When it comes to sugar, our brains are wired to want more
Americans consume an average of 150-170 pounds of sugar a year, according to the United States Department of Agriculture. That equates to about three pounds of the white stuff a week, and a ¼-½ pound of sugar a day. And the problem is only getting worse; Americans now consume about triple the amount of sugar that we consumed only a hundred years ago.
What’s puzzling is that this increase in sugar consumption comes at a time when Americans know more about just how dangerous and deadly it can be. If we know better, why aren’t we doing better? Is it possible that we’re addicted?
“Absolutely, no question. Sugar addiction is an addiction like any other, and should be treated in the same way,” says Mary Toscano, a local certified nutrition educator and author of “Sweet Fire: Sugar, Diabetes & Your Health.”
Modern science agrees with her: the biochemical mechanism behind sugar addiction is no different than that of other addictions. Whether it be to alcohol, drugs, sex, shopping, gambling, or sugar, the neurotransmitter dopamine is the driving force behind all addictions. Neurotransmitters are the brain’s chemical messengers, and dopamine is one of the most powerful, producing feelings of extreme well-being. Basically, the dopamine feedback loop is our brain’s mysterious way of rewarding itself for behavior that it deems essential for survival. It’s the brain’s way of telling itself, “Self, this feels fantastic. More please!”
It’s a brain response that evolved to encourage our ancient ancestors to binge and fatten up during times of plenty in order to prepare for future famine. But the same system that once ensured our survival is now leading to our demise—and there is some evidence that sugar may be even more addictive than drugs. A study in 2013 conducted at Connecticut College found that the pleasure centers in rats’ brains were turned on even more by Oreos than by cocaine or morphine.
The most dangerous aspect of sugar addiction is that it is literally toxic. Sugar harms our DNA at a cellular level, causing us to age faster and speeding up the onset of chronic disease. It’s the perfect food for today’s immediate-gratification culture, because, once it is eaten, sugar enters the bloodstream rapidly, inducing positive feelings of well-being and euphoria. But high blood-sugar levels due to overconsumption are often the first domino to fall in almost every major health condition.
“Blood sugar levels affect every system in the body,” Toscano says. “With any major health challenge—from cancer, hormone imbalances, to heart disease—no treatment is going to be effective unless the issue of blood sugar is addressed.” It’s a point that cannot be stressed enough, and one that has defined a career rebirth for Toscano as a health advocate and author.
The problem is, it’s not just the white stuff; sugar is hidden in many foods. Baked goods like bagels, as well as cereals, juices, and sodas contain much more sugar than one might suppose. Picture a standard sugar cube, which contains 4 grams of sugar. One 12-ounce serving of your average soda or juice contains the equivalent of 10 sugar cubes. And a normal bagel contains the equivalent of a whopping 12 sugar cubes. With this much sugar hiding in so many staples of the American diet, it’s easy to see how sugar consumption has gotten totally out of control.
“Sugar is the most slippery of addictions because we need food to live,” writes Toscano in her book. “Alcoholics and drug addicts can swear off their respective poisons, gamblers can avoid games of chance, but eating is not an optional activity.”
Just as with other addictions, sugar consumption is tolerance-based. So, if less sugar is consumed, less sugar is craved. Once the palate and brain are used to little or no sugar, resisting and avoiding it altogether becomes much easier.
If you must have those sweet taste buds on the tip of your tongue activated from time to time, reach for fruit or natural sweeteners like Stevia. Chemical-based artificial sweeteners are everywhere as well, but they come with their own set of potential health problems and concerns. Watering down juices or sodas is one effective strategy for reducing sugar intake, as is opting for whole-grain varieties of items like breads and cereals—which contain less sugar and more vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, and fiber than their refined counterparts.
As with any other addiction, understanding and overcoming sugar addiction involves a battle royale against your own brain and thousands of years of evolution. But fighting our sweet tooth to the bitter end is definitely a war worth waging. Victory means a longer healthier life.
PHOTO: As with all addictions, sugar addiction is tolerance-based: The more we consume the more we crave.