Why is Sugar So Addictive?

Have you ever wondered why you can’t just eat one cookie at a time? Or why diets are so difficult to sustain? Or why you’re thinking about cookies right now instead of the words you are reading? It’s sugar, sugar!

We evolved to seek out sugar.

Our brains are hard-wired to make us love sweets. This was an absolutely crucial evolutionary adaptation when food was scarce. Our ancestors may have gone days or even weeks without food, so when they came upon a sweet, high calorie food, they made sure they ate as much as they could of it. This prevented our ancestors from starving.

High caloric foods would provide for the function of the day and then the body stores any leftover sugar in the liver (as glycogen) so that there was energy available to run away from an angry wild pig. And when there was an abundance of sugar, or more than could be used for the day or stored as glycogen, the body stored it as fat. These fat stores could be pulled on in times of famine, which were a lot more frequent than they are today. These fat stores kept our ancestors alive.

The problem we run in to now is that sugar is not only readily available but it’s in just about every processed food we eat!

It’s even in things that we consider healthy—cereal, protein bars, yogurt, bread, and most spaghetti sauce!

When we consume sugar, the brain’s pleasure center (nucleus accumbens), receives a dopamine signal. The increase in dopamine—a neurotransmitter, or brain chemical, provides an experience of pleasure. Again, this was great for our ancestors who ate relatively little of it but when we have sugar in so many of the things we eat, processed or not, it can cause more harm than good.

And to add insult to injury, when we consume sugar for an extended period of time, the amount of sugar required to get that initial feeling of pleasure from the dopamine signal increases; thus, we need to eat more and more sugar to get the same pleasurable experience.

And for many of us, when we stop eating sweet things there is a period of withdrawal – causing feelings of discomfort, both physical and emotional. To get back to feeling normal we consume sugar. It is a vicious cycle. This is the same cycle in addiction to drugs such as cocaine and heroin—although whether sugar is addictive or not is a matter of intense debate in many research circles.

Additionally, chronic overconsumption can cause the dysregulation of a hormone called leptin. Leptin helps in signaling feelings of satiety. So, when leptin is not working properly, food cravings can result.

There are often emotional aspects of sugar addiction as well.

Eating sugar makes us feel good, which can override pain, anger, sadness, fear, or any number of other uncomfortable emotions. Is that a bad thing? Food and sugar are generally acceptable ways to suppress our discomfort so ultimately you need to decide if it’s ok for you. My own experience was pretty intense around sugar addiction. I would binge on it regularly. So much so that it impacted my quality of life, my energy, my health. I thought about food constantly. It was exhausting.

At some point I simply had enough. I decided that I no longer was willing to let food, specifically sugar, rule my brain and my life. I did gobsmacks of counseling to figure out why I was using food in the way that I was, and ultimately cut out sugar entirely for years before I finally freed myself.

Cutting down on sugar is easier said than done. But, it is possible!

If you need to do counseling to really figure out what is behind the emotional part of your consumption of sweet foods, do it. You won’t regret it. As for the physiological part, eating a balanced diet high in fiber, healthy fats, and protein can really help with satiety and cravings for sugar. Avoid sweet things as much as you can as they will act as triggers for most of us. This means avoiding fake sweeteners as well as real sugar. It means more veggies and less fruit. It means reading labels and keeping both added and natural sugar of all sorts to a minimum. And did I mention protein? Lots and lots of protein.

The first step for most people is to take a hard look at how much sugar they are actually eating. 4.2 grams of sugar = 1 teaspoon. Think about that—and look it up the next time you go for a pumpkin spice latte at Starbucks, or even a teriyaki dish at PF Chang’s. You can find the nutritional information for just about anything by looking at a label or searching google (the magic of the interwebs!)

Here is a chart from my book: Overcoming Overwhelm: Dismantle Your Stress from the Inside Out with some examples of how much sugar you might find in some common foods.

  • Nancy’s nonfat vanilla yogurt = 7.5 tsp of sugar
  • Kirkland signature trail mix 2 oz = 5 tsp of sugar
  • Starbucks grande nonfat no whip pumpkin spice latte  = 12 tsp of sugar
  • Starbucks grande nonfat green tea latte = 8 tsp of sugar
  • Rx blueberry protein bar = 4 tsp of sugar
  • Dunkin Donuts bran muffin = 9 tsp of sugar

Everyone has a different journey around sugar but if you struggle with this remember that you are hard-wired for it. I do not think we should be ashamed of our genetics and the adaptions that have made our lives possible today, but I do believe we have the choice to eat healthily and live the fulfilling, vibrant lives that we desire and deserve.

Now put down that cookie and go get an avocado!
Yours in Health,

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