I’ve been wondering if sugar is truly addictive for some time. Secretly I was a little worried about the two-sided battles that would go on in my head when presented with the opportunity to scarf down a handful of chocolate chips from the cabinet. I wondered if it was normal or if I were the only one who experienced such convincing, self-control-overriding dialog in the face of chocolate – especially in the evening.
Then I read Bright Lines Eating by Susan Peirce Thompson, PhD. She is a professor in the psychology of eating and in her book she described just this kind of mental tug-of-war. It was so relieving to hear her describe what I have experienced and to know that I am not alone. And if you have had mental battles over sugar, neither are you.
One of my main takeaways from her book is this: If you find it difficult to resist sweets, it’s not because you are weak or have no self-control. It’s because your body and mind are actively trying to convince you to give in, that you NEED it. This is a little scary to admit at first. But once we know this fact and face it, we are better able to deal logically with it.
Three ways sugar keeps us coming back for more:
1. It causes our bodies to make our own opiates, dulling pain and easing stress in the short-term.
No, sugar is not an opiate like heroine. But it DOES cause our bodies to release our own self-made opiates. These are powerful enough that sugar water is commonly used in hospitals to ease pain in babies during painful procedures like shots and heel sticks. The downside is that it has also been found to reduce babies’ scores on mental alertness and vigor.
Chances are you’ve noticed yourself how eating sugar helps you to feel more relaxed and can ease pain, whether it be physical or emotional. Ever given your kid a lollipop during a shot? I have!
2. Sugar is just as addictive as narcotics.
One interesting study done on rats showed that when they had been given both cocaine water and water intensely sweetened with saccharin, they preferred the intense sweetness over the cocaine.1 Even the rats that were addicted to cocaine preferred the sweetened water over the cocaine water.
A recent article from the British Journal of Sports Medicine2 sums up the conclusions from several studies and again confirms that sugar has significant effects on our brains and behavior similar to addictive drugs:
In animal studies, sugar has been found to produce more symptoms than is required to be considered an addictive substance. Animal data has shown significant overlap between the consumption of added sugars and drug-like effects, including bingeing, craving, tolerance, withdrawal, cross-sensitisation, cross-tolerance, cross-dependence, reward and opioid effects. Sugar addiction seems to be dependence to the natural endogenous opioids that get released upon sugar intake. In both animals and humans, the evidence in the literature shows substantial parallels and overlap between drugs of abuse and sugar, from the standpoint of brain neurochemistry as well as behavior.
Susan Peirce Thompson, PhD, the author I mentioned above, gives a powerful testimony in her book. She was actually addicted to crystal meth in her youth. As she describes, she was finally able to kick her drug habit, but her food addictions were actually MORE difficult to overcome. It’s an amazing story of a woman who was able to overcome intense addictions, learn from them, and channel her passions into helping others.
3. It dulls our ability to enjoy sweet tastes.
The more sugar we eat, the less we taste it, and the more we want to eat. Sugar actually diminishes our ability to taste sweet foods. We’ve all experienced this. Have you ever tasted someone else’s sweet tea, coffee, or lemonade and cringed because it was way too sweet? Clearly they didn’t think so, right?
To test this, participants were offered four cups of tea, each sweeter than the last. In more rural areas where there was much less sugar consumption, almost no one (only .3%) preferred the sweetest tea. But people who had lived in the sugar-rich city for ten years or more ALL wanted the sweetest tea. 3
The more sugar we eat, the more it hijacks our taste buds into demanding more sweetness.
What you can do to reduce its power on you?
The holidays are upon us and sugar is EVERYWHERE, even more than usual. How can you make it to New Year’s without succumbing to your inner sugar fiend every time a glimmering treat is offered to you? There are several strategies we can use – even in our sugar-saturated culture – to reduce sugar’s power over us.
Eat more healthy fats.
Natural fats from quality meats, eggs, nuts, coconut, or avocado are satisfying and reduce our cravings for sweets. Stay away from highly processed vegetable oils like canola (ever seen a canola?) or seed oils as they cause inflammation and can affect our hormones.
Eat more vegetables.
Filling up on non-starchy vegetables at every meal leaves very little room for dessert. Make a game of it to see how many different kinds of veggies you can eat in one meal. How many servings of vegetables can you fit into one day? Instead of counting calories, count vegetables!
Don’t just swap your sugar for artificial sweeteners.
Sweeteners (yes, even “healthy” stevia) just continue to desensitize our taste buds for naturally sweet foods – like fruit! They also can trigger insulin release which brings on low blood sugar and causing more cravings. It’s ok to use them occasionally for a treat but be sure to eat some fat or protein with it to blunt the insulin response.
Enjoy fruit in moderation and with other foods.
Yes, fruit contains natural sugar the way we were intended to eat it. And it has lots of tasty nutrients that are nourishing to your body. But downing a banana strawberry smoothie when you’re hungry is a recipe for the low blood sugar, cravings cycle to start up again. Keeping fruit consumption moderate and always eat it with some healthy protein and/or fat helps to keep blood sugar levels stable and those cravings at bay.
It seems to me that sugar is more and more present in our environment every day. But we don’t have to be a slave to its call. We can make choices that make it easier to control when and how much sugar we eat. In these days of the diabetic epidemic, I think that can make us all healthier – physically and mentally.
From your own experience, do you find sugar to be addictive? Leave a comment and let me know!
If you enjoyed this post, you might also enjoy: Do You Take Carrageenan In Your Coffee?
- Lenoir, Magalie et al. “Intense Sweetness Surpasses Cocaine Reward.” Ed. Bernhard Baune. PLoS ONE 2.8 (2007): e698. PMC. Web. 29 Nov. 2017.
- Br J Sports Med. 2017 Aug 23. pii: bjsports-2017-097971. doi: 10.1136/bjsports-2017-097971.
- Shanahan, Cate M.D. and Luke, Deep Nutrition, p. 225, Flatiron Books, 2017