In Part One we share the science of sugar addiction alongside its harmful effects. Sugar is a substance we have all been exposed to in our diet and overconsumption is a real cause for concern when it comes to many aspects of our heath. Many self confessed ‘sweet tooths’ arrive at the clinic feeling vulnerable to its effects with some using the word ‘addiction’ to define their relationship with the sweet stuff.
In the last half-century, sugar consumption has tripled worldwide, partially due to the hidden use of added sugars in processed food.(1) TV ads encourage indulgence and attempt to normalise an ingredient that has no nutritional value. In the 1980s an advertising campaign went so far as to proclaim that sugar “is a natural part of life” in an attempt to combat sugar’s negative image.(2) The simple fact is that sugary foods and beverages can result in poor nutrient supply and reduced dietary diversity(3) with a range of health consequences.
Sickly sweet sugar is making you sick
The harmful effects of chronic ingestion of high-dose sugar have been linked to:(3,4,5)
- metabolic syndrome
- insulin resistance
- type 2 diabetes
- cardiovascular disease
- some cancers
- Alzheimer’s disease
- cellular ageing
- nonalcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD)
- nonalcoholic steatohepatitis (NASH)
- gut microbiota disruption
- dental caries
While all of the above show the impact on our physical health, science now also points to sugars sickly effect on our mental and neurological health. Put simply, sugar addiction is real. Whether it’s the ingredients combined with sugar to make for an all too tempting treat or the social acceptance making it easier to share sweets frequently, there is neurochemistry behind our choices that may have us feeling heavily influenced to overeat and crave sweets.
Sugar is the new Fat
Sugar or fat alone may not always contribute to weight gain but interestingly, when eaten together, become a very potent combination with implications for obesity.(6) While fat has been vilified for the past few decades, new research suggests that sugar is much more problematic. Since highly processed foods tend to contain both fat and added sugar, this leads to over-consumption caused by their palatability, contributing to overeating. (6) While healthy fats are of course still recommended in moderation as part of a healthy diet, the same cannot be said for sugar which essentially has no place in a healthy eating plan.
Many of us tend to have a love/hate relationship with the sweet stuff and when consuming a sugary treat a sense of indulgence might easily become overindulgence, which is followed by feelings of guilt, creating a vicious cycle. Findings show that sugar consumption is simultaneously shunned and celebrated in private family life. (7) While a birthday cake or an ice cream on the Summer holidays might make for enjoyable family time, the real cause for concern is just how much-hidden sugar is in our daily diet, since it is estimated to be found in 75% of packaged foods.(4)
The science of sugar addiction
Science tells us that sugar does have real addictive potential since it stimulates the release of both dopamine and opioids. (4)(8) Stimulation and reinforcement of neural pathways occur with the ingestion of sugar, which is experienced as an event that then embeds in our memory. (8) This is perceived as a highly rewarding experience and sets up the reward/craving cycle in relationship to dopamine release.
It is believed that sugar can potentially even act as an analgesic most likely by releasing endogenous opioids. It makes sense then that sugar deprivation was found to produce signs of opiate withdrawal including anxiety-like behaviours. Sugar also seems to act as a gateway to alcohol use, something which may be most relevant in teenagers.(9)
When Sugar becomes Bittersweet
If you feel like sugar consumption is problematic, you’re not alone! The next Blog will focus on overhauling the diet to reduce sugar intake and explore a Sugar Detox. Naturopathic and Nutritional support is always on hand, so whether you feel sugar is affecting your weight gain, gut health or mood change, we have plenty of strategies to help you regain control when sugar leaves you feeling sour.
UPDATE: You can read Part Two: How to go Sugar-Free HERE