Hard candy: how to break sugar addiction before it breaks you
Sugar can be as addictive as cocaine. But unless you follow a weight loss plan designed to reduce cravings, dieting can worsen sugar addiction. Here, we show the right way to lose weight – without losing control.
We’ve all been there: the empty box of chocolates, the litter of sweet-wrappers, the feelings of never-again – joined, of course, to a longing for more. Sweet food, unlike savoury food, never seems to arrive in large enough quantities. Sugar addiction is real: it cues people to eat sugar when it is present, to crave it when it is not, and as people eat more sugar, their appetite for sugary food increases. Obesity levels continue to soar, and so does the threat to public health.
Why is sugar addictive?
From the first bite, consuming sugary food triggers a cascade of neural events that leads to a powerful urge to keep eating. Within the midbrain, pathways release dopamine, driving sugar addiction by rewarding and reinforcing consumption. Studies have shown that the neural chains transmitting pleasure from eating sugar are very similar to those activated by cocaine and heroin – indeed, neuroimaging has shown structural similarities between the brains of obese people and those with established hard drug addictions.
Scientists have known for many years that by feeding sugar solution to rodents, it is possible to reduce their appetite for cocaine. What researchers did not know for some time, however, was whether sugar was in fact equally as addictive as cocaine. In a fascinating experiment conducted in 2007, a team at the University of Bordeaux sought to test just that. Forty-three laboratory rats were given the opportunity, eight times each day over fifteen days, to choose between two “reward levers”. When pressed, one lever allowed them to drink a sucrose solution for twenty seconds; the other administered a small dose of intravenous cocaine.
Within just two days, the rats showed a marked preference for the sugar solution. As the days passed, they also showed a greater willingess to opt for the sugar lever even in the presence of a greater “reward price” (sugar released only after multiple lever-presses), and in the presence of delayed release. Intriguingly, the same experiment conducted with a solution of saccharine (an artificial sweetener) rather than sugar yielded the same results, which suggests that sugar addiction results from the detection of sweet-tasting food, rather than from ingestion of glucose itself.
A key element of sugar addiction its ability to prompt release, within the body, of opioid substances – the same chemicals that form the active ingredients of heroin and morphine. Studies have shown that when rodents are denied sugar after a long period of dependency, they exhibit symptoms similar to opiate withdrawal, such as teeth-chattering, head tremor and forepaw shakes.
Critics of such studies draw attention to the fact that when rodents are allowed to consume sugar whenever they want to (rather than within strict time-limits), they do sometimes become obese, but do not develop the markers of sugar addiction – compulsivity, preference and withdrawal – in the forms described above. Most humans, unlike lab rats, are free to eat sugar whenever they want to – and many do.
This suggests that two separate pathways may lead to sugar addiction. The first, which we might term the “forbidden fruit” effect, activates itself when sugar is available only intermittently. From an evolutionary perspective this makes good sense, as our ancestors would feast on high-calorie food in preparation for long periods of scarcity.
Why is sugar addiction problematic?
In the prehistoric setting, of course, this was not problematic – opportunities to eat sugar were far too rare for a sweet tooth to disrupt health. But in the modern era, the same compulsion drives conventional diets to fail. By locking you into a state of hunger, such regimes switch your attention towards, rather than away from, high-calorie foods. Breaking the diet becomes inevitable; sugar addiction worsens; the obesity crisis gains momentum.
The second pathway – one of growing dependency on sugary snacks in the continuous presence of junk food – might term itself the “insulin overload” effect, and comes about due to metabolic rather than to neural pathways. If we consume sugar constantly, the body has to release insulin constantly, in order to transport glucose into cell walls. Our insulin receptors are not designed to work continuously, however: in order to remain sufficiently “primed” for an insulin signal, they need downtime. Without it, they gradually become desensitized, and so cells struggle to take up glucose. This is why when you are overweight, even a normal-sized portion of sugary food fails to satisfy, driving you to eat more and more. The hits get smaller; the doses get bigger. Junk food marketers and hard drug barons have a ready and captive market.
What can you do to overcome sugar addiction?
There are a few simple changes you can make to your lifestyle that will help combat sugar addiction:
- Always chose the full fat option- low fat generally means all the good stuff has been removed and has been replaced with sugar and nasty additives. Full fat products will keep you feeling fuller for longer.
- Stick to water. Soft drinks and fruit juices contain a large amount of sugar.If you feel like mixing it up, try sparkling water with a wedge of lemon and some cucumber.
- Start reading food labels more closely. There are many sources of hidden sugars and it’s important to check the label to see just how much sugar you are consuming- you may be surprised….
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