The alarming scale of sugar addiction in the UK was recently laid bare. Statistics show that 170 children and adolescents have operations in NHS hospitals to remove sugar-rotten teeth every day. An analysis of statistics from local governments in England and Wales reveals 42,911 tooth extraction operations in young people under 18 years old – a 17% increase from 2014.
Sugar is a staple ingredient in modern day eating and you’ll certainly benefit from controlling your intake. Sweet food acts on the reward centre of the brain and has a short-term impact on mood. Sugar affects the brain just like heroin and cocaine. It is no different from an addiction to opioids or stimulants. Psychologists posit that the desire for sugary treats represents a craving for ‘sweetness’ in other areas of your life. It is a potentially a smokescreen for the desire to experience reward, stress relief, comfort, extend a celebration or relieve tiredness.
Most people who have a sweet tooth are carb addicts. It’s hard to stop eating after a high carb meal, because it burns as sugar in your body. Carb-heavy meals increase the risk of high cholesterol levels, weight gain, diabetes and cardiovascular issues, amongst others. Child health expert, Dr Alan Greene, explains that mounting evidence shows consuming too much sugar leads to addiction. There is a link between sugar and addictive behavior, because it releases opioid and dopamine chemicals in the brain.
Sugar Addiction Explained
The average American consumes over 130 pounds of sugar every year – most of which comes from artificial sugar. The human body isn’t designed to handle excess sugar, which explains why an increasing number of people are struggling with diabetes, obesity and metabolic syndrome problems.
Addiction is a compulsion to trigger pleasurable sensations in the brain – more than what it is naturally capable of. Addiction also describes anything you feel you must have to relieve negative symptoms or feelings. The thought of consuming sugar could stimulate the release of dopamine in the reward centre of the brain.
Although easier to resist illicit substances, it is much harder to avoid sugar, as it’s a part of almost every processed food. Most packaged food contains 80% artificial sugar. A single soda contains 40 grams of sugar, while a Starbucks coffee contains 47 grams of sugar. These drinks go beyond the recommended daily sugar intake.
Causes of Sugar Addiction
The serotonin effect: Your body releases insulin and binds to amino acids when you consume sugar. They leave tryptophan (an amino acid used in the production of serotonin) when they travel to your muscles. This depletes serotonin chemicals in your brain. In turn, lower serotonin levels results in the increased intake of sugar when tryptophan levels are low.
Stress: Stress can cause you to give up good eating habits. You release cortisol when you’re stressed, followed by a stress trigger that leads to fluctuating levels of blood sugar. You might use sugar to boost your mood and energy levels. Researchers found that high-stress hormone levels trigger sugar cravings, compulsive eating and drug-seeking behaviour.
Digestive ailments: There are beneficial bacteria in the intestinal tract. When this is imbalanced, it leads to the growth of fungi and yeast. Such overgrowths cause increased sugar cravings. Sensitivities and food allergies are another cause of blood sugar imbalances and cravings. You can reduce these cravings by restoring bacterial balance and treating food allergies.
Hormone fluctuations: According to researcher Nicole Avena, there is a pain-relieving quality in sugar, as it increases endorphin levels in the brain. Women who experience Pre-Menstrual Syndrome (PMS) sometimes have cravings for sugar and indulge in sweet treats and chocolate.
Dangers of Sugar Addiction
Pancreas: Your pancreas releases insulin when you eat sugar. If you consume excess sugar, your body won’t respond properly to insulin, forcing it to produce more insulin than normal. The added pressure on your pancreas can lead to heart disease and Type 2 diabetes.
Kidneys: Your kidneys filter blood sugar to an extent. Excess sugar prevents the kidneys from functioning properly, as it slips into your urine. Once you develop diabetes, excess sugar intake can lead to kidney damage and prevent them from filtering blood sugar and waste from your body, subsequently leading to kidney failure.
Teeth: Added sugars like corn syrup, sucrose and high fructose are loaded with calories and empty calories. Sugar provides energy for bad bacteria to destroy your teeth.
Cancer: Cancer is a leading cause of death and is characterised by cell multiplication and uncontrolled growth. Insulin regulates this type of growth, making it crucial not to have elevated insulin levels. Consuming high amounts of sugar increases insulin levels and could consequently lead to cancer.
Sexual health: Sugar prevents men from getting an erection and can cause impotence. According to Dr Brunilda Nazario of WebMD, high sugar levels affect your circulatory system, which pushes blood to ensure you get (and maintain) an erection.
Why sugar addiction is like drug abuse and why it must be treated as such
A 2016 research at the Queensland University of Technology revealed that consuming excess sugar increases dopamine levels, just like cocaine and heroin. The study suggests that individuals who are addicted to sugar should receive the same treatment at rehab centres as those who are addicted to illicit substances.
In the research, rats who are addicted to sugar could receive addiction treatment. Selena Bartlett (a Professor at the Institute) explains that excess sugar consumption has a direct bearing on weight gain and elevates dopamine levels to control the brain’s pleasure centre. You’ll feel the urge to eat high portions of sugary food for long periods of the day, which accelerates the journey to addiction.
When you attempt to quit, you’ll experience withdrawal symptoms, which causes an imbalance in the brain as it adjusts to perform with high levels of dopamine. Professor Bartlett suggests that nicotine addiction medication such as Champix could alleviate sugar craving and help balance dopamine levels. The study also found that animals with high sugar levels risk psychiatric and neurological difficulties, such as mood swings and depression.
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The Relationship Between Sugar and Addiction
Every human brain has an area called the pleasure or reward centre. It is the pathway to the reward centre that reinforces certain kinds of behaviour and actions. When the brain takes on board substances that trigger the reward centre, it releases dopamine neurochemicals. Dopamine provides temporary feelings of happiness, pleasure, euphoria and satisfaction. It also influences memory and brain learning.
When you eat sugary food, the overflow of dopamine in the brain convinces you to repeat the activity that produced pleasure. Over time, the link between reinforced behaviour and euphoria develops until you need higher amounts of sugary food to feel the pleasurable effects. Once you’ve built tolerance, you’ll need to keep increasing the amount of the pleasurable substance to achieve the original sensation of exhilaration.
Note that most high carb meals are not satisfying and you’ll be hungry within a few hours after you finished a sugar-loaded treat. Nutrition expert, Dr Mark Hyman, posits that sugar is eight times more addictive than cocaine, as it’s in almost every food you consume and is very difficult to avoid.
Without reading the labels of food packets, you might be unaware of the amount of sugar in your ice cream, energy drink, coffee, pizza, cookies and other processed foods you wouldn’t usually suspect. The recommended daily sugar intake is 150 calories for men (nine teaspoons) and 100 calories (six teaspoons) for women.
Common Attributes Shared Between Sugar and Drug Addiction
Sugar shares several attributes with recreational drugs, some of which include:
Dopamine levels: Your body releases higher levels of dopamine when you consume sugar, more than the natural levels produced in the brain. The euphoria associated with dopamine reinforces repeat usage until you build tolerance. Research has shown that the brain reacts to sugar in the same way it does to addictive substances. The intense feeling could lead to addiction if you continue to consume a high amount of sugar.
Cravings: If you ever feel like you need a soda or scoop of ice cream to function properly, that will likely be sugar craving at work. The cravings you experience when you go a short while without taking sugar is similar those experienced by a drug addict who is trying to quit.
Common Brain response: A recent research found strong similarities in how the body and brain respond to both addictive substances and sugar.
Tolerance: Once you’ve developed a tolerance for sugar, sex, alcohol or any substance it’s difficult to quit. In this case, you’ll need higher amounts of sugar with subsequent intakes to feel the original ‘high’.
What Sugar Addiction Does to Your Mind and Body
When you consume sugar, it triggers the release of dopamine chemicals in a part of the brain associated with reward and pleasure. If you’re addicted to sugar, a spike in dopamine levels represents the anticipation of reward, rather than the reward (from eating sugar) itself. The effects are blunted when you eat sugar, because the brain is overflooded with dopamine neurotransmitters at the thought of consuming it.
A study on lab rats at Connecticut College found that sugar-rich Oreos are just as addictive as cocaine or morphine. It strengthens the theory that food high in fat and sugar stimulates the brain like illicit substances. It also explains why addicts find it hard to quit food that is bad for them, even when they know the health risks.
Sugar affects your body – from your teeth, joints, skin, liver and heart. Too much sugar destroys your teeth, as bacteria that thrive on sugar build cavities in your mouth after you indulge your ‘sweet tooth’. If you have joint pain, sugar worsens the pain by causing inflammation in your body, as well as increasing the risk of rheumatoid arthritis.
Excess sugar floods your bloodstream with insulin, which affects your arteries. The walls of your arteries grow faster, over-labouring your heart with tension and stress. If 25% of your daily calorie intake comes from sugar, you’re twice as likely to die from heart disease than the rest of the population. Subsequently, your liver builds resistance to insulin, preventing your body from controlling sugar levels and leading to diabetes.
The truth about sweeteners
Artificial sweeteners are calorie-free chemical substances, used to sweeten drinks and foods in place of sugar. They are found in many products such as toothpaste, cake, desserts, ready-to-go meals, chewing gum and drinks. Some of the approved sweeteners in the UK include:
- Acesulfame K
Extensive studies in the UK and US reveal that artificial sweeteners do not cause cancer. The European Food Safety Authority sets a recommended daily intake, which is the safe amount to consume. Food manufacturers claim sweeteners reduce calorie intake, lower blood sugar levels and prevent tooth decay. Dietitian, Emma Carder, states that they are safe to drink and eat, as well as being an acceptable substitute for individuals who have diabetes.
However, some individuals are sensitive to sweeteners and might experience side effects such as stomach upset and headache. Individuals with Phenylketonuria (a genetic condition that causes disorder of amino acid metabolism) are advised not to consume products with aspartame. There is no information to support the claim that aspartame causes brain tumours or any illness.
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Main sources of sugar in our diet
According to the NHS, sugar should only make up 5% of your total calorie intake. Figures from the National Diet and Nutrition Survey reveal that children aged 11-18 get 15% of their daily calories from added sugar. All sugar is the same, so the term ‘healthy sugar’ is a fallacy. You need to read the labels on food packaging to compare products, choosing those with the lowest sugar content. Names of sugar on food labels include:
- Maple syrup
- Corn syrup
- Agave syrup
- Invert sugar
Why Sugar Addiction is So Prevalent
Despite health warnings asking people to cut back on their intake, sugar makes up a third of your daily calorie intake. Researchers at Yale University revealed that eating bad carbohydrates (such as biscuits and sweets) leads to low blood sugar and affects impulse control in the brain. Some individuals might argue that sugar is not bad, because it’s natural. However, that only rings true for certain naturally-occurring sugars that provide nutrients and vitamins.
There is no dietary requirement for sugar in the body. You need protein and healthy fat more than you do carbohydrates. Excess sugar consumption (mostly hidden in processed food) has been blamed as the cause of developmental issues in children and the current obesity crisis in the US.
Dependence creates the need for more sugar. You won’t become fat overnight, lose bone density or develop heart problems immediately, but the harmful effects happen over a long period of time, which make it even more dangerous.
When you eat sugar, your body and brain crave more sugar; your blood sugar level spikes as dopamine is released in the brain; hunger and cravings set in, reinforcing the need to eat more sugary food; and blood sugar levels fall. This leads your body to crave another ‘sugar high’ to increase blood sugar levels and induce the feeling of pleasure. This cycle of addiction explains how difficult it is to give up sugar and the grasp it has on your life.
Sugar Addiction Treatment
For carb addicts, breaking a sugar addiction is a difficult task. Currently, many rehab centres don’t offer specialised plans to treat sugar addiction. Individuals in dire need of help might join the overeaters’ 12-step programme to fight craving and prevent relapse, but addiction experts state that it’s not effective in breaking the circle of addiction.
Unlike other substance addictions, sugar addiction is a silent killer, where you won’t see the effects until it’s too late. The damage is mostly long-term and leads to health conditions such as anxiety disorders, candida overgrowth, hyperactivity, autoimmune disorders, insulin resistance, obesity, Type 2 diabetes, nutritional deficiencies and heart disease. Sugar is one of the main causes of degenerative disease in America.
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Health professionals do not advise sugar addicts to quit ‘cold turkey’ during detox, as this worsens withdrawal symptoms and is not sustainable in the long-term. Reduce sugar intake to a refined amount and find healthy alternatives. Talk with a doctor or nutritionist about your sugar addiction. They are in the best position to recommend effective methods to reduce blood sugar levels.
There are some rehab facilities in the UK that provide specialised programmes for sugar addicts, treating the addiction like any other. Individuals can enrol as inpatients, whereby doctors, nurses and clinical psychologists provide 24/7 support. The programme consists of 12-step programmes, nutrition therapy, intensive trauma therapy, lectures, meal prep lessons and alternative therapy models.
How to give up sugar in 11 easy steps
Know your enemy: It’s important to know the amount of sugar in products you consume. If you knew this, you’d probably eat or drink something else. If you see sugar intake as an addiction that is affecting your health, you need to reduce your daily intake until you quit.
Quitting ‘cold turkey’: If you treat sugar cravings as an addiction, it’s easier to stop consuming it. Quitting ‘cold turkey’ is one way to stop. However, only follow this step if you know you can sustain it long-term.
Fruits contain sugars: Many people assume fruit is okay, because it contains natural sugar. However, that sugar is mostly fructose. It contains vitamins and fibre, but should be accompanied by nuts and seeds. Do not limit your sugar intake to fruits or eat fruits all the time. Look for fruits with higher water content, such as watermelon and oranges.
Remove all sugar from your environs: Remove all sugar products from your fridge, cupboard, car and workplace. Flavoured yoghurts, cordials, processed food and cookies also have to go. The temptation to eat sugary food reduces when you don’t have junk in your fridge.
Stock up on health food: You need lean meat, fish, fresh produce, plain yoghurts, cinnamon and lots of green, leafy vegetables. Cook your meals with coconut oil or olive oil and avoid drowning your food in marinades and sauces.
Take your own food to work: It’s easy to buy unhealthy food at the cafeteria or food truck. However, always cook enough food so you can take some to work. If you’re hungry before lunch, munch on some celery or nuts.
Alcohol is bad for you: Many people get most of their sugar from drinking alcohol. You need to give up alcohol if you’re serious about reducing your sugar intake.
Grains are good for you: Carbohydrate converts to glucose (except fibre). You can rate the intensity of your desire, based on the glucose index. Treat refined carbs as sugar and avoid all food that gives you a sugar craving.
Tell your friends and family about your diet plan: It’s easier to avoid sugar if your friends and family know about your diet plan. When you hang out in groups or social occasions, they can prepare non-sugary food for you.
Sugar-free alternatives: You can substitute calorie-laden cakes with sugar-free ones. Replace sugar with fruit, wheat with nuts, cooking oil with coconut oil and other health combinations.
Paleo eating: Before processed foods, people ate little fruits, meat, no grains and exercised a lot. Stone age ancestors were healthier than modern age humans and rarely got sick or fat.
Sugar addiction statistics
- The average American adult consumes 196 pounds of sugar in a year
- One in three children are at risk of diabetics
- The number of adults who have diabetes has increased to 18.8 million from 1.6 million in the past 50 years
- 170 UK children have dental operations every day to remove teeth rotten by sugar
- The cost of operations has cost the NHS £36.2m
A report in the American Medical Association Journal states that sugar factories paid researchers in the 1960s and 70s to downplay the effects of sugar on the body and mind
Is Sugar Addiction as Powerful as Cocaine Addiction?
An article in the British Journal of Sports Medicine sparked debates online when it claimed that sugar addiction is just as powerful as cocaine addiction. The article states that consuming sugar elicits the same effect as cocaine by inducing pleasure and reward, altering mood and reinforcing the sugar-seeking behaviour. The reward centre of the brain and circuits (nucleus accumbens) that control food behaviour also respond to addictive drugs.
How is sugar an addiction if it doesn’t have an in intoxicating effect?
Contrary to popular belief, sugar has a slightly intoxicating effect and addicts seek an escape or ‘high’ when they consume sugar, which is the same as addiction to opioids and cocaine.
How do you detect sugar addiction?
A few signs include:
- You’ve tried to reduce sugar intake several times, but failed
- You experience withdrawal symptoms when you attempt to stop consuming sugar
- You’re aware of the health risks of consuming excess sugar, but continue to do so all the same
What are the dangers of sugar addiction?
The dangers of consuming excess sugar include: gout, liver disease, obesity, stroke, heart disease, tooth decay, depression, hyperactivity, cancer, difficulty concentrating, high blood pressure, increased blood sugar levels and weak immune system.
Other names for sugar
Some food containers use different names to label sugar. Some of the names include: Malt Syrup, Agave Nectar, Evaporated canned juice, High-fructose Corn Syrup, Brown Rice Syrup, Glucose, Sucrose, Lactose and Molasses.
Do artificial sweeteners help with sugar addiction?
Artificial sugars increase cravings for sugar. If you notice that you crave more sugar when consuming artificial sweeteners, switch to natural sugar sources like fruits and berries.
What is added sugar?
Added sugars (also known as ‘free sugars’) include naturally occurring sugars in fruit juice and honey, as well as those added to drinks and food. They are labelled with different names on food/drinks labels, but account for 14% of the average individual’s calorie intake.
Sugar Detox: Hype or Hope?
Some people consume sugar in an unhealthy way. When you lose control over sweet things and eat more than you plan, you could be hooked on sugar. Detox plans tell you to avoid all sugar and quit ‘cold turkey’. This includes refined sugar, fruit and dairy products. However, such diet changes are extreme and difficult to maintain long-term. The best way is to take small steps by substituting sugary food for fresh fruits and berries, cut back on your daily consumption, and eat more fibre and protein to curb sugar cravings.
Do Sugar Detox Diets Work?
The efficiency of a sugar detox diet depends on the diet you’re following. Some involve drinking only liquids, fasting from food, eating fruits and vegetables, amongst others. If you can, try the ‘clean eating diets’, whereby you consume whole grains, fruits, vegetables and lean protein.
What are the common sugar detox plans?
- Regular exercise
- Add herbs and supplements to your meals
- Eliminate refined sugar, alcohol, cigarettes and coffee
- Using enemas, laxatives and colon cleanses
- Avoid allergenic food for a while and slowly reintroduce them to your diet
- Drinking green smoothies, vegetable juice, tea and fresh fruit
How Much Sugar Is Too Much?
Most people consume 285 calories (19 teaspoons of sugar) per day. Women should consume six teaspoons daily and men nine a day.
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