No other food has received the recent caning (pardon the pun) that sugar has over the past couple of years. Headlines of ‘toxic’, ‘poison’ and ‘addiction’ have been constantly bantered around with sugar free devotes claiming that banning the simple molecule has changed their life and their weight forever.
Since high amounts of sugar is found in generally non-nutritive foods including soft drinks, sweet desserts, yoghurts, confectionary and processed cereal products, is not surprising that people drop weight when they ‘ban’ sugar form their diets. When you take a closer look at what is actually happening physiologically, is that the total carbohydrate load of the diet is significantly reduced when foods that contain sugar are eliminated, which simply means that insulin levels in the body are reduced and weight is lost. Naming sugar as addictive as an illicit drugs or alcohol though needs to be carefully considered, as there are some significant differences between a drug or alcohol dependency and one that is proposed to be associated with sugar that need to be taken into account.
The effect of sugar was initially likened to the effect seen with drugs as sweet food, as is the case with all palatable food, including foods high in fat, sugar and salt stimulate neurons that have an ‘opioid’ effect in the brain. This means that they tell the body that these foods are a good energy supply and the body needs them to produce energy to run off. It is largely a biological mechanism to tell the body to eat foods that contain fuel so that the body can continue to function. In the short term, these foods make us feel better and hence the belief that as they make us feel better, they are ‘addictive’.
Now it is not the ‘opioid’ effect that primes human beings to search for more of this palatable stimulus – this is a natural feel good hormone that is produced when we eat something that tastes good. Rather it is dopamine, a neurotransmitter that is released in ‘anticipation’ of eating palatable food that appears to support the habit of eating these foods regularly. This means that when you start to remember how good the ice cream tasted and start to have it regularly that the brain starts to ‘prime’ to seek out these foods. It even seems that these dopamine receptors may be more closely linked to weight gain than was previously thought. One study published in the Journal of Neurology found that overweight people has fewer dopamine receptors than normal weight individuals meaning that those who were overweight needed more food stimulus to get the same level of pleasure than normal weight people.
So where does that leave us in terms of sugar being addictive? The American Psychiatric Association requires several diagnostic criteria to define an ‘addiction’;
Recurrent substance use resulting in a failure to fulfil major role obligations at work, school, home;
Recurrent substance use in situations in which is it physically hazardous;
Recurrent substance-related legal problems;
Continued substance use despite having persistent or recurrent social or interpersonal problems caused or exacerbated by the effects of the substance.
Now while you may find yourself somewhat possessed on some occasions with the need for a chocolate bar, the truth is that needing sugar does not generally stop people from working. Nor does it see individuals holding up a local petrol station to obtain sweet snacks. And to the best of my knowledge, no one is in court for sugar related activity.
This is not to say that the drive to eat sweet foods is not powerful, particularly for those of us who have gotten into the habit of constantly rewarding their dopamine receptors with large volumes of sweet, highly palatable food. It is also not to say that breaking a habit of eating sweet foods regularly is difficult, but to label it as powerful as drugs is simply giving our little glucose model, which are brains and bodies run on, a little too much power.