Is sugar more addictive than cocaine?

sugar

Ahh, sugar: a fun substance that livens the pleasure neurons in the brain.

So good, and so addicting. There seems to be no question we get too much of it, yet we haven’t quite figured out how to wean ourselves off it.

And it’s getting worse: from 1970 to 2005 Americans increased their daily intake of sugar by 19%, adding 76 calories per day to the American diet. Between 2001 and 2004 we consumed an average of 22 teaspoons per day (2).

That’s 355 calories per day from sugar.

That figure needs to come down by about two-thirds, according to the American Heart Association. Sugar makes us fat, and the American obesity epidemic is hurting us in so many ways: both personally and collectively as a nation. More on that in just a bit.

Why are we all addicted to sugar?

It stimulates the reward center in our brains the same way cocaine does. No other food substance does that, not even the fat in the wonderfully delicious french fries we love (1). Nope, just sugar.

Of course we like and want salt and fat too. They comprise the other two legs of the junk-food pyramid of bad health. The difference with sugar is that we eventually come to need it. Like a drug.

Salt and fat are not addictive because we don’t build up a tolerance for them and we don’t suffer withdrawal symptoms when we stop eating them.

When you eat an Oreo cookie, the neurotransmitter dopamine is stimulated. The next time you indulge in an Oreo session you’ll need to eat more Oreos to feel the same reward. Buy another box and have yet another session and you’ll need even more dopamine.  And so the cycle continues.

Once you’re well into that cycle, you’ll need to look for a way to mainline your sugar. That’s when you turn to soda, a much more potent and pure form of the drug. Congratulations, it’s a full-blown addiction.

Scientists even call the fructose in sugar “alcohol without the buzz” for its addictive properties (3),  Sugar is half fructose and half glucose, by the way.

Why does sugar make us fat?

Dr.Thomas Frieden, director of the CDC, told a CBS news correspondent that obesity is the only health epidemic in the country that’s getting worse, not better. He also blamed consumption of soda and other sweetened beverages for the problem (4).

He cited evidence that tells us there’s a huge difference between a candy bar and soda: a candy bar before dinner will spoil your appetite but a sugary drink won’t make you cut back at all. So imagine us all sipping soda, still eating just as much at dinner, as if we hadn’t poured all those extra calories into our system at all.

But that’s not all sugar does to make us fat. There are specific metabolic processes that occur when we eat sugar, which cause us to become fat. Robert Lustig, MD,  whose name you’ll see everywhere if you delve deeper into the world of sugar research, says that the fructose in sugar is converted to liver fat.

Increased liver fat causes increased resistance to insulin and that’s the beginning of a whole series of terrible things happening in your body. Like chronic metabolic disease.

That can lead to diabetes, heart disease, and even possibly cancer.

In fact, scientists are now speculating that being fat doesn’t make you diabetic: it’s the sugar you eat (5). Lustig believes that a quarter of all diabetes in the world is explained by sugar and nothing else but sugar.

The final word on sugar

So here you have it: we eat way more sugar than we used to. We’re addicted to it. It makes us fat and possibly dumb.

Bottom line: if you’re trying to live healthier, use sugar with extreme moderation.

References

All sources retrieved 9/16/2015

  1. Stice, E.Burger KS, Yokum S. Relative ability of fat and sugar tastes to activate reward, gustatory, and somatosensory regions.US National Library of Medicine.Retrieved from http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/24132980
  2. Johenson RK et al. Dietary sugars intake and cardiovascular health: a scientific statement from the American Heart Association.Retrieved from http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19704096
  3. Lustig RH. Fructose: it’s “alcohol without the buzz.Retrieved from http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23493539
  4. Obesity Takes 9% of Health Spending. CBS News. Retrieved http://www.cbsnews.com/news/obesity-takes-9-of-health-spending/
  5. Basu, Sanjay et al. The Relationship of Sugar to Population-Level Diabetes Prevalence: An Econometric Analysis of Repeated Cross-Sectional Data. Retrieved from http://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0057873
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