Laboratory tests have shown that sugar is more addictive than class A drugs, but you can recognise the signs of the problem and gradually wean yourself back onto a healthier diet
The history of our relationship with sugar
Sugar has been available since the 18th century without causing obesity. The problem started in the early 1970s when we discovered we could make cheap sugar from corn, known as high fructose corn syrup (HFCS). This is a very sweet, cheap form of sugar behind the rise of the American giants Pepsi-Cola and Coca-Cola. HFCS does not raise blood sugar but increases insulin, causing insulin resistance via the back door, so to speak.
Obesity and being overweight have reached the worrying levels of 66% in the UK and 72% in the US. Extensive research tried to find the underlying cause. Hedonistic, palatable, sugary food and drink was at the top of the list.
Emerging evidence in medical literature states that highly processed food, rich in sugar and glucose, is more addictive than whole food. Food processing is the culprit of the obesity pandemic. Most evidence comes from animal studies since humans do not consume sugar in isolation.
We are familiar with the common story of a person who has been struggling with weight issues for decades. He continues to eat for pleasure and cannot resist sugar and carb-heavy foods, and eventually, his weight reaches the obesity range.
Many people love eating sugar and describe themselves as having a sweet tooth. Some reach the stage of developing psychological or emotional dependence on sugar. They are mentally connected to sugar as the source of their energy. They constantly lose control and take sugar to soothe their cravings, to medicate their stress or irritability, and to relieve their anxiety or depression. 70% of the US population suffers from sugar addiction.
In this blog, we will discuss how sugar addiction works, how to spot whether you are addicted, and explore how you can return your diet to a healthier pathway.
Simon, a 40-year-old gentleman, presented with frequent episodes of shivering, dizziness and sweating, which usually settled after eating sugar or carbohydrates. He noticed that fasting during the day also reduced his symptoms; however, consuming sugar or carbs in the evening precipitated palpitations, dizziness, anxiety and panic attacks. He also suffered from constipation, only having a bowel movement every other day.
He had adopted a vegetarian diet, high in sugar and carbohydrates, including sweets, bread, cereals, pasta and white rice. He ate well at home but carried sugary, carb-heavy snacks when he went out to meet his urgent need to eat.
He could only maintain a low level of physical activity due to constant lethargy. He generally felt weak and suffered from body aches and muscle soreness after any form of exercise.
He snored, sleeping 6 hours a night, but did not feel refreshed in the morning. He had low energy levels, estimated at 5 out of 10 during the day, which fluctuated in relation to food with a significant afternoon slump.
He had a strong family history of diabetes and heart disease.
Observations revealed high blood pressure at 145/90 and a relatively rapid pulse at 96 beats per minute. His fasting blood sugar was prediabetic at 6.4. Body mass index (BMI) was 28.3 (in the overweight range), and waist-hip ratio (WHR) was high at 0.97.
What triggers sugar addiction?
Some people feel compelled to eat sweet food in the same way that people have alcohol, drug or tobacco addictions. This observation triggered research to study the effect of sugar on lab animals.
Sugar is a substance with a psycho-motor effect that releases dopamine, the reward hormone. Studies confirmed that addictive drugs such as morphine, cocaine and alcohol activate the same neural pathway within the limbic system in the brain to give similar effects.
Many studies on animals used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to observe the activity of the dopamine reward system. Lab rats become dependent on sugar in the same way as people who suffer from eating disorders and obesity.
Sugar stimulates sweet tastebuds in your tongue. This sends a signal to activate the reward system in the brain to release dopamine and give pleasure effects. You continue eating sugar and processed carbs to stay high and sustain dopamine that makes you feel great.
However, you should not let sugar hijack your taste. Your taste plays a crucial role in your nutrition. It guides you to seek the nutrients that meet your actual needs. Being locked in the sugar dopamine pleasure effect would leave you with essential nutrient deficiency. This sets the scene for metabolic diseases such as obesity, diabetes, and heart disease.
Sugar and addictive drugs activate the brain’s reward response to release not only dopamine but also opioids (the body’s natural morphine) and serotonin (the happy hormone).
Research confirmed that blocking dopamine receptors helped to reduce sugar and processed food intake, a promising remedy for sugar addiction in the future.
Dopamine is guilty as organic acid tests show higher levels of Homovanillic Acid (HVA), the dopamine breakdown product in the urine of sugar-addicted people.
The above drug-like effects of sugar change our behaviour around food, resulting in eating disorders being overweight and obese. It compels people to eat sugary food and drinks and processed carbs. The resulting addictive behaviour manifests in bingeing, desensitization, and craving and can precipitate withdrawal effects.
Bingeing is taking a high quantity of sugary foods in one sitting. Repeated, this can decrease the person’s response to sugar; in other words, they develop tolerance. They need a bigger dose (eat more sugar) to produce the same euphoric effect.
Desensitization occurs when there is a decrease in the number of receptors sensing the reward effect so that the affected person again needs more sugar to reach the same pleasure effect. They often continue to eat sugar to maintain the gained sense of well-being.
Craving is an intense desire to take the addicted sugar and processed carbs. This happens repeatedly and triggers impulsive eating.
By comparison, normal people stop eating when they have had enough to meet their physiological needs.
Withdrawal symptoms happen when you stop eating sugar abruptly. These include fatigue, mental fogginess, headaches, muscle aches, insomnia, irritability, mood swings, anxiety, depression, sugar and salt cravings, nausea, bloating, diarrhoea, and involuntary shaking.
Besides the taste addiction, highly palatable sugar and refined carbs, like bread and pasta, break down instantly into glucose, resulting in sugar rushing into the bloodstream. This releases insulin, resulting in sugar spikes and crashes, consequently triggering cravings. It makes sugar more addictive than cocaine.
This was confirmed in a study that showed that lab mice selected sugar when given the chance to choose between sugar and cocaine!
Are you a sugar addict?
Eating sugar and carbs for comfort, which results in obesity and being overweight, is often attributed to a lack of willpower and little self-control. It can result in low self-esteem and a feeling of hopelessness.
You are a sugar addict if:
- You eat too much sugar.
- You eat sugar when you are not hungry.
- Your meal is not complete without a dessert.
- You seek sugar at odd times, for example, going out to pick up a chocolate bar from the petrol station late at night.
- You feel guilty after eating sugar.
- You hide your sugar addiction and make excuses for eating too much.
- You use sugar as a soothing mechanism, turning to sugar to cope with physical and psychological stressors.
If you have developed a tolerance to sugar – you need more and more sugar to satisfy your craving, as your tastebuds become desensitised – fruit is not sweet enough for you, and you will also crave salty foods.
You will also love to eat refined carbs, like bread, pasta, french fries, bagels, crackers and white rice. These break down instantly into sugar, providing lots of calories but crucially few nutrients to process these calories into energy.
Another sign of being a sugar addict is experiencing constant fatigue due to the fluctuations in your blood sugar levels and a lack of essential nutrients to make energy. You may notice dips and spikes in energy during the day and have an afternoon slump, wanting to go to bed after lunch. You need to eat every 2 to 3 hours. You love to eat and cannot stop eating sugar once you start. You feel irritable without sugar.
You may feel bloated after eating sugar and carbs due to the fermentation of sugar by candida in your digestive tract. Candida overgrowth is a common feature of sugar addiction.
You may also have a skin yeast infection – toenail fungus, and athlete’s foot are common manifestations of sugar addiction.
Sweet tooth is a genuine genetic disorder. Genes govern your taste buds’ ability to sense sugar. People with the TAS1R2 and TAS1R3 variants have lower expression of sweet receptors, pushing them to consume more sugar and carbs to compensate. Those with the SLC2A variant are less sensitive to sweets. They tend to choose extra-sweet food or add more sugar to their food.
However, your genes are not your destiny. The tips given below will help you overcome sugar addiction.
The aim is not to quit sugary and carb-heavy foods completely but to swap unhealthy ones out and healthy ones in. Eat real instead of processed food, farm instead of factory, and live instead of dead food.
Change begins when you realise that there is a problem. A need for self-control can help, but going cold turkey isn’t ideal. Since palatable foods strongly affect the brain’s reward system, willpower alone may not be enough. Avoid processed, highly palatable foods, clear your home of bad foods, and boycott shops and restaurants full of them.
Other tips include:
- Give up sugar slowly, initially replacing unhealthy sweets with sugary fruit, for example.
- Eat protein with every meal to curb your appetite.
- Eat nutrient-dense food, as a deficiency of essential nutrients like magnesium triggers cravings. (Eating more is primarily motivated by the taste and a lack of the essential nutrients necessary for processing food and making energy.)
- Try cutting out one sweet food each week.
- Eat more fibre.
- Eat more fermented food – apple cider vinegar, yoghurt, sauerkraut, kimchi, Kombucha.
- Take regular, gentle exercise.
- Drink more water to stay hydrated because thirst is commonly mistaken for hunger.
- Limit natural sugar, such as honey, sugar and maple syrup.
- Switch to natural sweeteners that do not contain sugar or calories, such as stevia.
- How much sugar? Do not exceed 3 teaspoons for a woman and 5 teaspoons for a man per day.
- Intermittent fasting, the most popular being 16/8 (16 hours without food, with all of your meals within an 8-hour window), having 2 to 3 decent meals without snacking.
- Enjoy adequate restful sleep, reduce stress levels, and practice stress-relieving techniques like deep breathing and meditation.
Sugar addiction can lead to obesity and metabolic syndrome, which can cause serious health issues, including diabetes, heart attack and stroke. But the diagnosis, even self-diagnosis, is relatively straightforward in this case, and once again, my friends, the solution lies in gradually moving towards the right diet and other lifestyle changes that are comparatively easy and straightforward to adopt.
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Evidence for sugar addiction: Behavioural and neurochemical effect of intermittent, excessive sugar intake
Sugar addiction: the state of the science
Sugar and sweet taste: addictive or rewarding?
10 signs you might have a sugar addiction
Sweet tooth genetics: How genetics influence your dessert craving
The science behind your sugar cravings