Studies are increasingly suggesting that our heavy reliance upon sugar in the diet is not only unhealthy in numerous ways, but is also addictive. This has significant implications for our health in both the short and long term.
So, how does sugar addiction make us fat, and what can be done about it?
When we consume sugar in any form, it affects our bodies on a chemical level. The consumption of sugar causes a release of opiates and dopamine in the brain, primarily in the nucleus accumbens. This part of the brain is associated with motivation, novelty, and reward, and is the same brain region implicated in response to cocaine and heroin. The positive reinforcement of eating sugar leading to pleasure can lead to dependence in people with certain predisposition to addiction.
Research from Princeton University shows that rats given sugar in experimental conditions exhibit all of the signs of addiction; when initially given sugar, rats;
demonstrated a behavioural pattern of increased intake and then showed signs of withdrawal.
When sugar was removed from their diets for a prolonged period and then reintroduced, rats who had previously binged on sugar worked much harder to ‘earn’ sugar treats, suggesting craving and relapse behaviours.
Source: Princeton University Research
The researchers have;
shown that rats eating large amounts of sugar when hungry… …undergo neurochemical changes in the brain that appear to mimic those produced by substances of abuse, including cocaine, morphine and nicotine.
Whilst this study looked at the effects upon rats, this is standard practice, because of the similarities between rats and humans in how our brains work. This study can therefore provide a good indicator of how the same habits may affect the human brain. Indeed, the study concluded that;
This may translate to some human conditions as suggested by the literature on eating disorders and obesity.
Certain Sugars are Worse than Others – Fructose
Glucose can be used by every cell in the body, whereas other types of sugar, especially fructose, cause more problems for the body. Fructose can only be metabolised by liver cells, and studies are increasingly showing that the consumption of excessive fructose levels can lead to several negative health consequences, as well as it being even more addictive and less satisfying than glucose.
Fructose is present in many different food stuffs, usually in the form of high fructose corn syrup, which is used to elongate the shelf life of foods, add sweetness, and to be a cheap alternative to other types of sugars.
Eating large amounts of fructose can lead to leptin resistance, which affects satiety on a chemical level. One study of rats has strongly indicated that this fructose-induced leptin resistance can lead to weight gain and obesity.
Beware of Hidden Sugar
Sugar is present in many places in which we might not expect. Sugar is often present in savoury foods even though it is typically viewed as a sweet ingredient. Sauces and dips are also often high in sugar.
For example tomato ketchup contains a significant amount of sugar, as does salad cream. See Daily Mail article.
Often choosing a different brand can reduce the sugar content of a product, if you don’t want to totally give up a particular food. Try reading ingredients lists to identify which foods are hiding large amounts of sugar in them. Remember that there are numerous terms for sugar based ingredients. This further helps to hide the presence of sugar in or foods.
Names for sugar commonly used on ingredients list
Agave Nectar, Barley Malt Syrup, Beet Sugar, Brown Rice Syrup, Cane Crystals, Cane Sugar, Coconut Sugar, or Coconut Palm Sugar, Corn sweetener, Corn syrup, or corn syrup solids, Dehydrated Cane Juice, Dextrin, Dextrose, Evaporated Cane Juice, Fructose, Fruit juice concentrate, Glucose, High-fructose corn syrup, Honey, Invert sugar, Lactose, Maltodextrin, Malt syrup, Maltose, Maple syrup, Molasses, Palm Sugar, Raw sugar, Rice Syrup, Saccharose, Sorghum or sorghum syrup, Sucrose, Syrup, Treacle, and Xylose.
This list is obviously huge, but not extensive, showing just how well disguised the presence of sugar can be.
The body breaks down many starchy foods as they are digested into simple sugars such as glucose. This means that you can still be feeding a sugar addiction even if you have a preference for starchy foods such as pasta, rice and bread, over sweets.
To see how healthy your carbohydrate choices are, and how much of an impact they have upon your blood sugar levels and subsequent food cravings, consider researching the GI rating of your favourite foods.
GI Ratings and Sugar
Easily digested sugars, also known as simple sugars, rank highly on the Glycemic Index, which means that they are quickly digested and cause significant spikes in the consumer’s blood sugar levels. In response to such high levels of glucose in the blood, the body releases large amounts of insulin, causing blood sugar levels drop to dramatically. This drop in sugar levels following a peak causes sugar cravings and the desire to eat again. This is why high sugar snacks and foods that have a high GI rating leave the user hungry again fairly quickly.
People who want to reduce their sugar intake, and want to regulate their blood glucose levels should reduce the amount of high GI foods they eat, and should try to eat more Low GI foods. These take longer to digest, meaning that they provide sustained energy over several hours, leaving the consumer fuller for longer.
Low GI foods include wholegrain food choices, dairy products (excluding yoghurts with added sugars), many fruits and vegetables as well as all varieties of legumes. Following a low GI diet plan has been shown to help achieve long term and sustainable weight loss, as well as improving blood sugar levels. It even may have advantages over diets with the same calorific value.
One preliminary study found that people on a low-glycemic diet lost more fat than those on a high-glycemic diet with the same calories. For more information check our review of the GI diet here.
Low Fat “diet” Options
Low fat foods can only be classed as that if they have less than a 3% fat content. Fat is the source of a lot of flavour, and so when it is removed, products that were creamy, such as yoghurts and sauces, can seem watery and bland. Food manufacturers have compensated for this by adding extra sugar.
Doing this adds extra calories to the product, but does not affect its classification. Consuming fat in a meal increases the perception of satiety, more so than sugar. It may be that people are under the impression that as it is low fat, it is automatically going to be better for you and lower in calories, meaning that they can eat more of it than they could of the full fat version. But, with the satiety of sugar being lower than fat, the high sugar, low fat option may actually encourage more snacking, as blood sugar levels spike and then drop, causing more sugar cravings.
Manufacturers exploit dieters’ desires to eat tasty food, and rely on them trusting the brand and marketing enough to not check the label to see the calorific content or amounts of sugar in the product.
How to Reduce your Sugar Intake and Fight the Addiction
- Avoid drastic action. Cutting sugar totally from your diet is the same as following a short term fad diet and will often lead to relapse and the return to old bad habits.
- Reduce the amount of sugar used in food and drink that you regularly consume. For example, add less sugar to tea and coffee, or consider water or milk as an alternative to sugary fizzy drinks.
- Try lower GI foods. This will reduce sugar cravings caused by the low blood sugar levels that follow a sugar binge.
- Check food labels. Foods with sugar in the top few ingredients should be avoided or eaten only in moderation. Sugar is often disguised in foods by using various names for it.
- Try making your own version of your favourite foods at home. By home cooking, it is much easier to control what goes into a meal, especially compared to takeaways and microwaveable ready meals.
- Sugar is sugar. In general, anything that is described as a sugar, sweetener or syrup should be considered to be a type of sugar product. Ingredients that end with the suffix ‘-ose’ often tend to be sugars as well. For example, fructose, sucrose and maltose are all sugars.
- Keep a food diary (and be honest about the food you have eaten). Online food trackers are available on both websites and as apps, making them more versatile and accurate than ever. These can be invaluable in seeing where your daily calories and sugar is coming from, allowing you to make dietary changes.
Time To Reduce or Give Up Sugar?
While it may be that sugar is addictive, it does not leave any dieter powerless. Like any other addiction, dependence upon sugar can be overcome, by both using will power and changing habits to minimise cravings.
As seen above, dietary habits can be altered to help promote satiety from food, improve health and lose weight. Knowing where the problem lies is half the problem and so knowing that addiction or dependence upon sugar is possible means that it is easier to formulate a diet plan that will work.
In theory losing weight is the simple matter of ensuring more energy is expended than consumed, but it is increasingly looking like successfully losing weight is a more complicated process than eating less and moving more.