A coworker surprises the team with a box of doughnuts covered with sugary icing, topped with sprinkles and candies and each filled with jelly, chocolate or pudding. A birthday party is never complete until a cake is presented with layers of sugary frosting at least two inches thick. The child having a tantrum in the store can easily be pacified with the promise of a piece of candy or a cookie. When an afternoon craving has you thinking about a chocolate bar—not the “fun size,” but the “king-size” portion–it is as effortless to find as a stop at the vending machine or one of the many convenience stores that offer indulgences 24 hours a day.
As a special treat, a reward or a snack, sugar is available everywhere and seems to do the trick. It is much more tempting than digging into a platter of broccoli florets and carrots or rewarding the child who becomes irritable at the store with a bowl of lentils.
Sugar addiction begins when you crave anything that contains the sweetness of this ingredient, and it has a powerful impact on the reward centers of the brain. When you eat foods that contain a lot of sugar, a large amount of dopamine is released in an area of the brain called the Nucleus Accumbens. When sugary foods are eaten often and in large amounts, the dopamine receptors begin to “down-regulate,” and there are fewer receptors for the dopamine. What this means is the next time these foods are eaten, their effect is weakened. More junk food is needed the next time you eat in order to reach the same level of reward. Due to its powerful effect on the reward centers of the brain, sugar functions similarly to drugs of abuse, such as cocaine and nicotine. The same brain centers are at play. In addition, individuals with a predisposition to addiction can become “hooked” on sugary foods and lose control over their consumption.
In a nutshell, sugar “hijacks” brain chemistry to cause cravings and a necessity to eat more of it.
Signs of Addiction to Sugar
When eaten in moderate amounts, sugar is essential to the body. As a carbohydrate, it helps with the energy needed for daily activities. All of the cells use it. But, sugar is also a calorie, and if it is eaten in excess, there are negative effects to health. To find out if sugar has become an addiction, read the warning signs below.
Eating More Sugary Foods Than Intended
A person plans to eat one chocolate bar (or another sugar-filled favorite). After the first piece is finished, they want more. Pretty soon, they have eaten several chocolate bars and still crave more. Similar to a morning-after hangover, the individual starts to have feelings of regret afterward.
Craving Simple Carbohydrates
When an individual craves simple carbohydrates—white bread and rice, pasta and pastries–it is a sneaky way for the addiction to manifest itself. The carbohydrates turn into sugar quickly and feed the body’s sugar cravings.
Craving Meat or Salty Foods
A healthy body strives for balance, and too much expanding food creates a craving for contracting food and vice versa. Simply put, if a person eats too much salt or meat, they will crave sweets to get the balance. Individuals who crave a lot of meat or salty foods may find it is a sign the body is looking for balance because of a large intake of sugar.
Eating Sugary Foods Without Really Wanting To
A person may see a candy bar and not really want it. After about 10 minutes, that candy bar is all the person can think about. While they know it is not a good idea to eat it, they begin to rationalize why it would be okay to indulge. Maybe they reason about how healthy they ate that day or make a deal to skip dessert for the next two days. The result–the person eats the candy bar, promising it will be just this one time.
Eating Sugary Foods to the Point of Not Feeling Well
When a person has eaten so much of a favorite sugary treat that they have a headache, gas, bloating, fuzzy thinking, fatigue or sleepiness, they are experiencing symptoms of a sugar hangover. A sugar addict may do this a few times a week—or every day. While the knowledge that bingeing on sugar will result in feeling any one or more of these symptoms, the person does it anyway. The short-term benefit of eating that candy bar, cookie or cake is worth the unpleasant effects to the person.
Dangers of Too Much Sugar
Too much sugar in a diet can lead to serious health risks. These hazards are split into four categories, including Increased Risk of Diseases and Sicknesses, Nutrient Imbalance or Deficiency, Bodily Impairments, and Behavioral Changes. Read about the dangers of sugar addiction below.
Nutrient Imbalance or Deficiency
- Upsets the mineral relationships in the body
- Chromium deficiency (an essential mineral that plays a role in how insulin helps the body regulate blood sugar levels)
- Interferes with the absorption of calcium, magnesium and protein
- Increases total cholesterol, triglycerides and bad cholesterol levels
- Decreases good cholesterol levels
- Lowers vitamin E levels
- The body changes sugar into two to five times more fat in the bloodstream compared to starch
- Addictive and intoxicating, similar to alcohol
- Rapid rise of adrenaline, hyperactivity and anxiety
- Leads to difficulty in concentration, drowsiness and crankiness in children
- Results in decreased activity in children
- Reduces learning capacity and can cause learning disorders that may affect children’s grades
- Increases risk of antisocial behavior
- Decrease in emotional stability
Increased Risk of Diseases and Sicknesses
- Feeds cancer cells
- Can induce cell death
- Increases fasting levels of glucose
- Increases systolic blood pressure
- Significant increase in platelet adhesion
- Leads to formation of kidney stones and gallstones
- Rapid sugar absorption promotes excessive food intake
- Decreases insulin sensitivity, leading to high insulin levels and eventually diabetes
- Reactive hypoglycemia
- Headaches, including migraines
- Gastrointestinal tract problems
- Food allergies
- Promotes chronic degenerative diseases
- Causes atherosclerosis and cardiovascular diseases
- Causes cataracts and nearsightedness
- May lead to autoimmune diseases, such as arthritis, asthma and multiple sclerosis
- Contributes to osteoporosis
- Contraction of appendicitis, hemorrhoids and varicose veins
- Parkinson’s disease
- Increases risk of gout and Alzheimer’s disease
- Acidity in saliva, tooth decay and periodontal diseases
- Gum disease
- Greatly promotes uncontrolled growth of Candida Albicans (yeast infections)
- Toxemia in pregnancy
- Contributes to eczema in children
- Worsens symptoms of children with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder
- Increases risk of polio
- May lead to epileptic seizures
- Could lead to high blood pressure in obese people
- Increased consumption in intensive care units can induce death
- Potential to induce abnormal metabolic processes in a normal, healthy individual
- Suppression of immune system, increasing risk of contracting infectious diseases
- Loss of tissue elasticity and function
- Weaker eyesight
- Premature aging
- Increases advanced glycation end products, where sugar molecules attach to proteins and damage them
- DNA structure impairment
- Change in protein structure and causes a permanent alteration of protein in the body
- Change of collagen structure
- Skin aging
- Impairs physiological homeostasis of bodily systems
- Lowers ability of enzymes to function
- Increase liver size by making liver cells divide, increasing the amount of liver fat
- Increase kidney size and produce pathological changes
- Pancreatic damage
- Increase in body’s fluid retention
- Affects urinary electrolyte composition
- Slows ability of adrenal glands to function
- Compromises lining of capillaries
- Brittle tendons
- May cause an increase in delta, alpha, and theta brain waves, which can alter the mind’s ability to think clearly
- Causes hormonal imbalances
- Increases free radicals and oxidative stress
- Leads to substantial decrease in gestation, with a twofold increased risk for delivering an infant that is small for its gestational age
- Dehydration among newborns
- Affects carbon dioxide production when given to premature babies
Steps To Curb Sugar Cravings
Awareness is the first step in making a decision to stop an addiction, and, in this case, the addiction is sugar. The realization that you are sick and tired of your eating habits being controlled by sugar will start the ball rolling. Plenty of resources and professionals specialize in sugar addiction and can help you overcome it.
Moderation is important where sugar is concerned. While this may be easier said than done because of the countless options of sugary foods in stores—energy drinks, sodas, candy bars and more—it can be done. The following are steps to take in helping to curb sugar cravings.
- Find out why you have a craving for that chocolate bar and if it is really to enjoy just one piece. If it is because a coworker snapped at you or you had an argument with a partner, maybe the craving is to soothe those feelings. Instead of indulging in the candy, step away from the situation and go for a 10-minute walk.
- Start adding sweet vegetables, such as yams, sweet potatoes and carrots, to your diet. The addition of these vegetables will help curb cravings because of their natural sugar.
- By regulating how much salt you eat, it is likely that you will not crave sugar as much. It is important to remember that a healthy body needs balance, and too much salty food creates the craving for sweets and vice versa.
- Have fresh fruit ready when it is time to combat the sweet cravings. Keep trail mix and apples available in the glove compartment of the car or in a handbag, opting for them instead of stopping at a convenience store to get a quick fix of sugar. Store some healthy snacks in the office refrigerator for late-morning and afternoon cravings.
- Try not to keep sugary foods in the house. At restaurants, order only one dessert and enjoy it—the act of eating dessert in public creates accountability.
- Don’t replace real sugar with artificial sugar. Studies have shown that replacing sugar with artificial sweeteners is like kicking a cigarette habit by switching to cigars. You are still getting the sweetness that is craved, so the sweet taste keeps “calling your name.” There is a good chance you will go back to the real stuff. Instead, stick to a no-sugar plan.
- Improve sleeping habits by getting enough shut-eye to hinder a cookie craving late at night. When you are sleepy throughout the day, it is often harder to resist a sugary treat. Sleep-deprived individuals have greater reward activation centers in the brain, making it more difficult to say no to a sweet treat.
- Remain constantly aware of what sugar is doing to your body. It may be helpful to stick to a no-sugar plan because of a wish to live a long life with your children, spouse and grandchildren. This desire outweighs the craving to eat a bunch of gummy bears. In addition, reducing sugar or switching to a no-sugar diet provides benefits far beyond the perfect body.
Editor’s Note: While colloquially and culturally, an “addiction to sugar” is used to describe the behaviors and experienced in this article, strictly and clinically speaking, cravings and overconsumption of sugary foods, while they may be a health risk, are better described as habits, or a bad habit, as sugar cravings usually don’t meet the necessary criteria for a clinical diagnosis of addiction.