Are you addicted to sugar?
Article from Lindsay Martin, MS, RDN, LDN |
Have you ever seen the empty drink bottles with the added sugar just sitting in the bottom used to display how much added sugar is in them? The soda bottles, lemonade bottles, Gatorade bottles, and water bottles. But what does this mean, and why is it important? Sugar was originally created and used as a medicine for the rich and powerful, and it ended as a product of mass consumption with unknown effects. With research, the negative effects of added sugar are becoming more understood.
What is sugar?
There are many types of sugar, and not all of them result in more harm than good. Sugar is technically known as carbohydrates. Carbohydrates are broken down into two types - simple and complex. Simple carbohydrates include glucose, fructose, and galactose and are found mainly in processed and refined foods such as candy, syrup, and table sugar but can also include fruit. Complex carbohydrates are two or more simple carbohydrates chemically bound together. Foods that are classified as complex carbohydrates include peas, beans, whole grains, and vegetables like potatoes and sweet potatoes. The main difference between simple and complex sugars are their chemical makeup and how they are digested within the body. Simple carbohydrates are digested in the upper digestive system resulting in the sugar source going straight to the brain, whereas complex carbohydrates are not digested until later in the digestive system resulting in the sugar source being used throughout the body, including in the gut and the brain.
What is Addiction and How can Sugar be Addicting?
Addiction is the neuropsychological need for something. Whether it is drugs, exercise, or food, addiction can present itself in many ways. It is fueled by the chemical reactions in the brain craving more and more of a specific thing. Sugar addiction has been and is continued to be studied, with results showing the negative effects it can have on the body. Research suggests only certain types of sugar are addictive, and some are more addictive than others. When the body consumes simple sugars, specifically fructose and fructose-based products such as high fructose corn syrup, the body digests it very quickly and sends the sugar straight to the brain. The brain then receives an overflow of dopamine across many regions in the brain. Dopamine is the happy hormone, and thus we relate fructose containing products to being happy. This same mechanism happens in drugs of abuse, but unlike sugar, drugs of abuse stimulate far fewer regions of the brain. In addition to the flood of hormones that our brain likes, fructose is digested so quickly that it does not give the body time to react to how much is being consumed. The hunger start and stop hormone does not have time to process how much is being consumed and signal to the brain that the body is full. This often results in over consumption of the foods.
Assessing Sugar Addiction
How do you tell if you have a sugar addiction? Read, think about, and answer these 7 questions.
- Have you ever hidden something? Liquor bottle? Candy?
- Deals with yourself. “If I can get this done, I can have this later?”
- If you spent more time or money on it?
- Neglected something because you were buying, eating, etc.?
- Have you ever felt the need to cut back on whatever it is you might think you’re addicted to?
- Do you ever think about or fantasize about the food/ sweet?
- Have you ever used food or sweets to self soothe for coping with your emotions?
If you said “yes” to at least three of these questions, you are addicted to sugar.
How do we detox from sugar?
Just like any addiction, detoxing is very hard. That’s one of the characteristics of addiction. With any addiction, there will be detox or withdrawal symptoms. These can include insomnia, body aches, muscle, or joint aches, being irritable or cranky, having higher than normal levels of anxiety, and headaches.
Steps that can be taken during detox include:
- Knowing and identifying the problem.
- The overconsumption of sugar is often related to other aspects of a daily routine. Think about the snacks we eat, drinks we drink, treats and desserts, etc.
- Whether you grew up consuming high levels of sugar, you use it as a coping mechanism, a celebration tactic, or it has become a part of your daily routine, it unintentionally becomes habitual and addictive. Identifying this is a huge step in changing it and you should be proud of yourself for recognizing that there is an issue.
- Understanding what sugar is and where in your diet you are consuming it
- This can be hard because it is normal to think ‘I don’t eat a lot of candy, cookies, baked goods, alcohol etc.’ but sugar is found in almost everything you eat. Do you eat a lot of bread, pasta, chips, fruit, coffee, soda? This list goes on and on.
- Eating a balanced diet that is high in protein, fat, and vegetables.
- By creating a balanced diet that includes substantial amounts of protein, fat, vegetables, and whole grains, the body can signal to the brain that it is full and content, and the craving for something sweet will start to dwindle. Your body is getting the nutrients it needs and can react accordingly.
- Realizing it is a hard process and giving yourself grace in difficult situations
- Changing habits and breaking a cycle is hard. If it was easy, it wouldn’t be a topic of conversation. Giving yourself grace and realizing there are times where things to go as planned will be a great motivator to keep going. One treat is not going to mess up an entire plan of progress.
- Have a good support system: Family, friends, a dietitian and/or PCP.
- Going through things like this is hard, and it is even harder if you are trying to do it alone. By having a support system, you have someone to talk with and express the struggles you are having. It will also help having someone keep you accountable on your journey. A support system can be family, a significant other, friends, or a registered dietitian. They should be there to support and encourage you, not tear you down.
Behavioral Aspects of Sugar Addiction
We have talked about how to recognize what sugar is and how it can be addicting, but why does it matter? Besides the obvious side effects of addiction, how does sugar affect our bodies?
Sugar affects every age group differently and initially an individual is going to be unable to see these affects. It will be mainly internal, and you will feel great because you are getting the initial dopamine release that makes you happy. In adolescents, sugar has been negatively associated with nonverbal intelligence tests. This means that adolescents who consume high levels of sugar have lower scores on nonverbal tests. In people of all ages, high sugar intake results in a deficit in hippocampal memory function. Hippocampal-dependent memory function is the brain's ability to form memories that contain information about the specific time and place of an event. Especially in adolescence, these memories have a large emphasis and the characteristics a child develops. If children and young adults experience this, long term effects can include a negative effect on the ability to remember directions, location, and orientations, cognitive dysfunction, and other mental health disorders. In addition, excess sugar intake can increase an individual's chances of cognitive impairment seen in dementia and Alzheimer’s patients as they age.
Disease States Associated with High Sugar Intake
Other diseases that can result from a high intake of sugar, or a sugar addiction include type 2 diabetes. Type 2 diabetes occurs when the body becomes unable to process sugar and blood sugars spike to dangerously high levels. This often occurs because the body has been working in overdrive to process the high levels of sugar an individual has been consuming.
High sugar intake can also worsen symptoms of current health conditions. These conditions include but are not limited to ADHD, Alzheimer’s, dementia, metabolic syndrome, hypertension, lipogenesis, and other complications of these diseases.
While sugar is not inherently bad, and the body needs carbohydrates to function at its highest levels, an excess intake of added sugars and sugar addiction can be detrimental to an individual's health. It is important to include complex carbohydrates - whole grains, fruits, and vegetables, it is just as important to limit or eliminate processed and refined sugars found in many regularly consumed foods. The risks of the over consumption of these foods are on-going and can lead to very serious health consequences.