Are You Addicted to Sugar?

Your grandmother would have called it “a sweet tooth,” but that was back when people understood moderation. Now, it’s a full-blown sugar addiction – and many of us have it without even realizing it.

The daily recommended dose of added sugar you should eat in a day, according to the American Heart Association, are:

9 teaspoons for men

6 teaspoons for women

When you think of how many teaspoons of sugar you put in your morning coffee, you might assume you’re doing alright. But you’re likely forgetting to count all the extra sugar hidden in many processed foods. Most Americans eat far more than the safest amount, mostly from sugary drinks.

A recent CBS News article reported that too much sugar has been linked to fatal heart disease, even in those who are not obese. The study found that those in the highest risk category of sugar-eaters had a three-times greater chance of dying prematurely from heart problems than those who consume less added sugar.

Let me take a moment to go over these definitions. Added sugar is the sugar on your table, and the High Fructose Corn Syrup used in many processed foods and canned drinks. They are not talking about the complex carbs found in sweet fruits and vegetables. Eat all the beets, bananas, and berries you want.

The scientists conducting the study haven’t said how sugar contributes to heart problems, although sugar has been linked to increasing blood pressure, bad cholesterol and triglycerides, and increasing inflammation (all linked to heart disease). Doctors are notoriously cagey about giving definitive answers, but I think it’s safe to say that added sugar is, in effect, poisonous in high doses.

And we’re addicted to it.

The flavors that taste good, and normal, to you are the result of a lifetime of conditioning. Our taste buds adapt to the food available. The food industries are well aware of this and have increased the quantities of sugar in their products over the years -because they know something else as well. Sugar changes your brain chemistry, like a drug, and makes you crave more.

Is Sugar Like a Drug?

There is an area of your brain scientists call the “rewards center,” and one of its primary jobs is to regulate dopamine, the chemical that causes feelings of pleasure. When we overstimulate the dopamine response, the receptors for dopamine actually decrease – which means we need more of the stimulating substance to get the same high. This is true for nicotine, alcohol, cocaine, morphine, and new research shows, sugar. It only takes three weeks for the brain chemistry to be thrown off-track by sugar.

Studies have found that the brains of obese people respond differently to food. In scans, their rewards centers light up a lot when they see food, but when they taste the food, their reward centers light up less. They feel less pleasure from the same food, which makes them crave more food to gain the same dopamine fix. That is called building a tolerance.

And, when you take the food away, you get symptoms of withdrawal. Sugar has been found to “down regulate” the same dopamine receptors in the rewards center of the brain as addictive drugs. The difference is – you can abstain from alcohol. You can choose not to take cocaine, or morphine. But we all have to eat. And if the most easily accessible foods add sugar – anyone who is remotely predisposed to addictive behavior will tend to become overweight.

The good news is that you can detox your brain when you cut out added sugar and processed foods. Watch: In just one week, you’ll look at a candy bar and no longer “have to have it.” Of course, some trigger foods will always be trigger foods (I can pass up a candy bar, but a piece of apple pie à la mode? Never.). But you’ll find that the urge to gorge on sweets reduced significantly once you move over to a whole-foods diet.

Understanding that sugar is an addiction might be just what you need to help you kick the habit.