People don’t usually lump sugar into the same category as addictive drugs like heroin and cocaine, but—to the dismay of many—it works in a similar way, triggering the same “addiction center” in the brain as these other toxic substances (specifically, the nucleus accumbens, our pleasure and rewards center). That leads to developing addictive behaviors when it comes to certain foods. In fact, sugar has even been dubbed “the new tobacco,” and as the number of smokers continues to dwindle, it’s now far more widespread and dangerous.People don’t usually lump sugar into the same category as addictive drugs like heroin and cocaine, but it works in a similar way, triggering the same “addiction center” in the brain as these other toxic substances. Click To Tweet
CAN SUGAR BE ADDICTIVE?
Here’s the basic equation you need to know: The more sugar you eat, the more you crave. It’s as simple as that. It’s no surprise that highly processed foods, full of added sugars and high glycemic index, are highly correlated with the soaring obesity rates among Americans of all ages. The price we pay for our sad statistics is also high: The CDC reports that obesity in the United States affects 100.1 million adults (that’s a whopping 41.9% of the population) and 14.7 million children (19.7%), creating about $147 billion in annual healthcare costs.
Just as any addiction does, it’s natural that this American epidemic would snowball. These foods cause a dangerous chain reaction. They spike your blood sugar, which spikes insulin, which makes you feel like you’re hungry (even if you’ve just eaten). In addition, research shows that insulin spikes increase the risk of issues like type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease while decreasing health and life expectancy. Basically, an overload of sugar has zero benefits and creates a lot of damage within the body. For these and many other reasons, it’s a good idea to reevaluate your relationship to sugar. And we’re not just talking about table sugar, but about foods that quickly turn to sugar after you consume them.
HOW SUGAR KEEPS US ADDICTED
As a reminder, the appetite hormones ghrelin and leptin are involved in the process of sending signals to the brain that you’re hungry or that you’re satisfied or full when you eat. And when you consume sugar and foods that quickly turn to sugar, the signal that you’re not satisfied or full arrives really quickly, which urges you to eat again. It’s a metabolic process—so no judgment here, just facts. But, armed with those facts, you can make different, healthier choices. It’s about you being in control of your decision-making—because that’s another side effect of sugar: Like any addictive substance, it actually compromises your ability to make sound decisions!
Sugar’s addictive nature is now also backed by science. A late-2022 study evaluated processed foods according to the same criteria that were created for tobacco back in the 1980s—side effects like loss of control (think compulsive or binge eating), intense cravings, inability to cut back or stop, and continued use despite facing negative consequences. The study concluded that these foods can be considered psychoactive substances, just like opioids or marijuana, because they create all four of these side effects. In fact, about 14% of today’s adults and 12% of children exhibit signs of food addiction.
KNOW THE FOODS THAT QUICKLY TURN TO SUGAR
It’s easy to sabotage your dietary goals when you’re choosing foods that are doing the sabotaging for you—think bread, rice, pasta, potatoes, or foods made from white flour or starch. You’ll notice that a lot of gluten-free products out there contain high levels of starch, and that’s just as bad as, if not worse than, white flour. Read your labels carefully.
I know, I know, Jesus ate bread—I hear this every time I knock on white bread (or wine, for that matter). But the bread Jesus ate wasn’t full of preservatives, added sugars, GMOs…the list goes on. Let’s just say that if you need to break out the Bible to justify your bread addiction, you might have a problem.
I’m a fan of eating whole foods, and the issue is that today’s manufacturers add all kinds of suspect ingredients that will help destroy your body and create addictive behaviors. When you pick up a product at the supermarket, here’s a good test: Could your grandmother pronounce that ingredient on the label? Can you?
The bottom line is that sugar (and foods that turn into it) spikes your blood sugar and insulin, affects judgment and decision-making, and keeps you hungry. What’s to love?
HOW TO CONQUER SUGAR CRAVINGS
Fight your sugar cravings by eating more good-for-you foods, like sweet potatoes or avocados, that satisfy a sweet tooth naturally and keep you satisfied over the long haul instead of immediately making you go back for second and thirds. Most fruits have a glycemic index under 60, which is what I recommend to avoid those blood sugar spikes.
Or, if you’re a die-hard carb lover, reach for complex carbs instead, like the ones found in vegetables and fruits, versus simple carbs like white potatoes and bread. Try browsing my recipes for inspiration—they taste delicious without any of the added junk.
In addition, consider supplements with scientific evidence that they can help curb cravings. For example, chromium picolinate, according to research, has been shown to reduce cravings for sweets, as well as starches and other carbohydrates. Similarly, a 2021 animal study found that n-acetylcysteine reduced compulsive consumption of high-sugar, high-fat foods. Research has also found that alpha-lipoic acid promotes healthy blood sugar levels, which as you’ve seen in this blog, helps keep cravings under control.
With the proper nutrients and a diet that promotes total-body health, you can ditch the white stuff and never look back.
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