There has been a lot of research and disagreement lately about sugar and whether or not a person could be addicted to it. Sure, we all like to eat sweets, and sometimes we find ourselves craving and overindulging in sweet treats. But what about those people who have a real sweet tooth, the people who “can’t live without chocolate” because it ends up affecting their mood and actions. Could they actually be addicted to sugar?
Medically speaking, an addictive substance is something which induces a pleasant state or relieves distress, leads to adaptive changes in the brain that trigger tolerance, physical dependance and uncontrollable cravings and causes dependance to such an extent that abstaining is difficult. It doesn’t sound so far-fetched that sugar addiction could exist. People are usually happy after they eat cake or some other treat. Some people will eat sweet things to relieve distress; think stress eating or eating chocolate to ease PMS symptoms. There are people out there who have such intense cravings for sweets that willpower is literally not enough, and they have to have something sweet every day. So what about adaptive brain changes and physical dependance?
Before we get into the science of neurotransmitters and brain responses, we need to talk about some biology and evolution. Back when humans were hunter-gatherers, food was not always in supply. You could go through a food-drought at any time, so our bodies were designed to build energy stores our of excess calories whenever possible. That way, when there was an unexpected period of time without enough food, we could survive off of what our bodies has stored as fat. Sweet, sugary foods are often high-calorie foods. So when we are presented with something sweet our body says, “That tastes good. Eat a lot of that so I can build up energy stores for the food-drought.” We are biologically wired to enjoy and seek out sweet, high calorie foods. We can’t help it.
Now, on to brain chemistry. When we eat sweets, our brain levels of dopamine increase. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter in the brain that controls the brains reward and pleasure centers. When we have high dopamine levels we feel happy. Dopamine also tells you to get into action to achieve a goal that will bring a reward or pleasure (such as eating a cookie). It is a very powerful neurotransmitter, and the signals it sends can be very hard to overcome with willpower. And, guess what, all we have to do is see a high-calorie food and our dopamine levels will increase. So just looking a picture of an ice cream sundae will get us thinking about how much we want to eat that and wondering where we could go buy one right now.
And guess what else, a high sugar diet can actually alter your brain chemistry! Scary! Check back next week for more information on what sugar does to your brain, and how you can overcome your sugar addiction.
- “Can sugar be addictive?” foodnavigator.com. William Reed Business Media, 16 Jan. 2006.
- Leutwyler Ozelli, Kristin. “This is your brain on food.” Scientific American Sep. 2007: 84-85.