Sugar cravings are real. They can strike at any time, and they seem to pop up when stress is high or when the 3 p.m. slump threatens to sap energy and derail plans to stay awake.
Filling up on sugar does bad things to the body and a person’s overall health. Negative effects of chronic sucrose exposure include:
- Weight gain
- Increased blood pressure
- Increased cholesterol levels
- Increased risk of diabetes, cancer, and heart disease
Getting hooked on the sweet stuff is real, and so are its effects on a person’s well-being, but can sugar be as addictive as drugs? There is some debate over the issue, but some health care professionals and scientists believe it can be.
In 2017, an article published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine asserted that sugar might be as addictive as drugs like cocaine. The authors also expressed that sugar could serve as a gateway to alcohol and other addictive substances.
Cardiovascular research scientist James DiNicolantonio of St. Luke’s Mid-America Heart Institute in Kansas City, Mo., who co-wrote the study, told The Guardian that in their study of sugar’s effects on mice, they observed, “In animals, [sugar] is actually more addictive than even cocaine, so sugar is pretty much probably the most consumed addictive substance around the world, and it is wreaking havoc on our health.”
According to The Guardian’s report about the article, others in the field criticized its conclusions, saying that while they believe sugar consumption can lead to health problems, they don’t believe it is addictive or a drug of abuse.
Hisham Ziauddeen, a psychiatrist at the University of Cambridge, told the newspaper, “The rodent studies show that you only get addiction-like behaviors if you restrict the animals to having [sugar] for two hours every day. If you allow them to have it whenever they want it—which is really how we consume it—they don’t show these addiction-like behaviors,” he said.
Still, there are other studies that have explored the link between sugar and addiction despite there being differences of opinion about the issue.
An April 2016 study conducted by researchers at the Queensland University of Technology found that consuming excessive amounts of sugar elevates the brain’s dopamine levels in a way similar to drugs such as cocaine. Over time, dopamine levels will fall, which means users will consume more sugar to achieve the same “high” and avoid mild depression.
This is similar to the experience drug users have when using addictive substances. The study also found that withdrawing from chronic sucrose exposure can cause an imbalance in dopamine levels, which will make it hard for people to quit sugar abruptly, or “cold turkey.”
Do not quit sugar “cold turkey”
Just as drug users are advised not to quit cold turkey after long-term substance use, people who use sugar chronically are also advised to go slow as they scale back. Quitting suddenly can lead to unpleasant side effects, among them irritability, headaches, anxiety, and other uncomfortable changes. It is better to cut back on sugar slowly so the body can get used to reduced levels of sugar intake.
Signs of sugar dependence
There may be some debate over whether sugar can be as addictive as drugs, but there are ways to tell if your sweet tooth is not enough to satisfy your cravings and if that has become a problem.
Among them are:
You eat more foods with sugar than you want to. If you intend to eat one or two food items with sugar and end up eating way more than you intended, you might be addicted to sugar.
You crave salty foods or meat. Why does this happen? It is the body’s attempt to balance out a large intake of sugary foods and drinks. A constant craving for salty foods could mean you’re eating too much sugar.
You eat sugary foods to the point where you feel ill or unsettled. Frequency matters, so if you do this every day or a few times a week, you might have a sugar dependence.
You have cravings for simple carbohydrates or simple sugars. Among those are bread, pasta, white rice, and pastries. Candy, table sugar, syrups and soft drinks also contain simple carbohydrates. Eating complex carbohydrates, which are found in peas, whole grains, and vegetables are better for you.
If any of one of these signs apply to your situation, it might be time to take a look at how much sugar you’re eating. Limiting how much sugar you eat is the only way to break a sugar dependence. The first step to addressing a dependence is to become aware of it. A healthy diet can include sugar, but it’s important to keep consumption within a healthy range.
The American Heart Association offers tips for cutting down on sugar. Among them are tossing out table brown and white sugars and trading sodas for sugar-free or low-calorie beverages. WebMD advises that to cut back on sugar, look for words that end in “ose,” such as fructose, dextrose, maltose, or sucrose, the chemical name for table sugar. If any of these ingredients appear high up in the list of ingredients for a food product, then it means that food has a large amount of sugar in it.
Cardiologist Dr. James O’Keefe told KCTV in 2015 that it can take six weeks to end an addiction to sugar and that strong craving can feel almost like drug withdrawal.
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