Is sugar a drug? The truth about sugar addiction

With the growing rates of obesity among the young and old American population, as well as all the health problems and deaths related to obesity and to leading an unhealthy life with an unhealthy diet, more people are becoming aware that some foods need to be limited or completely removed from the diet.

A number of studies have shown that sugar can be more dangerous than cigarette smoking, and even than illegal drugs.

The reason is that sugar is reportedly eight times more addictive than cocaine, alcohol and even heroin.

Yet, Americans consume an average of 152 pounds of sugar every single year, most of “hidden” in soda, sweetened drinks and processed foods. This over-consumption of sugar has led a number of nutritionists and physicians to suggest minimizing the consumption of sweetened foods and drinks and sugar as a whole.

Dr. Mark Hyman, the Chairman of the Institute for Functional medicine and the founder of the Ultrawellness Center in Massachusetts introduced his revolutionary 10-day blood sugar solution detox diet a few years ago in an attempt to help people shake off the sugar addiction, and “jump start” their bodies in order to improve their health and wellbeing.

Dr. Hyman even goes as far as naming the industrial food system amounting to 1 trillion dollars – the “biggest drug dealer around.”

It is a fact that many people are addicted to sugar, even without even noticing it. Some symptoms of such an addiction are the craving for carbs and sugars, which some people experience, including actual withdrawal symptoms such as insomnia and agitation when discontinuing the consumption of junk foods. Other symptoms include: the constant need to eat even when not hungry, repeated cases of overeating, problems with losing weight and with high blood pressure, and feeling embarrassed because of eating habits.

Sygary food

Sugary food. Photo credit: Jenny Downing, CC BY.

An episode 4 “Sugar – A Sweet Addiction” in the series “UCTV Prime: The Skinny on Obesity” explores the cycle of addiction that sugar causes in the brain, much in the same way as drugs and alcohol. According to the doctors in the series, sugar and junk food can actually “hijack” the brains of people who are addicted, and this hinders the mechanism which tells the body to stop overeating.

The fructose in sugar, sweetened drinks and processed foods causes weight gain, problems with diabetes and a number of other health-related problems.

But, more doctors have come upon the consensus that ridding the diet from sugar and products with sugar is not as easy as it sounds; because of actual physiological changes which occur in the human body after large amounts of sugar have been consumed.

In fact, when sugar is consumed a large quantity of dopamine is released in the nucleus accumbens, a part of the brain, which is in control of the reward and pleasure as well as the addiction functions of the body.

Dopamine is the neurotransmitter which controls this reward, pleasure and addiction center, and lowered dopamine activity has been found in people who are more prone to harmful addictions.

The problem is that when the stimulants causing the production of dopamine become excessive, the receptors start regulating themselves and they produce lesser dopamine. This is what happens with the excessive consumption of sugar, sweetened drinks and processed foods. The brain craves more and more in order to get through to the body that feeling of pleasure and satisfaction.

Needless to say, this leads to overeating and all the harmful results from overeating.

The fact that this addiction is similar and even stronger than alcohol or drug addiction has caused doctors and patients to agree on the fact that full abstinence from the harmful stimulant is the best way to cope with the addiction.

As proof as how serious sugar addiction is considered to be, the Head of Amsterdam’s Health Service Paul van der Velpen has requested that the Dutch government take action to discourage and restrict the use of sugar. And all this, in the city where cannabis can be legally sold, purchased and used. He pointed out his views on sugar in a publication he authored and published on the official health website, in which Mr. Van der Velpen claims that sugar is not only the most dangerous drug currently, but it can be acquired easily by anyone anywhere as well. The Head of the Amsterdam Health Service has requested that new sugar taxes are imposed and that legal limits of the sugar used in foods and drinks are set by law. He also has suggested that the government requires the producers and suppliers of sweetened soft drinks and processed foods to add warning labels on their products, warning consumers of the possible dangers and risks of consuming too much sugar. Mr. Van der Velpen goes on with further suggestions of health insurance companies covering the fees for addiction therapy for people who are obese or suffer from other health problems resulting from sugar addiction. Excess sugar consumption leads to the conversion of fructose to fat by the liver, which is unable to process it all. This leads to the increased level of triglycerides and bad cholesterol, which leads to some very serious and in some cases fatal health conditions, such as hypertension, diabetes, clogged arteries, stroke, heart attacks and even certain types of cancer.

Some interesting facts regarding sugar addiction have been pointed out in an article in Psychology Today, including the summary of a study performed which shows that sugar addicts are more prone to eating more sweets, when they are directly exposed and physically closer to them. This is a great piece of information which everyone could use when trying to cut down on overeating with sweets and snacks – just don’t keep them right in front of you and within easy reach.

So, if you still have doubts about the seriousness of the dangers which sugar poses to your health and your wellbeing, then please keep in mind that it is now an official fact that sugar is causing more deaths in the US than illegal substances are.

Also, be aware of the fact that 80% of all food items sold in stores in the US have added sugar in them, and that a shocking 1/3 of the population of the US will be suffering from diabetes by 2050 if no actions are taken to prevent this.

So, it is not only up to health officials, but up to every single person to take several simple steps to reduce the risk for their and their family’s health, by reducing or limiting the consumption of sugar, processed food and drinks with added sugar from their and their children’ diets. It is all about portion control and self-control.

10 thoughts on “Is sugar a drug? The truth about sugar addiction

  1. The whole idea of “diet” soda seems problematic to me. I don’t see much benefit in the consumption of these drinks. However, I may be wrong.

    Talking about diet, it seems to me that weight loss should not mean having to eat food that a person hates or having to go through extreme workouts. For anyone who is tired of depressing diets, you may want to check this page out and also watch the video it links to.

    Did you ever think that weight loss meant no more tasty food? Check the page above for more.

  2. I am definitely a sugar addict. I’ve been working on getting the cravings under control, but for the last few days I feel like I’ve been on a sugar binge. I think I can safely trace it back to my niece’s ‘I want candy’ birthday party on Saturday. Tomorrow I will be more mindful of my sugar intake. Perhaps a few days sugar free will be in order.

  3. I’m very addicted to sugar, and so is my oldest child 🙁

    My only option is to have none of it in the house and treat it exactly like I would if I was an alcoholic or addicted to street drugs, zero exposure. Unfortunately, knowing that, and white knuckling through the absurd mood swings that come with the blood sugar crashes, are two entirely different things.

    Although, my son is going to his grandparents for a few weeks and I will be home alone. so what better time to tackle it than when my moods wont affect anyone but me?

  4. I’ve never been attracted to seriously sweet foods like candy or ice cream or dessert, but ever since taking notice not only of ingredients lists on packets but also the natural amount of sugar in things, it’s been surprising and educational how much sugar I probably used to eat.

    Just because it doesn’t taste sweet doesn’t mean it doesn’t have a bunch of sugar in it. That’s the biggest thing I’ve learned, and to avoid having to nit-pick and read the back of every box for ingredients and amount of carbs, I just cook for myself now with real foods and spices and sauces without added sugars. If I want something sweet, it’s fruit or honey.

  5. I’m on Day #5 of no Coca Cola. I was averaging six to eight cans a day. I’ve also given up sugary breakfast cereals — which basically means all breakfast cereals. And I’m trying to increase my exercise — starting from zero, it doesn’t take much to count as an increase!

    I will say, though, that it is not easy, and it is not fun. I’m depressed as heck, and I have absolutely no energy. An hour after that big, crisp, crunchy vegetable salad I have for lunch I’m starving, cranky, and so irritable I want to punch things.

    So… will it get better? Or do I have to live the rest of my life feeling angry and depressed, craving Coca Cola with every breath, and saying “I don’t…” to every food that I love: oven-baked macaroni & cheese, chocolate malts, Cocoa Puffs, and McDonald’s french fries?

    I told myself I’d give it a day… then three days… then a week, to see how I feel. If it’s not getting any easier or any better after a week, and for sure if the misery and despondency hasn’t eased up after two weeks, well… I couldn’t find any data for 1822, but in 1900 the average life expectancy for males was about 46 years. Today it is 76 years. Seems to me that pudgy Americans are doing okay on average, and all that sugar might be good for us after all!

  6. Obesity isn’t caused by sugar. It’s caused by irresponsibility. Cutting out processed foods is one thing, but it’s not like you have to say no to potatoes, fruit, and so on.

    Stop worrying about your macros and just eat real, whole foods. The body will figure it out from there. If you keep your calories right, it won’t matter what macro you eat.

    It all pretty much boils down to the “Grandma” diet, or for more hardcore people the paleo diet. A good rule of thumb, if it can’t spoil (and it isn’t nuts or honey) then maybe you shouldn’t eat it. I’m a beekeeper, and a note regarding honey…. Please, people, only buy honey from a farmers market, most store bought honey isn’t REAL honey. It’s been heated and filtered so much that all of the beneficial enzymes and pollen have been taken out, rendering the final product to be no more good for you than table sugar.

  7. Sugar is addictive, thats the real message. It lead me to snacking on sugar items of course which lead to more and more. Then I could not maintain attention during the afternoon and needed a rest. Then some days I did not even want to get up in the morning.

    When I stopped all processed sugars, the binging stopped. And my stomach which I could never shift with exercising also started to reduce. All because of processed sugars, amazing. As you suggest I now get my high from exercising, its a much better life.

  8. I have started the war with sugar starting May last year. Initially I just wanted to have a crash diet and get some abs to get ready for a beach trip, but two weeks into “experiment” and everybody was just noticing the changes in my body.

    I too of course noticed a lot of changes, but not until after i suffered some withdrawal syndrome. The first two weeks was hard because I just don’t seem to have that same energy in me, and I would be exhausted by the afternoon. But I continued avoiding sugar and ditched rice, pasta, bread, waffles, chips and ate only unprocessed food.

    One thing that helped me was preparing my food and planning for it ahead of time, and I am talking about meals and snacks. I would prepare veggies, fruits, steamed fish, and nuts that i can snack on, because it takes a lot of control and discipline to say NO to a c worker offering you cheetos and cookies, right? Also, I don’t starve myself, whenever i feel hungry, I get onto my prepared snack so that way I would not have to feel like raiding anything offered to me.

    I tried to limit eating outside, and if I do, I stick to healthy healthy options and food rich in protein. I also turned into preparing smoothie, without the sugar. It helped a lot. So I consider banana as my sugar (it is one of the fruits thats really high in sugar, but healthy sugar) so just to add a little bit of sweetness into my smoothie, I mix a banana, some. Spinach, apples and cucumber for a healthy morning drink. That alone is a meal for me. Drink lots of water too, I don’t drink soda at all, no fruit juice, no candy. Just our plain water. It would be hard to trace sugar in everything you eat, because you cannot really tell every time, but the important thing is you are cautious at least with what you put in your body, and once u are past that sugar withdrawal, you will feel like you are re energized, and believe you will turn out to be more cautious each day on what you put in your body.

    So good luck!

  9. I buy 60 pounds of organic sugar per year (a ten pound bag every 2 months), along with about 20 pounds raw honey and a gallon of maple syrup (per year), so that’s just under 95 pounds of sugar per year. That’s all the sugar my whole family consumes. (I make nearly everything from scratch from yogurt to ketchup, seriously it we eat it, I made it. Ice cream, cookies, breads… anything like that we eat is made in our kitchen.)

    That sounds like a lot of sugar but that’s divided up between 2 adults and 1 child. Plus I make tons of jams, jellies and baked goods to give out to friends and family, which uses a lot of sugar and is included in the above total.

    All in all I’m content with where we are sugar wise. We pretty much drink water, milk or unsweetened teas and coffee. Our major sugar consumption revolves around holidays and birthdays, other than that we use sugar, maple syrup, or honey sparingly. In fact the only added sugar I can remember consuming since my sons birthday last Wednesday was in the apple butter we ate last night.

    We are pretty big fruit eaters I must admit, but we consume even more vegetables. We’re healthy though, rarely get sick and feel all around healthy.

    I did have a major sugar addiction about 5 years ago. It was insane how much I consumed. I went cold turkey and gradually reintroduced. Back then I could eat a plate of cookies and still crave more. Now I can only get maybe two cookies at most or a few bites of cake at a time before feeling sick from a sugar overdose. I know very well what sugar addiction is like and I will never go back there. If I ever start actually craving sugar now I go cold turkey for a few weeks to nip it in the bud right away.

  10. While I generally agree that fruit in moderation is a good rule for people who are coming off a diet high in processed carbohydrates or PUFAs (aka. the Standard American Diet), I don’t agree that sugar is “addictive”.

    I do not agree that sugar in moderation is for everyone. Lots of athletes find that the extra energy helps fuel their workouts and with their recoveries.

    I have found that most Paleo environments around the web are a little more lenient with carbs these days, for good reason.

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