Why Are We Addicted to Sugar?

Jul 01, 2019
Ashley Lawrie

Author: Riley Pearce
Social Media Director
Personal Trainer – Byward Market

The majority of us are addicts and we may not even realize it. Addiction, by definition is when we are physically and mentally dependent on a particular substance, and unable to stop taking it without incurring adverse effects. 

This seems like a pretty serious thing and is more formally associated with substances like drugs and alcohol. Addictions can happen with any kind of substance, including everyday food items, sex, and gambling.

Sugar is one of the most addictive food substances that we consume. In fact, sugar is 8 times more addictive than cocaine, a well-known addictive drug. 

If you really think about it, it makes sense. Sugar is in everything – fruits, pastas, breads, sweets, baked goods, beverages. We are giving ourselves a hit of sugar every day, and the food industry knows it so they continue to sneak more sugar into our food. This is why going on a “carb-free” diet can be so difficult. Your body will literally go through withdrawals from the constant flow of simple sugars. 

So how does sugar addiction work and is there a way to overcome it?

There are 3 parts to addictive behaviour. The first is bingeing. Bingeing is when an individual consumes a particular substance, in large quantities, in one sitting. This behaviour could have some evolutionary roots as our ancestors would be encouraged to consume as much of these brain-boosting substances at one time to maximize the amount of dopamine in the brain. Dopamine is a neurochemical in the brain that is associated with a happy, and “high” feeling in large enough quantities.

The second is withdrawal. This is typically shown through anxiety and irritability and will occur after avoidance or forced deprivation from an addictive substance. 

The final part is cravings. When we crave something our motivation to attain that substance is increased. People will do crazy things and convince themselves they really need sugar when their cravings are at an all-time high. 

As you read through this you may already recognize that you have experienced these 3 phases of addiction with sugar. You may have been on a diet, and have been “really good” lately, then something major happens – a stressful day at work or something like that and all of a sudden you find yourself in the candy aisle at the grocery store. You pick up not one, but 2 kinds of candy. Then you go home and consume those 2 bags of candy before you’ve even chosen your Netflix movie for the night.

This narrative is actually representative of another aspect of addiction and that is sensitization. We see this with things like smoking and alcohol – one behaviour or substance leads to the next because they work on similar brain pathways. Stressful work-days put our brain in a state where it craves a boost. Bingeing will release a ton of that neurochemical dopamine, and provide us with the calming “high” we need to forget about whatever was stressing us out. 

The second half of that story is an important one to look at as well. After bingeing, we feel guilty. We know that sugar is not good for our long term health, so we vow to never do that again. Then comes withdrawal. The day after bingeing you may feel lethargic, irritable, depressed, or anxious. Then your brain remembers something that pulls you out of that “funk”. 

Enter cravings. 

It is a vicious cycle that many of us don’t even realize we are perpetuating by constantly dieting, or giving into those cravings.

So can we kick the sugar addiction?

Yes, and thankfully it doesn’t have to happen the way drug addictions are kicked by full, 100% removal.

Over time our palates have been conditioned to crave more sweet-ness. Even if you are using artificial sweeteners, your brain expects and wants your food to be a certain level of sweetness or else it is dissatisfying.

So in order to reduce our sugar intake, we need to slowly train our brain to want less-sweet food. This is common practice for people who want to switch from a daily double-double, to a black coffee. First, you order a 2-cream, 1 sugar. The coffee will taste different, but the more you expose your tastebuds to this coffee, the more they will get used to it. Then you drop it down to 2 cream, no sugar. Again you will have to adjust to the taste of this coffee, but eventually you won’t even notice the difference until you have finally gotten yourself down to drinking just black coffee.

Maybe it isn’t too many sugars in your coffee, but just too many sweets too often. Reflect on the past week and think about all the times you had bread, pasta, desserts, sodas, sweet coffees, or sweet snacks. For the next week, cut that down by a day. Then every week cut it down by another day until you are only having those sweets every now and then. 

Not ready to give up your granola bars or yogurt? Try finding a similar product that has less sugar. A great example is the quaker granola bars and kashi granola bars. You still get that granola bar snack in your day, but your body will learn to not need the high-sugar granola bar. 

Similar to how your body will find a workout difficult in the beginning, but over time and training workouts get easier, you can train your tastebuds to crave less sweet-ness. You just need to take the time to make a plan and find where your weaknesses lie and where you can start to cut back on your sugar intake.

In the case of sugar, abstinence or complete forced deprivation will only lead to bingeing. So this slow-and-steady training approach is a more balanced approach to reducing your sugar intake levels.Read the full literary review on sugar addiction here

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