Why Sugar Is So Addictive?
Sugar addiction is prevalent in modern society because sugar is legal, cheap, pervasive, and socially acceptable. You can’t say that about the other substances people get addicted to. Combine all that with a stressful job, a harried family life, and an impossible schedule, and is it any wonder that people stuff themselves with sugar-packed convenience foods?
But sugar’s addictiveness isn’t just a matter of social acceptance and availability. Sugar is physically addictive, affecting both the body and the brain.
Sugar and brain chemistry
Sugar is one of the stimulating foodstuffs termed hyperpalatables — foods that stimulate the pleasure centers in the brain. Central to the brain’s sensation of enjoyment is a chemical called dopamine, a neurotransmitter that controls the brain’s reward and pleasure centers. When you eat sugar, it stimulates a dopamine release, and you experience a pleasurable sensation.
Science shows that sugar acts on your brain’s reward system just like cocaine. That’s right, to your brain, the mountain of frosting on that cupcake is just like crack. As with any dopamine-producing substance, your brain gets desensitized to it with chronic overconsumption, and you develop a tolerance.
That means that to create the pleasurable feeling, you have to use more. This launches a vicious cycle of increased consumption leading to further desensitization, and you end up with an insatiable appetite for sugar.
Making matters more difficult, science has shown that as dopamine receptors decrease, there’s a marked decrease in the activity of the prefrontal cortex — the part of your brain responsible for executive functions like planning, organizing, and making rational decisions.
This is a double-whammy for the sugar addict — not only do you have to eat more sugar to experience the normal reward and pleasure, but your addiction also makes it more difficult for your brain to plan ahead and make sensible food decisions!
Genetic programming of sugar addicts
Humans are programmed to crave high-energy foods. Back in the cave man days, high-calorie foods meant a high chance of survival, so you’re genetically programmed to prefer high-calorie foods over all others.
Over the last few years, some fascinating research has come to light in the field of epigenetics — the study of the body’s chemistry that switches genes off and on. Not surprisingly, your diet and your environment change your body chemistry, and scientists are learning how this affects the switching on and off of certain genes that affect how your body processes food.
Here’s an example of a lifestyle that changes your gene expression to your detriment: You wake up already tired, hit the snooze button a few times, skip breakfast, and fly out the door after yelling at your kids and feeling awful about how fat you look in your outfit.
Then you spend most of your day sitting glued to a computer screen in a stressed-out, fight-or-flight overdrive, trying to meet some deadline given to you by someone who doesn’t care that you’re surrounded by people who are just making your job harder.
To anesthetize the pain of this stressed-out existence and to quiet the part of your brain that’s screaming for fuel, you grab whatever junk food is easily obtained nearby. This constant dependence on the quick sugar fix not only thickens your waistline but also changes your gene expression to one that supports fat storage and addiction.
Your DNA is not your destiny! You can’t alter the genes you were born with, but you can change which of those genes express themselves by modifying how you eat and how you live.
Hunger and sugar cravings
Leptin is a hormone that signals to your brain that you’ve had enough to eat, producing a sensation of fullness. Leptin is produced in the fat cells, so the more fat you have, the more leptin you produce. If you eat a normal, healthy diet, this system works fine, but an unhealthy lifestyle can easily screw up the natural leptin-signaling system.
Nature’s full signal can get disrupted by many things, such as carrying too much body fat, maintaining chronically high insulin levels, ingesting too many artificial sweeteners, consuming excess sugar, or having elevated triglycerides. When your leptin signals fail, your hunger hormones run rampant and unopposed. This is why a consistent sugar overload stimulates hunger and cravings.
Learned sugar-addictive behavior
Humans are creatures of habit. Food preferences start early in life, and after children develop the habit of eating sugar, fat, and salt, they get locked into a self-perpetuating cycle of preferring these foods into adulthood.
As a child, your parents or grandparents may have given you sweets as a reward or as a distraction to calm you down. As an adult, this naturally becomes an emotional crutch if you still equate sugar with being good or being calm.
Associating certain events with sugar is another thing that most people learn over their lifetimes. Cake is typically a centerpiece of birthdays, weddings, retirement parties, and the like.
Many addicts learn to reach for sugar as an attempt to avoid negative feelings like stress, loneliness, or low self-esteem. These habits quickly become destructive, addictive behaviors as you learn to use a sugar coma to squelch genuine emotions that desperately need your attention.