Dr. Kestner: Is sugar addictive? New research says ‘Maybe’

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A patient was telling me about their battle with sugar:

“I crave sweets. I am trying desperately to get off sweets. I am starting my second week of not eating things that have lots of sugar. I know from past experiences that if I can last for two weeks, the cravings will ease and in three weeks they stop. But the first week or so is really tough.”

I asked what happened in the past that got her off track.

“I’ve tried this several times. I’ll be doing great and then I’ll try eating sweets again. I thought that I could just have a piece of birthday cake or a soft drink. That is all it takes to start the cycle over. I can go for months and not miss sugar at all, then as soon as I have something that is loaded with sugar I start craving it again.

“If I haven’t had any for a few weeks and I try a soft drink it tastes like syrup. But the next thing I know I’m buying a case at the supermarket and grabbing one from the cold drink case at the checkout because I can’t wait to get home.”

I asked her how she felt once she was beyond the craving stage of her fast from sugar.

“Oh I feel great. My energy increases. I have less joint and muscle pain. I know that I do better if I totally abstain from sugar and foods made with refined flour and filled with other additives.”

This patient is not alone. Many people experience strong responses to sugar that border on addiction. Although some addiction experts deny the attraction to sugar is a true addiction, new research is challenging that notion. Studies have demonstrated that sweets have an effect on the brain’s neurotransmitter system similar to that of addictive drugs.

Not all people react to sugar in the same way. Just as some people are not as strongly addicted to drugs as others, some people are strongly attracted to sweets, while others can take it or leave it.

Food manufacturers manipulate the sugar content of food like the tobacco industry manipulates nicotine in cigarettes. As you can probably imagine, many sweeteners are hidden in foods without our awareness. Similar to nicotine, sugar keeps us coming back for more. Also like nicotine, we require more sugar to activate the pleasure centers of our brain as our exposure to it increases.

How many pounds of sugar and other sweeteners would you guess that you eat in a year? 10? 20? Maybe 50? Imagine 10 five-pound bags of sugar sitting on the kitchen counter. Look like a lot of sugar?

Well, make more room on that imaginary counter. According to reports from the USDA, Americans consume approximately 160 pounds of sugar and other sweeteners per year. This includes not only table sugar, but also food ingredients such as high fructose corn syrup.

One hundred and sixty pounds! That’s a whole person. How did this happen?

There are several factors for our growing sugar consumption. Food manufacturers have steadily increased the sugary content of foods as well as launched new products that have higher sugar content. Why? Because we keep buying them. Consumers have also responded eagerly to the offer to “upsize” their fast food order and are now consuming 32-ounce drinks. (Early Coca-cola glass bottles held 6 ½ ounces.)

More consumers are eating primarily food that comes from a package in the freezer or a restaurant … cooking from scratch is a rare event in most homes. Because of this, we have little control over the actual ingredients in our foods. The food industry does what every other profit-minded business does – produce the cheapest product that will sell the most. Sugar, salt, MSG, trans-fats and other additives stimulate our neurological system to signal pleasure, even in low-quality foods.

Whether sugar is actually addictive in the scientific sense may not really matter as much as knowing that the high sugar and sweetener consumption of Americans is contributing immensely to health problems.

Next week, a few suggestions for reducing the consumption of unhealthy food additives.

Dr. Mark Kestner
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Members Opinions:
February 08, 2009 at 10:01am
Sugar is not necessarily the enemy. From what I have read, the body has a sort of "switch" that says "OK, enough" when you eat sugar. I recall when I was a kid, drinking those 6.5 oz Cokes. On the extremely rare occasion I got the chance to drink more than one, I would start to feel nauseous about half way through the third one. They contained sugar in those days. Now all soft drinks, store-bought cookies, snack crackers, processed foods, etc. contain high fructose corn syrup. A cheap sugar substitute. There is no "off switch" or "tank full" indicator for that. If you do a web search for high fructose corn syrup and obesity there are literally hundreds of articles from reputable sources that link the two. Of course HFCS cannot bear all the blame, but in my opinion there seems to be plenty of evidence to keep me away from it.
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