Have you ever felt like you had no control over eating? Have you experienced the cookies in the cupboard “calling your name” and you just had to eat some (or maybe the whole package)? Can you stop eating sugary foods after one or two bites or do you binge once you get started? If you answer yes to any of these question then you may be addicted to sugar.
We have heard about sugar addiction for years but mostly the medical community discounted this possibility. After all, sugar is found in food and how could you become addicted to something that should be good for you? Recent studies are finding that sugar can have the same effects as other substances such as drugs, alcohol, and cigarettes which everyone agrees are addictive. A study by researchers at The Princeton University Department of Psychology shows that sugar does promote the characteristics which are associated with addictive behavior. You can read the study here but it is quite long. I will recap the findings for you in this article.
Sugar Addiction Symptoms
There are four generally recognized aspects to addictive behavior. The are bingeing, withdrawal, craving and cross-sensitization. Alcoholics and drug addicts understand these aspects very well. But what about people who claim that they can’t control their sugar intake? Do these criteria apply to them also?
The researchers, Nicole M. Avena, Pedro Rada, and Dr. Bartley G. Hoebel, set out to determine whether sugar can act on brains the same way other addictive substances do. In order to study the affects of sugar they set up experiments using lab rats. It is very common to use lab rats to study what may happen in the human brain because the affects of addiction on rat brains seems to correlate very closely with the affects on human brains.
Do You Experience Sugar Bingeing
Bingeing is defined as the escalation of intake with a high proportion of intake at one time usually after a period of abstinence or deprivation. Most people would explain this as the feeling that you can’t stop eating. Once you have one cookie or one piece of candy you just have to keep going. It is almost like there is someone making you eat these sweet foods and you have no control over it.
The definition for binging says this feeling of uncontrollable eating comes after you have not had the food for a length of time. Doesn’t this sound like a low calorie diet? You cut out sugary foods and you crave them more and more each day. Finally, one day you say. “Oh, I’ll just have one.” Then before you know it you have eaten an entire box of sugary cereal or the whole package of cookies.
The researchers showed in their study that rats do tend to binge eat sugar once they have been eating it for awhile and then it is taken away. They found that if rats are fed a diet high in sugar content for days they tend to eat more and more of it. Then, if the sugar is removed for a time, when the rats are given sugar again they tend to eat larger amounts than they did before. They can still eat their regular chow when they don’t get the sugar so it is not that they are just hungry. Instead, they binge on the sugar just like we do when we fall off a diet.
Sugar Withdrawal Symptoms
The next criteria for addiction is withdrawal symptoms. I am sure you have experienced waking up in the morning and being a grump until you get your first sugar fix. Or in the afternoon when you have haven’t eaten anything since lunch and it seems like the whole world is irritating. These may be symptoms of sugar withdrawal.
The researchers found that rats fed a diet with a high sugar content experience withdrawal symptoms when the sugar is removed. They fed rats sugar for 21 days and then on the 22 day they tested depression levels of the rats when the sugar was withdrawn. They found that the rats tended to show signs of depression. They also cited other studies which showed a decrease in body temperature and increased signs of aggression when sugar is removed. These are both symptoms of withdrawal.
This sounds like what used to happen to me when I went without sugar for a while. Some times I could be a real bear.
Sugar Craving Is A Real Phenomenon
The third criteria used to measure whether a substance is addictive or not is the strength of the craving a person has when the substance is withdrawn. I used to crave sugar a lot when I was eating a normal diet. Sometimes at work I would walk by the candy machine and I would have to buy a candy bar even though I really didn’t want to and I wasn’t hungry. I can remember not wanting to take my wallet out of my pocket but I just couldn’t stop.
But after living a low carb lifestyle for a few weeks all these cravings went away. I no longer fantasize about chocolate bars or sticky buns. They don’t even sound good to me.
The Princeton researchers found that rats do show a strong craving for sugar when it is removed from their diet. The rats were allowed access to sugar for 12 hours a day for several days. The sugar was then removed from their diet. After 2 weeks time, the rats still pressed the lever that used to give them sugar 23% times more than they ever did before. They definitely were craving the sugar that had been removed. Another group of rats was only given sugar for ½ hour a day. These subjects did not show the craving. This indicates that eating larger amounts of sugar has an effect on cravings.
Also, another study cited showed that rats given sugar access for 10 days then denied sugar had a craving that actually increased over time. The rats tried harder to get the sugar after having it removed for 30 days than they did after 1 week or 1 day. This suggest that the intake of the sugar, and the resulting good feelings the rats received, actually had a long term effect on their brains. This is more argument for the addictive power of sugar.
Cross-sensitization Points To Sugar Addiction
The last criteria for addiction is cross-sensitization. This means that a drug is more addictive if it causes a person to become more sensitive to other drugs. For example, it has been shown that a rat addicted to amphetamines (speed) will be more sensitive to cocaine. There is also a correlation between cocaine and alcohol along with heroin and cannabis.
But it is not only substances that cause these results. Other studies have shown a cross sensitization between cocaine and stress, and increases in food intake and sexual behaviors in rats that have a history of drug sensitization. All of these addictive behaviors may be caused by changes to brain activity. So what about sugar?
It has been shown that rats fed sugar seem to be cross-sensitized with amphetamines. Animals who were given sugar for a length of time were then given a very small dose of amphetamines. They became hyperactive which is the effect amphetamines have on animals. That is why it is called “speed.” But other rats who were not fed sugar beforehand did not experience any noticeable affect from the very small dose of the drug they were given.
Other studies have show a relationship between sugar and cocaine and a correlation between sugar intake and the desire to taste alcohol. In her book, How I Gave Up My Low-Fat Diet and Lost 40 Pounds, Dana Carpender cites other studies that raise the question of whether sugar intake may be associated with alcohol abuse. If that is true, are we setting our children up to be addicts and alcoholics by stuffing them full of sugar from sodas and processed foods? It is a question that deserves a lot more attention.
This is a fascinating study and starts to explain why some people claim that they have no control over their eating. Maybe they really are addicted. But that does not mean there is no hope. Drug addicts get clean and alcoholics get sober. So you can fight your sugar addictions too.
How To Break Sugar Addiction
For me, cutting sugar completely out of my diet has had a very positive effect. I lost weight and I don’t crave the foods I used to. It has allowed me to have a more normal relationship with food – now I eat when I am hungry not because some unseen power is making me stuff my face with candy and chips.
Now if I do eat something with sugar in it I notice my cravings come back for a few days. For me, the only way to beat the addiction is to cut out sugar completely. Interestingly, this is the same techniques alcoholics and addicts use. Complete abstinence.
If you feel that you have a negative relationship with food then maybe this is something you should spend more time learning about.