Maybe you are sitting down and watching your favorite show on TV, or maybe you are at work just getting back from lunch when you hear a faint call – almost like someone calling your name. You stand up and walk towards the sound and discover that the call is coming from the pantry (or the vending machine). Of course, you say, mesmerizing call is coming from a sugary snack.
For many of us, sugar calls our name out all day long – sometimes even when we are completely full and just had a big meal. Sugar has a call that is hard to resist. Most people, when asked, will admit to some kind of sugar addiction, but they often don’t realize just how strong that addiction can be, nor do they realize how much sugar can do to destroy their health.
Sugar has slowly crept into almost every food that we eat and while it has made our lives tastier, it has also made them shorter. Concentrated, pure, processed sugar is not a natural thing to put in your body. Our bodies are simply not meant to handle such a potent and addicting substance.
No Laughing Matter
When people talk about sugar and their addiction to sugar, they often giggle or laugh. This laugh sounds like a mixture between “nervous” and “guilty” – sort of like they are doing something that they shouldn’t and getting away with it. I consider this kind of laughter one of your body’s messages that sugar may not be the best thing to be putting in your mouth.
Sugar addiction is real, but just how serious is it?
To find out, scientists have asked a bunch of rats, and here are what the rats have to say about how serious sugar addiction is:
If you give rats free access to sugar, they will eat a ton of it, in fact, they will eat more sugar than any other food. Sometimes sugar is all they will eat.[i]
When you addict rats to sugar and then take it away, they typically tremble, shake, become anxious and their teeth even chatter. They can also become prone to aggression. If this sounds like the symptoms of a junkie, you are exactly right. These symptoms, known as withdrawal symptoms, show up in all sorts of addictions, including smokers, drinkers and drug addicts.[ii]
If you addict rats to sugar and then take it away, when you bring sugar back, they typically binge on the sugar, eating much more than they did before you took the sugar away. Binging is another sign of addiction and it might sound surprisingly a lot like what happened the last time you went on a diet and tried to remove sugar from your diet.[iii]
If rats are under stress, they will eat more sugar. Once again, this may sound just a little bit familiar? [iv]
Scientists have discovered that the brains of rats change when they become addicted to sugar. The changes in their brains are very similar to those of other addicts.[v]
To test if a substance is really addictive, scientists will give animals the substance and then give them a drug called an opioid antagonist. What this drug does is block the brain from sensing the pleasurable aspects of the substance. When opioid antagonists are given to sugar-addicted rats, they experience withdrawal exactly like rats addicted to morphine, alcohol or cigarettes.[vi]
But What Harm may Come?
So, you now know that sugar addiction is real – as real as any other addiction, but the question then becomes: so what? Is sugar addiction that serious? Well, let’s look a little closer and see how sugars affect our bodies.
Sugar causes harm in three ways: it increases our weight, it leads to problems with insulin and it has a toxic effect on our blood vessels.
Weight Gain: The scientific and medical communities will tell you that sugar contributes to weight gain because it contains calories. This is true. But sugar also contributes to weight gain just because it is sugar; added sugar means added weight. This happens because your body has to do something with the extra sugar that enters your bloodstream. Maybe you know this, but your body is great at storing sugar as fat. This ability to store fat is unique to sugar and doesn’t happen with non-purified foods. Added weight means you are more likely to live a shorter life, get diabetes, heart disease, stroke and have certain cancers. Your body has certain energy needs and sugars are the fuel that runs your body. Once you have enough sugar-fuel, your body will store all the extra sugar as fat (and most of us eat meals that create a large amount of extra sugar).[vii] This is not a problem you run into when you eat fats or proteins: sugar is different.
Insulin Resistance & Diabetes: Despite what most medical associations and your doctor might say, there is a connection between sugar and diabetes. Consistently high blood sugar develops into insulin insensitivity and eventually diabetes. Sugar contributes to insulin resistance whenever blood sugar levels spike too high. Whenever blood sugar rises, insulin in the body also rises. High amounts of insulin in the body will eventually lead to cells down-regulating insulin receptors (this is called insulin resistance: where the cells of the body are resistant to insulin).[viii] Insulin resistance does not develop when blood sugar levels are kept low.
Toxic Effects: Sugar is toxic to the blood vessels in the exact same way cigarette smoke is toxic to the lungs. Sugar harms the protein structure of the blood vessel walls causing them to destruct. This can be seen dramatically in diabetics who have kidney disease, eye disease, heart disease, tingling in hands and feet, and even blindness and loss of limbs. When the small blood vessels of the body are destroyed we see kidney and eye disease; when large blood vessels are destroyed, we see clogged arteries, stroke, and loss of limbs.[ix]
What to do About the Sugar Call
Getting over sugar cravings is not easy, but then getting over any addiction is hard. Know that the efforts you make are well worth it as the amount of destruction that sugar creates is enormous.
Try these tips to stop your sugar cravings:
Eat more often: while this seems counter-intuitive, eating more often is much better for your blood sugar, your metabolism, and your sugar cravings.
Eat fruit: It is easy to overdo this, but focus on fruits that are low on the glycemic index.
Brush your teeth: This is a trick many people use to stop cravings.
Exercise: A simple walk is often enough to stop cravings.
While these are only a few tips, they work great. Take on your sugar craving as you would any other addiction: know that the road will be tough at times, but that you can do it. Your reward, on the other side of your addiction, is better sleep, more energy, and looking and feeling much better.
[i] Spangler R, Wittkowski KM, Goddard NL, et al: Opiate-like effects of sugar on gene expression in reward areas of the rat brain. Brain Res Mol Brain Res. 2004 May 19;124(2):134-42.
[ii] Colantuoni C, Rada P, McCarthy J, et al: Evidence that intermittent, excessive sugar intake causes endogenous opioid dependence. Obes Res. 2002 Jun;10(6):478-88.
[iii] Pelchat ML. Of human bondage: food craving, obsession, compulsion, and addiction. Physiol Behav. 2002 Jul;76(3):347-52.
[iv] Gosnell BA. Sucrose intake predicts rate of acquisition of cocaine self-administration. Psychopharmacology (Berl). 2000 Apr;149(3):286-92.
[v] Avena NM, Rada P, Hoebel BG: Evidence for sugar addiction: behavioral and neurochemical effects of intermittent, excessive sugar intake. Neurosci Biobehav Rev. 2008;32(1):20-39. Epub 2007 May 18.
[vi] Avena NM, Long KA, Hoebel BG: Sugar-dependent rats show enhanced responding for sugar after abstinence: evidence of a sugar deprivation effect. Physiol Behav. 2005 Mar 16;84(3):359-62.
[vii] Livesey G: Low-glycaemic diets and health: implications for obesity. Proc Nutr Soc. 2005 Feb;64(1):105-13.
[viii] Henriksen HB, Kolset SO: Sugar intake and public health. Tidsskr Nor Laegeforen. 2007 Sep 6;127(17):2259-62.
[ix] Friedman EA: Advanced glycosylated end products and hyperglycemia in the pathogenesis of diabetic complications. Diabetes Care. 1999 Mar;22 Suppl 2:B65-71.
It’s Your Call
Kicking sugar means that you will not only lose weight (if you want to) but that you are taking the first big step toward living a longer and healthier life. When you kick sugar out of your life, you decrease the chance of getting diabetes, heart disease, and even cancer.
Breaking the sugar habit is not easy; at every step, you are going to run into your addiction. The effort to stop sugar, however, is well worth the results: you will live a longer, healthier life with sugar out of your diet. Why not have both good health and weight loss?
About The Guest Author
Dr. Scott Olson is a naturopathic doctor, expert in alternative medicine, author and medical researcher. Spurred on by his patients’ struggles with sugar addiction, he was determined to discover just how addictive and harmful sugar can be and ways to overcome that addiction. The result of that study is his book Sugarettes: Sugar Addiction and Your Health, which describes the addictive qualities of sugar and the harm that sugar does to our bodies.
Related Content on Evolving Wellness
Interview Article: Sugar Controversies and Sweetener Health Concerns with Dr. Scott Olson
Book Review: Sugarettes — Sugar Addiction and Your Health
Radio episode: Supplements, Sugar, and Healthy Holiday Eating
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