthy whole foods.
- Exercise!! This is one of the most important tips which cannot be stressed enough. Whether it is yoga, dancing, walking or running a 5K, any form of exercise will help boost your mood and your energy and curb any sugar cravings you may have. I always notice craving less sugar after getting in a good workout.
- Spice it up. Try adding different spices such as cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves, coriander and cardamom to your meals to give it some sweetness, which will reduce your cravings.
- Get enough sleep. Being sleep deprived is one of the main reasons we turn to sugar- we look for a pick-me-up, as well as comfort from our exhaustion.
- Read nutrition labels at grocery stores and don’t allow yourself to buy foods packed with sugar.
- Lower your carbohydrate intake. A lot of the sugar we consume is actually found in high carb foods such as pasta, bread and rice.
- Drinks lots of water. Many times we eat foods high in sugar to satisfy “hunger”. In reality we are not even hungry, our bodies are simply lacking water.
If you know you have a sugar addiction, or even think that you have an issue with sugar, try following these guidelines. It is important to remember that while following these guidelines, will help with your sugar levels and cravings, it is normal if you make a few mistakes. If being healthy were easy, we would not have a sugar and obesity epidemic in this country and all around the world. Furthermore, it is okay to enjoy some of your favorite high carb foods and sugary snacks, as long as it is in moderation (usually about once or twice a week), and that after enjoying, you get right back onto your healthier lifestyle! If you are having issues sticking to these guidelines, or still feel like you have no control over sugar, please feel free to speak with one of our providers here at Delta Gastroenterology, or with our nutritionist at Delta Medical Weight Management Center.
Call our office at 662-280-8222 or email [email protected] if you have questions.
Ulric Duncan MD, Diplomate of Obesity Medicine
9140 Highway 51 North
Southaven MS 38671
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