Ending Addiction for Good

Sugar Addiction: It May Be Very Real

Consumption of refined sugar may actually be "addictive," research indicates.

Scientists and doctors have been coming to the conclusion that sugar, even in relatively small but consistent amounts, may not be healthy for us. In the last few years, the consensus has been leaning toward the idea that refined sugar may be affecting our brains and bodies in negative ways. Carbohydrates convert to sugar. Diets with high amounts of carbs and added sugar can cause changes in our brain and behavior. Overeating these foods can resemble addiction, claims Nicole Avena, a neuroscientist from Columbia University.

“About 11 percent of the population meets the criteria for food addiction,” Avena says “—and most say they're hooked on carbohydrates.”

This can help us understand why a lot of people have such a hard time staying on a diet, but more research is needed. Ashley Gearhardt, a psychologist at the University of Michigan who runs the Food and Addiction Science and Treatment lab, says,

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“The addiction jury is still out on sugar. We still need to better understand whether people addicted to sugar experience tolerance and withdrawal in the same way they would with drugs.”

Robert Lustig, a pediatric endocrinologist at the University of California, San Francisco, found that the more sugar on the market in 175 countries, the higher the country's diabetes rate. He does not suggest that sugar causes diabetes but that there could be a relationship between the sugar in our food and the disease.

At the Mayo Clinic, researchers have found that the danger of developing cognitive impairment in older people rises with diets heavy in sugar. Those who ate a lot of protein and fat relative to carbohydrates were not as likely to become cognitively impaired.

"A high carbohydrate intake could be bad for you because carbohydrates impact your glucose and insulin metabolism," Dr. Roberts says. "Sugar fuels the brain—so moderate intake is good. However, high levels of sugar may actually prevent the brain from using the sugar—similar to what we see with type 2 diabetes."

Americans are currently consuming an average of 22 teaspoons of sugar a day. Learning how too much sugar can be detrimental to our general health and well-being can help us understand our difficulties with staying on a good diet.  Cutting out obvious sugar is a starting point for positive life-style changes and something, given the current research findings, we should all consider.

Constance Scharff, Ph.D. is the Senior Addiction Research Fellow and Director of Addiction Research at Cliffside Malibu Treatment Center.

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