Article Review: Is Sugar Really Addictive?

Updated: Dec 15, 2020

Article Review By: Kristy Synder Colling, Ph.D. and Robert Coben, Ph.D.

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What is one of the most challenging things about changing habits of disease

into habits of health? For some, it can be tackling those sugar cravings.

Getting a handle on that sweet tooth is difficult for three reasons. First,

added processed sugar is in many of the prepackaged foods we eat every

day. Sometimes it is obvious, as is the case for desserts, but sometimes it

isn’t as obvious, as in the case of salad dressings, condiments, energy

drinks, and some yogurts. Second, sugar is often a ritual. For example, after

dinner many of us expect to eat something sweet. Third, sugar may actually

be addictive.

Typically, when we eat food, like broccoli, dopamine (i.e., a neuro transmitter

that is linked with feelings of pleasure) is released in the brain. However,

after a few bites the release of dopamine lessens and instead of being

enjoyable, the food gets a bit boring. However, this is not the case with

sugar. Processed sugar continues to induce the release of dopamine. As a

result, our brains crave more. This is a mechanism that is similar to other

addictive substances (e.g., nicotine). As a result, you may start off thinking

you’ll have just one or two cookies after dinner but before you know it,

you’ve eaten the whole package.

Foods not only affect the release of neurotransmitters in the brain, they also

affect the bacteria in our digestive systems. Processed foods and those high

in added sugar facilitate bad bacteria. However, diverse diets that include

leafy greens, fiber, and probiotics facilitate good bacteria. In addition to

affecting digestion and regularity, there is evidence that our gut bacteria can

also play a role in our food cravings. This means that the more sugar we eat,

the more our gut bacteria sends signals to the brain to eat more sugar. But,

it also works the other way – if we choose to eat a bowl of fruit after dinner

instead of brownies, we can change the bacteria in our digestive system and,

in turn, we will eventually start craving healthier

foods instead.

The answer is to start making conscious decisions about what we eat.

Instead of a sugar-bomb Frappuccino at breakfast, have some black tea

instead. In the beginning, it may be hard to make these switches but every

time we make a better choice it makes the next choice easier – both

physiologically (i.e., gut bacteria) and psychologically but replacing habits of

disease with habits of health. If you’d like to learn more about how to start

making healthy choices, please contact us. Our health coaches would love to

talk with you about our nutrition program.

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