Most of the time, Samantha Brown is a happy vegan. Meat, fish, eggs, and dairy products have been replaced with grains, legumes, and vegetables. She likes making innovative vegetable-based dishes and devours books on nutrition and health. After six years of eating at the bottom of the food chain, she has never felt healthier. The only problem is that she can’t seem to get enough of it.
“I nearly always need a sugar fix,” she admits. “I could eat a whole bag of Twizzlers or an entire box of Panda licorice. I can go through a box of licorice in one sitting and then move on to the next.”
Dark chocolate is occasionally included in her “slips.” Alternatively, she might discover that she’s slathering maple syrup on her vegan waffles. Alternatively, in her quest for sweetness, she abandons her dairy-free diet totally. Cannoli are cream-filled triangular Italian desserts that she adores. “Once I start eating them, I can’t stop. I’ll be sick after I’m done “She clarifies. “I say I’m only going to have a piece of cake, but I keep returning for another.”
Her entire family is in a similar situation. Despite the fact that she and her dad are both diabetic, they enjoy dessert. Samantha says, “I believe my entire family is addicted to sugar.”
Samantha’s judgment would be disputed by the majority of doctors. “The idea that people are addicted to sugar is ludicrous,” says Dr. Richard Surwit, obesity and diabetes specialist and an emeritus professor at Duke University School of Medicine. “Sugar is eaten because it tastes good. It’s absurd to refer to them as junkies.”
Karen Miller Kovach, a certified dietitian and head scientist at WW (formerly Weight Watchers International), explains the myth: “She’s referring to “addiction” in the broadest sense possible. Addiction is defined as the removal of a substance that generates demonstrable and predictable physical effects. Nothing like it has ever been associated with sugar. Her emotions aren’t influenced by anything tangible. According to scientific research, sugar is not an addictive substance.”
Sugar or sweet alternatives can have an addictive impact comparable to addictive drugs like cocaine, according to recent rat research, and rats can become sugar dependent under certain conditions. Humans, on the other hand, have never been subjected to such tests.
When you’re hungry and your blood sugar drops, you don’t feel the same anger that a smoker or coffee drinker does when they don’t have any nicotine or caffeine in their system. You could eat a candy bar to satisfy your physical hunger, but a turkey sandwich, a handful of smoked almonds, soup and crackers, or any number of other non-sugary snacks would do just as well. You don’t need those Junior Mints in your body, but try telling yourself that.
Despite the fact that a sugar need is not a true addiction, researchers at the US Department of Energy’s Brookhaven National Laboratory observed similarities in the brains of cocaine addicts and morbidly obese people. According to a prior Brookhaven study, drug abusers have fewer dopamine receptors than healthy persons. (Dopamine is a neurotransmitter associated with happiness.)
In a study published in The Lancet, Dr. Gene-Jack Wang, a physician, and Dr. Nora Volkow, a psychiatrist, showed that 10 obese patients had far fewer dopamine receptors in their brains than 10 slender control participants. According to Wang and Volkow, the number of dopamine receptors in overweight people is smaller. According to Wang, scientists are still unsure whether a shortage of dopamine receptors is a cause or an effect of overeating.
But, before you mistake your jones for Jujubes for an alcoholic’s DTs, remember that the researchers looked at people who were obese to the point of death. Wang and Volkow also didn’t look at the patients’ reactions to “trigger” foods. (Foods that send people on the path to binge eating are known as trigger foods.) They also didn’t suggest that food is a habit-forming substance. Eating, like drug usage, is a “reinforcing behavior” that people continue to engage in because it makes them feel good.
It’s also important not to identify oneself with an eating disorder after one too many Oreos. There is a difference between someone who has an eating disorder and someone who engages in “emotional eating” on occasion, according to Dr. Yvonne Morris, a psychologist at Stanford University Medical Center’s Behavioral Medicine Clinic.
According to Morris, it’s common to associate food with emotions. “When we were kids, and we were having a bad day, what did our parents do? Our mothers would frequently say, ‘Oh, let me get you a cookie.’ The cookie came to be associated with feelings of relief. It’s not difficult to develop this further.”
After a particularly trying day, you could think to yourself, “I deserve a cake today.” According to Morris, the issue is not to get too carried away with the sweets. “We form bad habits that are difficult to break once they have formed. The more you do something, the more compelled you are to do it again.”
Some people try to reduce their sugar cravings by replacing refined sugar with honey, barley malt, or fructose. Regardless matter how beneficial sugar looks to be, Kovach and others agree that sugar is sugar in the sight of the body. Sucrose, fructose, and lactose are all forms of glucose, the body’s primary energy source. “It’s treated almost identically after it reaches the body,” she explains.
For some people, the best method is to completely avoid sugar, which is difficult given its widespread presence in both natural and processed foods. Some people feel that removing all signs of sweets helps them avoid the inexorable plunge into confectionery madness, although most dietitians and psychologists advise that harmful eating habits be replaced with healthy ones. Many others claim that if you consume the recommended five to seven servings of fruits and vegetables per day, as well as enough protein and grains, you won’t have room for even a handful of M&Ms, let alone the full economy-size bag.
A spoonful of sugar won’t hurt you as long as the rest of your diet provides enough nutrients. With a little effort and forethought, you can get rid of the sugar monkey on your back.
Nutritionists and researchers have made the following suggestions:
Sweet foods should not be utilized as a way to divert attention away from the task at hand. When you find yourself reaching for the jelly beans, ask yourself why. If you’re hungry, try a handful of almonds or an ounce of cheese, which can keep you satiated for longer than a sugar rush. If you’re stressed, go for a walk. If you’re sad, make a phone call to a friend. If you’re bored, get out of the house.
Keep a consistent eating pattern. Most nutritionists recommend eating small meals every three hours to keep blood glucose levels stable.
Take the candy dish off your desk and the jar of Ring-Dings out of your kitchen. If junk food isn’t available, you can’t eat it. Whenever you feel like it, go out and have ONE delicious snack.
Limit added sugar to less than 10% of your daily calorie intake (no more than 12 teaspoons per day on a 2,000-calorie diet). (Sugar is listed on food labels in grams, and a teaspoon contains 4 grams.)
People who consume sugar substitutes with few or no calories do not always consume fewer calories. You can dramatically reduce your calorie consumption by using them. But don’t fool yourself into thinking that just because you’ve had a diet soft drink or added artificial sweetener to your coffee means you can eat more.
A piece of Godiva is better than a bag of Hershey’s kisses on any other day. If you can get into the habit of eating a little of your favorite sweet food every day, you may be less likely to “lose control” and work your way through the candy counter. Some nutritionists advise focusing on flavor density; you might find that higher-quality chocolate brings you greater pleasure.
Wait five minutes to see whether your desire has gone away. If it doesn’t, have a single serving of whatever you want instead of a “healthy substitute.” Kovach claims that “Substitutions do not work. A modest amount of ice cream is better than three pounds of carrot sticks if you truly want it.”
Consume the appropriate foods at the appropriate times. Dessert should be presented as a dessert only, not as part of a meal. You’re less likely to overeat if you’ve had a hearty dinner. Morgan argues, “The best defense against overeating is eating.”
Sugar must be made less mysterious. It isn’t malevolent in any way. It isn’t one of your friends. “When it comes to nutrition, keep in mind that when you eat sugar, you’re only getting calories.” Kovach is of the opinion that “Sugar isn’t known for its health benefits. You do not, however, have to avoid it at all costs.”
Gene-Jack Wang, MD, and Nora Volkow, MD, published “Brain Dopamine and Obesity” in The Lancet.
“Fat and Sugar Substitutes in the Control of Food Intake,” Barbara J. Rolls, Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences.
Dr. Richard Surwit, Duke University’s vice-chair of psychology, was interviewed.
Rosalia Scalia was asked a few questions.
Karen Miller Kovach, the chief scientist of Weight Watchers International, was interviewed.
A nuclear medicine physician at Brookhaven National Laboratory, Dr. Gene-Jack Wang, was interviewed.
Dr. Yvonne Morris, a Stanford University Medical Center psychologist, was interviewed.
Neuroscience Biobehavioral Reviews, May 18, 2007, “Evidence for Sugar Addiction: Biobehavioral and Neurochemical Effects of Intermittent, Excessive Sugar Intake.” NM Avena, P Rada, and BG Hoebel, Neuroscience Biobehavioral Reviews, May 18, 2007, “Evidence for Sugar Addiction: Biobehavioral and Neurochemical Effects of Intermittent, Excessive Sugar Intake.”